Big firms cheer online booking

Travel bookings over the Internet have soared in Germany and are set to rise further as major travel groups compete furiously to tap the advantages of the online market.
Research presented at the global travel trade show ITB Berlin by the German travel research group F.U.R. showed that 2.6 million Germans had used the Internet to book a holiday trip either entirely or partly in January 2001, a whopping 86% increase over the 1.4 million reported 12 months earlier.
In January, more than 30% of Germans were estimated to have Internet access, either at home (21%), at work (12%), or someplace else (4%). Seventy-three per cent of them are said to surf the web more than once a week.
The research showed that while about six percent of all German travellers had used the Internet to plan a vacation, 42% of all travellers still relied on recommendations from friends, colleagues and relatives. Thirty-five per cent said they followed the professional advice of a travel agent.
According to F.U.R., 48.4 million Germans took a holiday trip in 2000, for a total of 62.2 million trips, or about 1.3 trips per person. These figures include domestic travel within Germany as well as within Europe. To Thailand, Germans are the second largest source of European visitors after the UK.
The figures showing increasing German propensity for booking over the Internet are being encouraged by holiday groups such as C&N Touristic AG, Europe`s second largest travel group, which announced a major revamp of its entire web site and strategy to pull in more bookings over the Internet.
“It is our goal to be bookable on the Internet wherever the customer may be looking for us,” said Stefan Pichler, CEO of C&N, which is 50% owned by Lufthansa German Airlines, and in turn owns Thomas Cook of UK, Havas Voyages of France and a number of travel agency chains, hotel and resorts, and the charter airline Condor. Many of these sub-groups have their own web sites.
Indeed, there is strong competition in Germany for online bookings. Internet travel agencies such as Expedia.com
and the UK`s Lastminute.com
have established a German-language presence and are competing for market-share.
However, groups such as C&N Touristic are felt to have an advantage because they own the product they sell and have access to huge customer databases.
Mr Pichler said the entire C&N leisure group home page had been presented for the first time in German and English. A new feature allows visitors to surf across the various brands and zero in specific holiday requirements such as beach and bathing, family, club, wellness, action and adventure, short breaks and cruises.
A quick search enables customers to enter the desired holiday country, choose the hotel category and select the type of holiday, and then have the system return a matching holiday offer. All tours will be checked for vacancies so that the selected holiday can be booked immediately online.
Customers can see the various hotels and clubs belonging to the group via 360-degree panoramic photographs of the facilities and services. This virtual guided tour has been designed for use without any complicated need to download another programme first.
One of the brands under the C&N umbrella is the tour operator Neckermann Reisen. At its web site, customers can get the help of a virtual travel adviser. By answering specific questions about their interests and preferences, a customer can be provided with a holiday tailored precisely to his/her need. To facilitate this, Neckermann classified about 10,000 hotels with which it has contracts to ensure that they deliver the precise match. “The specific holiday wish is getting more and more important to the travel decision,” Mr Pichler said. “We are taking the first step toward becoming a virtual tour operator.” Another site that has been revised is that of Condor, the charter airline. Its flights are now bookable online, as well as hotels. The advantages of being part of a large group are being exploited avidly; customers who book a hotel through the Condor range are being offered 1,000 miles from Lufthansa`s Miles & More frequent-flyer programme. Car rental and insurance can also be bought through the same site.
This effort to draw in the Internet bookings is all part of the fight for market-share now raging in Europe. C&N says it did 15.1 billion Deutschemarks (about 315 billion baht) worth of sales in 1999-2000, making it the number two European travel group after Preussag, which owns Thomson Holidays of the UK and TUI of Germany and did DM20.7 billion worth of sales in the same period. Mr Pichler said that rapidly integrating all these products and brands was of particular importance as the C&N group moves towards centralised capacity planning and control of both the hotels and the airlines, as well as optimised contracting of hotels abroad. Joint destination management will be designed to improve service quality on site. In addition, investments are planned in group-wide information technology structures and work processes. The development of a pan-European brand strategy is being worked on, he said.
Some of these mergers and takeovers are being looked on with concern in Thailand and many parts of Asia because the giant companies will kill a number of smaller European tour operators who had long supplied business to their equally small counterparts in this part of the world. It will also mean a significant realignment of tour-operating accounts as the European travel conglomerates optimise all their business through one ground handler. Hotels will also be pared down to a handful in each destination to cut costs.
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