With dozens of competitors crowding the online travel sector-, Renton-based Uniglobe.com Inc. is hoping to stand out by adding features to its site that allow real-time online interaction with customers.
Uniglobe.com recently spent about $1 million to add a live-chat feature to its cruise-oriented site, said company president and CEO Martin Charlwood.
The system, which Uniglobe purchased from Lucent Technologies, will allow customers to type in questions about a cruise and have them answered in real time over the Internet by a Uniglobe employee, Along with the tech investment has come a large increase in Uniglobe’s staff, from around a dozen to 100, with another 100 dated to be added in the next year.
Two-year-old Uniglobe recently moved its Renton headquarters across town to a larger facility to hold its support for the live-chat feature, well as for its 24 hour emergency hotline for stranded travelers. The chat feature will initially be available 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Pacific Time, but Charlwood said the time frame may expand as the service becomes better known.
Unlike many online travel sites which exist only virtually, Uniglobe is tied into a network of old-fashioned travel agencies around North America. Its parent company, Uniglobe Travel International Inc., of Vancouver, B.C., has 1,100 franchisees and is the world’s largest travel franchise firm.
The relationship between Uniglobe.com and the Uniglobe travel agents is complementary rather than competitive, Charlwood said. First the travel agents can refer clients to the Web site, using a unique URL assigned to their agency. Uniglobe tracks activity on these agency URLs, and the agents receive a monthly commission on any sale their customers make on the site.
Travel agents also benefit from the site because Uniglobe.com’s size allows it to book blocks of space on cruises and receive volume discounts. Uniglobe.com then offers those discounted cruises back to the travel agents, offering them a price advantage.
Uniglobe.com was the first to initiate a live-chat feature on a travel-oriented site, said Krista Pappas of Gomez Advisors, a Massachusetts-based firm that analyzes and rates e-commerce sites. But its lead lasted less than a week.
Rival Biztravel.com, operated by Rosenbluth Interactive in Philadelphia, added live chat to its site Nov. 8, just four days after Uniglobe’s move. Like Uniglobe.com, Biztravel is linked to a travel agent network, Rosenbluth International, which is the second largest travel franchise.
Nonetheless, Pappas noted that Uniglobe’s large staffing commitment positions it to best deliver a high level of customer service online. ‘They have been industry-leading in continuing to improve their customer service,’ she said. “They’ll be better able to court the consumers who spend tons of money on cruises.”
With the airlines cutting the commissions they pay travel agents, the cruise niche had emerged as one of the most lucrative remaining travel segments. Online purchase of cruises has been growing exponentially, A study by Internet analyst firm Forrester Research showed online cruise sales are projected at $134 million for this year, and are expected to triple to $405 million in 2000, and shoot to $2.5 billion by 2003.
As it makes its online moves, Uniglobe.com’s parent company has been maneuvering to give the firm more visibility in the U.S. market, Though it trades on the Vancouver Stock Exchange, Uniglobe International recently became a U.S -reporting stock allowing all U.S. stock brokers to sell it. Uniglobe International also filed to be listed as a small-cap stock on Nasdaq.
Uniglobe.com’s sales volume has been growing rapidly. The company did about $680,000 in billings its first year, and $6.8 million last year. The parent company, Uniglobe International, does $2 billion in annual bookings. But as with many fledgling Internet operations, Uniglobe.com is still looking for profitability. Its large technology investment caused it to declare a loss of $1.15 million last year.
In its most recent announced quarterly results, in the second quarter ended June 30, travel bookings shot up 244 percent to $14.8 million. Revenues generated from bookings were $1.5 million, but Uniglobe.com showed a $1.2 million loss. The red ink was due in part to costs from the company’s acquisition of a competitor, InHouseTravel Group.