The mood among travel companies at the PhoCusWright Executive Conference here was expectantly somber in light of the dip in travel following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks—especially at a conference focusing on online travel commerce.
“Shell shocked” is how Robert H. Dickinson, president of Miami-based Carnival Corp., described the industry.
Most companies are talking about strategies they will need to survive the general economic downturn, the crash in the technology sector and ways to rebuild traveller confidence.
But there is apparently at least one bright light: Hotels, rental car companies and cruise lines are back to booking and reservation rates at levels that are at or even above those on Sept. 11—although revenues may still be down because of discounted room and cruise prices.
In fact, on Tuesday, Bethesda, Md.-based Marriott International Inc. had the biggest booking day in the history of its online reservation site, Marriott.com, according to John Marriott III, executive vice president of sales and marketing.
“Yesterday, Marriott.com booked 12,900 reservations,” he told attendees at the conference. “The biggest day before that was Sept. 10. We`re not only back to pre-Sept. 11 levels, but we`re ahead of it [online].”
“Clearly, the Internet side was the quickest area to recover”, Dickinson said.
Although travel sites such as Bellevue, Wash.-based Expedia Inc. have reported a rebound in online booking—Suzi Levine, director of marketing at Expedia, said hotel and rental car bookings are back to pre-Sept. 11 levels—other traditional distribution channels such as travel agents and call centers haven`t done as well, according to Marriott.
Still, various segments of the travel industry are increasing their reliance on Internet booking engines to automate the reservation process. “Over the course of a year, about 25% of reservations have an automation component,” Dickinson said.
Not only is that automation important, he said, but the use of online sites helps educate travellers about vacation cruises and can attract first-time cruise travelers. “It`s been very useful as an education tool,” he said. “There`s no stupid questions on the Internet.”
In connection with the conference, PhoCusWright Inc., the travel e-commerce research firm in Sherman, Conn., released survey results that indicate online travel consumers are more interested in price than customer service and personal contact.
“Online travel is still the e-commerce killer app, despite a very battered market,” said Philip C. Wolf, PhoCusWright president and CEO. “While consumers continue to look for low airfares, more and more are going online for hotels, vacations and cruises.”