Ben Kilbey in London
Who was it that said not long ago that the Internet will destroy the travel agent? Didn’t a whole bunch of individuals predict the rapid down turn of the traditional agent owing to cost effective measures implemented by the Internet? The consumer is now in control of their own destiny, perhaps that should read destination? Caribbean Travel News quizzed some key industry figures, including CTO Director General Jean Holder, on their views of the future of the industry and its involvement with the Internet.The Internet certainly is a necessary tool for the travel industry these days but it certainly isn’t going to kill the travel agent by any means. How important is the Internet in the evolvement of a destination? How often do you utilise the Internet in order to get a flavour, or a feel, for a destination? Obviously the ‘net’ is an essential tool in the modern day travellers’ kit. It helps weighing up what hotel to stay at, which region to visit and assists in fleshing out the best available deals. Jean Holder the Director General of the CTO points out that;
“At a global level the Internet is the wave of the present, not the future. The future is already here. The Internet has already radically changed how tourism as an industry is done and it has already caused every type of business to think about whether its existing business model can work, including airlines, travel agents, tour operators and hotels.”
Mr. Holder is certainly right about the Internet being the present rather than the future on a global scale. The revolution that is the Internet has been upon us now for many, many years and its influence on the industry has been present for a long time - however in the Caribbean things sometimes tick over a little slower then other regions of the world and owing to this, revolutions can take a little longer to catch on.
“There are some businesses which would prefer not to address this issue. Yet realistically, all businesses now have to proceed on the basis that the Internet will be a part of the equation and have to work out what this means for them, those who do not understand this have a bleak future,” added Mr. Holder.
One man that agrees with this sentiment is Danny Hughes Vice President of Hilton Caribbean stating; “If a hotel as a business is not electronically enabled, it’s going to soon be an unviable business. It’s not an option to bury your head in the sand and feel that this electronic age will disappear; it’s not going anywhere.”
So the Caribbean needs to wake up and smell the coffee with regards to the Internet, especially with regards to smaller, less established outfits. Perhaps it isn’t always the smaller hotels and villas that are to blame for the lack of inclusion perhaps the bigger players tend to leave them out? Paul Pennicook, Director of Tourism for Jamaica, believes that this may be the case;
“The one weakness it (the Internet) has for Caribbean destinations is that e-commerce is not able to handle diversity of hotel rooms well. The package’s do not lend themselves well to various aspects of the leisure market of the Caribbean with many of the e-commerce sites not carrying villas and small hotels and their attractions which have been found to be too complicated for the websites.
So if the smaller hotels are unable to fund e-commerce themselves and the larger portals are slightly under-qualified to carry such complex options then how are the smaller businesses supposed to get a foot on the ladder and get themselves out into the global market? As Mr. Pennicook clearly states “Websites are a significant source of information and a good website is better than any brochure: it’s dynamic, open to change, is available 24-7 and is far more cost effective then any brochure.”
Perhaps the smaller businesses are not missing out so much and in fact they are actually benefiting from the age of the ‘global-village’? The smaller businesses who are more ‘switched on’ know that the Internet is a tool at there disposal and that they can harness that energy and turn it in to a beneficial means of global advertisement.
“With specific reference to the Caribbean, we have many small and medium sized businesses which have never had the proper access to the marketplace because traditional marketing, especially TV and magazine print advertising has always been beyond their means,” suggested Jean Holder. He went onto continue;
“In an age in which the Internet is being used both for research, planning and doing business, the prospects of small entities can be radically changed for the better, provided they acquire the skills they need and/or the strategic partnerships that serve their best interests.”
All of this information would point to the fact that the Internet is a necessity in the lives of those involved in the tourism industry in the Caribbean. More or less if those involved in marketing do not utilise what is out there then they will simply dry up and cease to exist. Therefore it is important that more education is given to smaller businesses to assist them in marketing themselves accordingly. This could come in the shape of workshops and seminars. But is the Internet damaging the traditional Agent?
According to Paul Pennicook they simply need to adapt; “Another question is whether the traditional travel agents are under threat. Most travel agents know the Caribbean very well; they must now leverage their knowledge and allow e-commerce to give them a competitive advantage over the large e-commerce sites.”
Chris Blackwell the founder and owner of the Island Outpost chain sees the Agent as a constant in the chain of holiday bookings - a link between technology and your actual get-a-way. “We have found that most of our guests have checked out the resorts on the website, made their decision, and then made their booking through their travel agent.”
Chris goes on to explain the importance of the Internet in the marketing of the Caribbean. “The Internet allows you to have your own ‘cable channel’. It allows you to reach the world and the world to be able to ‘visit’ your proprieties from their armchair and hopefully decide to visit in person.”
In closing Mr. Holder makes a very valid point; “This is not to suggest that they abandon other aspects of the distribution system. What is required is the right mix. That said, future budgets will have to include an adequate proportion of investment in information technology.”
So the Internet is here to stay and so is the Agent. They must work together in order to promote the Caribbean to its best and bring the consumers that it deserves.