Online world at your fingertips

These days, traveling isn't easy. Between flight cancellations, carry-on restrictions, and passport requirements, it may make more sense to just stay home.

These days, traveling isn't easy. Between flight cancellations, carry-on restrictions, and passport requirements, it may make more sense to just stay home.

However, according to the Travel Industry Association, travel and tourism generate $1.3 trillion of economic activity per year in the US, which amounts to $40,000 per second. People are going and they're increasingly using online travel sites to make their plans to get there. A recent study by PhoCusWright, a travel industry research company, says that Web travel bookings will account for 54% of all US travel plans this year. Burst Media, another web research company, conducted a survey of web users over the age of 18 and found that nearly 67% will use the internet for research and bookings in 2007.

The challenge for sites like Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity is to differentiate themselves from one another. Thus, online travel sites are using special offerings and PR efforts to help their site resonate with consumers.

"The real focus when we launched was the price," says Dan Toporek, VP of PR at Travelocity, which started in 1996. "Online travel was one of the first success stories in e-commerce. It's such a convenient way to make a purchase because you can see all of the options on the screen."

"There's no shortage of options and, generally speaking, the product that you'd get would be pretty comparable if price and availability were all you're looking for," says Brian Ek, VP of PR at Priceline.

Now that low prices and price-matching guarantees are common, online travel companies have gotten more creative. Travelocity's ExperienceFinder, currently in beta, will allow customers to browse through locations based on the kind of vacation you're looking for - romantic versus adventure, for example. Its Travel for Good program spawned from the trend in volunteer vacations, and the Customer Championship Program passes on feedback from customers and information about any changes in policies or accommodations that could affect a vacation.

"There's been a shift to more experience-based purchases," continues Toporek. "We're pushing that a step further by highlighting what people can do when they're in a destination."

But talking up all it has to offer will not make for a complete PR strategy. The company's resource program positions them as experts in travel.

"A good percentage is dedicated to what people can do, addresses industry trends, [and allows us to] give advice, which gives us media opportunities," says Toporek.

And it's hard not to notice the Roaming Gnome, Travelocity's inanimate spokesobject. The idea came from Australia, where people would steal a gnome from someone's front yard, take pictures of it on vacation, and send the photos back to the owner.

"It's given us [the chance to] do a lot of grassroots activities with the gnome," Toporek says. "For New Year's Eve in Times Square last year, we were handing out gnome hats. At American Idol tryouts in different cities, we took Polaroids of people with the gnome. You get this great guerilla marketing for which you can use the icon."

An equally engaging icon is Priceline's William Shatner. On Priceline.com, customers make travel arrangements according to their price specifications. But it's Shatner that has gotten them a ton of attention.

"We've been particularly thrilled to have Bill going on ten years now," Ek says. "Our ads have been on the Today show, parodied on SNL and in Mad magazine, lampooned on Jay Leno, and featured as questions on Jeopardy! and Who Wants to be a Millionaire. We've been successful in taking our brand into pop culture."

Priceline is the official travel sponsor of iVillage Live, a television and Web outlet that the Priceline PR department uses to share information.

"Posting on the Web site will only go so far," says Ek. "PR has to pick up and do its share. When you have a hurricane and there are differing cancellation policies in effect, you have the combination of marketing, PR, and customer service to communicate to, not just customers, but potential customers."

"We're in a pretty good place right now," says Mindy Joyce, marketing director of brand and PR at Travelzoo, which, while not an actual online travel agent, compiles the best travel deals from other sites and provides them to consumers. For them, authenticity is key. They test each travel deal that they post to assure quality and availability to its 10 million subscribers.

"You've got to be really honest," says Joyce. "The more real it is, the more we'll gain trust from the media and subscribers. I think people are smart enough to go to a number of Web sites. Our subscribers know they might as well come to us and save their time."

And to get drive traffic to their site, Joyce believes broadcast outlets are the way to go.

"[TV is] the fastest way to build the brand," says Joyce, who focuses on local programming. "We tailor the content of what we talk about with appropriate deals for that area."

The evolution of online travel sites will continue making the options more customizable at each stage of trip planning, no matter where, or who, the consumer is. For instance, Priceline has discovered professional rodeo riders, golfers, and bowlers are an important part of their business pool.

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