Online travel agents raise service standards

When Biztravel.com announced an unprecedented money-back guarantee for everything from delayed airline flights to slow e-mail replies and unprofessional service, competitors criticized the ploy as an expensive gimmick.


A month later, the Internet travel agency has approved about 300 complaints and shelled out slightly more than $80,000 in refunds, nearly all for flight-related snafus.


But Biztravel.com, which expects sales of more than $200 million this year, also has boosted its online bookings by 70% - and put a spotlight on Web travelers’ growing demand for virtual hand-holding.


According to a survey by the online research firm Jupiter Communications, nearly 75% of travel e-commerce sites offer toll-free phone support, but less than half of those call centers operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Response to e-mail inquiries, meanwhile, is “becoming polarized,” says Jupiter’s Fiona Swerdlow. About half get back to customers within 24 hours, she says, but many others take longer than five days or never respond at all.


Indeed, while travel now outranks computer hardware and software as the largest category of online consumer sales, three out of four wired travelers in one recent poll said they don’t plan to buy via the Web any time soon. A major reason for the hesitancy: a lack of person-to-person contact.

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As a result, more travel sites are trying to marry the Web’s convenience and do-it-yourself control with a human connection.


Some, including the largest Net-based travel agencies, Travelocity.com and Expedia.com, have beefed up their call operations significantly, offering round-the-clock assistance on existing reservations and letting would-be customers make travel plans over the phone. Biztravel.com even plasters its toll-free customer service number prominently on its home page.


Others, such as Renaissance Cruises, travel luggage retailer Ebags.com and online agencies Uniglobe.com and ByeByeNOW.com, let travelers click a button to communicate with a customer service representative via a live, text-based chat. In one back-to-the-future twist, a site called Lowairfare.com invites frustrated online travelers to “let a Live Agent guide you to the best fare and itinerary.”
A few sites, meanwhile, are experimenting with live audio and video streams and proactive technology allowing customer service agents to monitor online travelers’ shopping patterns and step in to offer live help, including an ability to take over the customer’s Internet browser and “push” relevant information onto the screen.


“The idea is to replicate the friendliness of a brick-and-mortar store on the Internet. If you see someone bouncing back and forth on, say, a Caribbean cruise, a Net rep (online agent) can come in and say, ‘Can I help you?’” says Bill Christie of icontact.com, a Fairfield, Conn., firm whose clients include Marriott Vacation Club, which sells time shares online.


“We’ve always said that this business is ‘low-tech, high-touch,’” says Vicki Freed of Carnival Cruise Lines, which is retooling its site to include live text chat and is considering video. “Now, we’ve changed that to ‘high-tech, high-touch.’ We think you can have both.”


But just as the notion of a salesperson lurking unseen in cyberspace raises privacy concerns among some wired travelers, using instant messaging or streaming video to plan and buy a vacation “can be very intimidating” to new computer users, says Jupiter Communications’ Swerdlow.


Not to mention problematic. Cases in point: Two recent attempts to accept Forevercruising.com’s invitation to “speak with a live agent now!” generated a pop-up window with instructions to try again during normal business hours - even though both queries were on weekday afternoons. And a live “travel expert” at ByeByeNOW.com, which also offers multimedia tours of destinations and cruise ships, took more than 15 minutes to check the price of a Hawaiian package from Washington, D.C.


Even Biztravel.com, which promises $10 back if a client doesn’t connect to an agent for an online chat within five minutes or receive an e-mail response within two hours, acknowledges that technology has its limits in an arena as complex as travel.


“Sometimes,” says Hal Rosenbluth, whose Philadelphia-based Rosenbluth International bought Biztravel.com last year, “it’s still easier to use the phone.”


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