One of the granddaddies of Internet travel—GORP, the first of the adventure travel sites—is now or soon will be available for booking in not one but two of what some pundits have considered the dinosaurs of travel: the GDSs.
Worldspan announced last week that its travel agency customers using its Worldspan Go! platform, the GDS’s browser-based desktop product, will be able to access and book GORP’s products. GORP also is in Sabre’s Agent Explorer web-based platform, and in Sabre’s Virtually There, Sabre‘s personalized Web site product. There’s more to come; GORP is finalizing an agreement with a third GDS.
GORP, an Internet pioneer, already sells 20% of its product through travel agencies and has been since November 1999, when it acquired the American Wilderness Experience, a respected, 30-year-old adventure travel wholesaler. The GDS partnerships facilitate these bookings—but do not totally automate them. Much of the process is automated—request, confirmation and including the product in a passenger’s PNR, but, Michael Steiner, vice president of online travel for GORP, said that the process is best described semi-automated.
Such is the nature of complex—and profitable—travel products in general and, in particular, of adventure travel.
Adventure travel may be one of the most high-profile travel niche products on the Web. In one respect, adventure travel is perfect for the Web. It is a highly fragmented industry mostly made up of small operators. Two of the Web’s most attractive characteristics—its easy-to-use graphical capabilities and its power as the great aggregator—make it the perfect distribution channel for adventure travel. Yet another fact of adventure travel makes it tough to make adventure travel sales a completely online process: adventure travel may well be one of the least automated segments in travel.
Cameron Yuill, executive vice president of Viator, the technology company helping to bring these operators into major marketplaces such as the GDSs and a speaker at the PhoCusWright Internet Travel Forum at Internet World in Los Angeles in March, told the story of arriving at a supplier to integrate its systems with Viator`s—only to discover that the supplier`s `technology` was not a computer, but a Lazy Susan that staffers used for filling orders.
Clearly, adventure travel has a long way to go and probably will never be fully automated.
“You’re never going to get someone sitting in Spain who likes his siesta to do 24x7 sales,” Yuill said. “The big problem with complex travel is that you can’t book a lot of it real time. A lot of these are mom-and-pop operations that are not open 27x7.”
Besides that, the dynamics of putting together a customized itinerary remains a technological challenge. Bundling the pricing and various elements of any complex vacation—not just an adventure travel vacation—online is going to be a clunky process initially, according to Yuill. He expects technological advances to improve that dramatically.
The result? The human touch remains an integral part of the online adventure sales process. When it comes to online travel, the Web is a wonderful marketing, planning and client-qualifying mechanism. But major players including GORP, iExplore (which also works with travel agencies), Away.com and Adventureseek all operate call centers in which highly trained staff actually close sales or connect consumers with tour operators to close the sales. Ultimately, at least some adventure travel players are working to move much of this completely online, but it remains a distant goal.
The fact remains that adventure travel is big market with great potential. iExplore estimates that the adventure and experiential travel is a $40 to $50 billion market that is growing at rate of 10% annually. A 1997 study by the Travel Industry Association of America found that 98 million Americans had taken an adventure vacation in the past five years and anecdotal evidence suggests that those numbers are growing.
However, despite all this potential, adventure travel remains a product that, ultimately, requires a human sales force to sell it. And, clearly, some of the leading adventure travel Web sites have discovered the value of outsourcing at least some of that sales effort to traditional travel agencies. GORP is using the original e-commerce marketplace to do it: the GDSs.