Automating the human touch: a tool for increasing vacation and cruise sales

The human touch is important when it comes to selling cruises and vacation packages, and traditional players who have moved online are automating that function.
Pawtucket, R.I. based Collette Vacations, an 83-year-old family-run company that carries about 80,000 passengers a year, recently launched its “Chat With A Travel Expert” function. Site visitors click on an icon and engage in an instant-message style exchange with one of Collette’s in-house reservations agents. What’s interesting about Collette’s use of the function is that it is not using it in an effort to drive travel sales—as the mega cruise retailer mytravelco.com does. Instead, Collette is using it to increase the power of its Web site as a marketing tool.
The number of consumers using it varies, but Gregg Chalk, Collette’s Internet development manager, estimates that the company sees an average of 25 such chats per day. Collette, which for the most part sells through travel agencies or to pre-formed groups such as alumni associations, sees the chat function as an opportunity to provide more information on its product.
“We use it not to book business but to provide as much information as possible to the consumer, more information than they might have had otherwise,” said Chalk. Ideally, that will provide the consumer with enough information on Collette so that when they actually contact a travel agency to book the tour, they’ll buy a Collette product.
Adding the function did mean committing staff to conduct the e-mail exchanges, but the company felt that the uniqueness of the offering among its competitors was worth it. The thought was that consumers might find initiating an online chat less of an effort than picking up a phone to make a call to the Collette call center. It has not eased phone volume, Chalk said, nor was that its goal.
“It’s enhancing the marketing power of the Web, trying to provide more information to the consumer, using the Web not as a booking tool per se but as an informational tool,” said Chalk.
Collette’s approach is distinct from mytravelco, which uses a similar function called “Live Agent,” in which site browsers click on an icon, fill in their phone number and have a mytravelco agent call them back.
“A live agent chat can turn into an instant close,” said Uf Tukel, vice president of Internet travel marketing for mytravelco. Mytravelco is a cruise retailer and not a supplier like Collette, so the two are using their Web sites somewhat differently (Collette takes some direct bookings from individual consumers but in general routes them through travel agencies). But both are capitalizing on the new ways the Web allows travel suppliers to automate the personal service that can be so important in actually closing the sale of higher priced, complex travel products such as cruises and vacations.
Lowairfare.com, one of the Web sites operated by 800 Travel Systems, Inc., was an early adopter of the live agent chat function and reports that the function turns 18% of the lookers on its Web site (who view an itinerary) into bookers.
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