Agents: Sabre`s Virtually There not playing fair

Some agents are hopping mad that supplier promotions through Sabre Virtually There enable airlines to steal agency clients through direct bookings.

John Clifford, president of International Travel Management in La Jolla, Calif., said he will review his participation in Virtually There because Sabre is “encouraging agency clients to do business directly with vendors.”


“It`s quite clear that not only the airlines, but their technology arms as well, are turning out to be wolves in sheep`s clothing,” Clifford said. “What do they think we are, stupid?”


Sabre Virtually There, at www.virtuallythere.com, gives agency clients online access to their itineraries through co-branded e-mails.


David McElven, owner of River City Travel/Carlson Wagonlit in Portland, Ore., stopped using Virtually There following a recent advertisement for American`s AAdvantage frequent flyer program that he viewed as promoting direct booking via the airline`s Web site.

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“We didn`t even know about it until one of our clients told us,” McElven said. “They thought it was strange that we were sending them ads about direct bookings.”


The flap about online and e-mail advertising accentuates Sabre`s attempt to balance the conflicting tugs of supplier and agency relationships as the CRS company tries to attract ad revenue.


Sabre said it is aware of the problems raised by some of its supplier ads and plans to diversify the site`s ad base by expanding into technology, retail and other verticals.


Virtually There users recently received a United e-mail promoting a 15% flight discount and a chance to win a trip to the Olympics. Consumers were urged to click on a link, share a story about a personal hero, and fill in profile information.


Scott Ahlsmith, owner of the Trava agency in Glen Ellyn, Ill., who said he remains a Virtually There enthusiast, nevertheless was incensed many of the consumer recipients of the ad were clients whose names were provided to Virtually There by travel agencies.


Although the promotion didn`t direct clients to a United booking engine, it also didn`t advise consumers to book through agents, Ahlsmith said.


He said he complained to Sabre that agencies should be notified in advance about Virtually There promotions and given the option to keep their clients out of the promotion.


“If I introduce someone to Virtually There, then Virtually There needs to ensure I am in the loop on the promotion,” Ahlsmith said. “I want Virtually There to honor that relationship between me and my client. I don`t necessarily want to promote United because I produce [a lot of] American.”


This controversy goes beyond the United and American promotions. On Dec. 17, for example, a Lufthansa ad on Virtually There advised travelers to “call your travel arranger or Lufthansa at (800) 645-3880.”


Sabre has e-mailed supplier offers since March and will continue to do so, a spokeswoman said.

She added agencies are not the sole source of Virtually There users, noting that visitors—who can opt to receive e-mail promotions—also arrive at the site on their own or via search engines.

Sabre has no interest in promoting agency bypass because “online bookings directly to suppliers bypass Sabre, just as they bypass agencies,” the spokeswoman said.

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