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Monday, April 16, 2001
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Netting tourism
By Petri Hottola

AN eco-tourist who plans to visit Thailand opens a PC at his home in Europe. He searches for information on national parks and nearby accommodations. There are several interesting links on the home page of a Thai nature conservation organisation. In a few minutes, he has a detailed description of a small guesthouse next to one of Thailand’s national parks, with all the necessary information including an e-mail address for reservations. Colourful photographs provide realistic views of the services and surroundings. After checking his calendar, the man e-mails to the guesthouse owner and receives a confirmation the next day.

When we think about it, there has been quite a revolution in tourism marketing after the introduction of the Internet. With a minimum cost, small-scale entrepreneurs catering for international tourists are today able to market their services worldwide. At the same time, international tourists have increasingly started to look for accommodation information on the Internet instead of buying guidebooks. There is more freedom to create an individualistic travel plan because the knowledge of the variety of services has increased. This is especially true in the main tourism originating regions — Japan, North America and the European Union. In my own home country (Finland), a majority of people have Internet access and often use it as a primary source for travel information.

It is clear that small tourism enterprises such as guesthouses can benefit from such an arrangement. But how to do it? Very few people have the knowledge and hardware necessary in the creation of an Internet homepage and an e-mail-based booking system. There is, however, no need to despair. Local Internet service providers can do most of the work. Follow the eight rules listed here and all you need is a phone connection.


Create homepage

An advertisement is always something more than just a collection of information. Its effect on customers is partly based on the professionalism of presentation. A guesthouse homepage with the right amount of information, appealing and informative illustration and a smooth operation wins customers. In order to create something like this, a common person needs expert help. This may cost a little but the investment should come back with interest as soon as the worldwide marketing begins to take effect.

Today, there are plenty of young computer experts who have the knowledge and willingness to try their skills on a project such as this. If there is no family member or relative who can do the job, the closest Internet service provider can usually point out a person who can create the homepage. The safest bet is to let the professionals to do the work. This kind of service may be included in a package deal for homepage and e-mail service for the guesthouse owner. The entrepreneur himself provides the information, and maybe some photographs and maps for scanning. Quality illustrations for the homepage can also be created by renting a digital camera.

Comprehensive information

A prospective Internet customer wants to see all necessary information on the accommodation. Simply a picture of the guesthouse, its address and a few advertising phrases are not enough. The customer has to know exactly what he is buying and how much it costs. Leaving out, for example, the current room rate only irritates people and makes them look for other options. False promises have an even more destructive effect and may easily counter-balance the desired effect of Internet marketing. The information should, therefore, always be accurate. Consequently, the Internet homepage has to be promptly updated as soon as any significant change occurs. The service provider can do the job if the entrepreneur delivers the information.

Many small guesthouses suffer because of their obscure location. With a map on the site, more tourists will find their way to these places. In case there is something interesting nearby (and there always is), a good idea is to provide as much information on these attractions as possible. At least a map of the region with the location of the accommodation and the attractions should be provided. A sure way to get a positive response from prospective customers is to include guidelines for reaching these destinations, such as information on useful bus or train routes or on taxi services and car rental. Transportation entrepreneurs may be willing to pay their share of the cost in the hope of new customers. The idea is to create a mutually beneficial local network of services between the independent entrepreneurs.

Receiving e-mail

You need to be able to receive e-mail from your prospective clients. Any Internet service provider can establish an e-mail service. This is often done for a nominal fee. Try to get an agreement where the billing is based on the number of e-mail contacts rather than a monthly rate. You also have free options from Web mail providers. The e-mail service does not have to be located close to the guesthouse. If there is a phone connection, the following arrangement can be made — as soon as a new message comes on your e-mail address, the clerk in charge phones you and reads the message. The answer can be given at once and e-mailed back to the prospective customer by the clerk. Alternatively, if the Internet shop is located close to the guesthouse, e-mail messages can be checked and replied to by the entrepreneur himself on shopping trips to the town centre, for example. Find out which arrangement is most convenient for you.

Select reliable server

Whenever the Internet users go through different homepages selling accommodation in a particular region, they tend to skip the pages that do not open fast enough or open slower than others. The same applies to pages with pop-ups or other features that make the function slow and unreliable. It is, therefore, important to make sure that the Internet service provider is uses a server that is fast and reliable even if it may cost a little more than the cheapest and slowest option. The difference will be soon balanced by a large number of contacts and customer satisfaction. The service provider usually has the best knowledge of the current situation in the server market. Find a provider who can be trusted. You should also periodically check the working of the homepage. Server crashes are rare but they do occur. Ask your customers if the functions on the site have been satisfactory.

Link to other sites

An isolated homepage by itself is not necessarily an effective enough way to spread the word about your services. Many potential customers look first at the information on their special interests, such a hobbies and places of special interest. Therefore, one should always have links to one’s own site from other popular homepages of various special-interest organisations. First, one has to establish contact with them and prove to those in charge that the service marketed is beneficial for people who contact their homepage. For example, various bird-watching clubs do recommend well-located and good quality travel services and often have a list of direct links to these services on their homepages. In the case of small guesthouses, this is normally done without charge.

Another good option is to exchange links with fellow entrepreneurs in other cities or towns. This is one way to create an accommodation network where each member recommends the other on his or her own homepage. Another way to increase traffic on your page is to include a comprehensive list of search keywords on your page: words such as the name of the location, the names of nearby tourist attractions, accommodation, guesthouse, budget, etc.

Forget pre-paid reservations

Many tourism operators in Asia or Africa may be surprised to find out the banking costs of overseas transactions in the European Union. Overseas transaction is not a good business for European banks and they have, therefore, inflated their charges to a level which forces people to use credit cards or send cash by mail. A single transaction routinely costs more than a night in a guesthouse would cost. This is not make economic sense for a tourist. Credit card services, on the other hand, are usually too expensive and complicated for small-scale entrepreneurs. At the end of the day, it is easy to see that there is not a viable way to pay for the reservation beforehand. We have to trust that the customer brings cash with her when she arrives in our guesthouse.

Reservation policy

What if the customer never arrives? In one private guesthouse where I recently stayed, the proprietor exclaimed that since the establishment of e-mail reservation service two months ago, there had been several confirmed reservations but I was the first customer who actually had arrived on time. Meanwhile, the guesthouse had suffered financial loss because the reserved rooms could not be rented to passing tourists in the fear that the original customers would arrive later.

There is a need for a clear policy for e-mail bookings in the guesthouse sector. First of all, we need a time limit statement on the Internet homepage. If the customer does not arrive before 2 pm or fails to e-mail or phone and inform that he would arrive later, the reservation is cancelled and the room can be given to another customer. It is important to give the tourists a chance to arrive later. As anybody who has travelled knows there frequently are surprising circumstances that change the plans. If there is a delay in transportation, for example, it is not too much to ask the customer to inform about her late arrival. Today, phones are available practically everywhere. In case of flight delays, airlines will readily provide e-mail service for the customer stuck at an airport.

Invest in future

Internet booking is a rapidly growing trend in the tourism services sector. The full effect of Internet marketing does, however, not develop at once. It takes time to spread the word and establish a good reputation among Internet customers. What’s more, the new medium for marketing has not changed the bottom line of the tourism industry—customer satisfaction. The homepage and e-mail service themselves do not guarantee instant success. The information has to be on a par with the actual services. The customer has to get what he has paid for. There is a constant need of maintaining the standards. Unfulfilled expectations and complaints travel fast on the Internet and put unreliable services out of business. Reliable guesthouses do, however, survive and prosper—more than ever with the help of the Internet.



Red carpet on Web for tourists

THE travel business is "happening" at last. The Internet has proved to be an ideal tool for selling airline tickets and travel packages and now people are travelling in a more relaxed way. Travel agencies using the Net can handle up to three times more bookings, since Web users make reservations on their own and, according to a French travel agency, online distribution costs have been reduced to 3 per cent of the ticket price as compared with 5 per cent with a non-automated system.

No wonder then that new players are jumping in for a piece of the pie, says Anaïs Jouvancy in Business Week Online . Of the 10 top French e-tourism sites in July, only one was a traditional brick-and-mortar travel agency, according to NetValue, an Internet market-research group. And according to Forrester Research, pure e-travel agencies already control 25 per cent of the e-travel business. The relevance of the offer is what is important on the Internet and not how long the company has been in business.

This redistribution of roles in the travel business marks the beginning of a high-stakes battle in Europe among traditional travel agencies, new e-travel agencies, and even airlines for control of the growing and lucrative market.

More than 27 million European Web users looked for travel information on the Internet in 1999, according to travel monitor IPK International and nearly 6 million reserved and paid for their trips online. Forrester predicts that 9 per cent of all travel purchases in Europe will take place online in 2005 representing $ 35 billion in sales, compared with $ 860 million in 1999. According to Benchmark Group, e-travel represents 47 per cent of all e-transactions in France. But whoever wants a stake had better act fast.

Traditional travel agencies are, therefore, eager to move their businesses onto the Web. Agencies are creating Internet sites. So far, however, only 3 per cent the sales come from Web sites on an average. But travel agencies are optimistic and expect 10 to 15 per cent of their sales to come from their sites by 2005, the article says.

The battle for control of the e-travel business is bound to get more fierce as airlines jump into the game. Simple flights make up 60 per cent of the travel business as a whole and 80 per cent of e-travel. For these types of trips, e-travel agencies essentially handle basic queries for destinations and travel dates. And they get answers by consulting airline databases provided by various companies.

To keep their edge e-travel agencies plan on adding other services to their Web sites. One such improvement will be the addition of organised tours, for example. Already today, all e-travel agencies have call centers that offer personalised advice to Web users. The arrival of high-speed Internet connections and the increased sophistication of software programs will also allow for improved search tools and a better presentation of travel offers. But that may not be enough.

Airline Web sites already have a centralised system that offers a more complete global set of services than those offered by e-travel agencies. And as more travellers look for specialised and complex trips, the "clicks-and-mortar" combination of both an Internet site and a network of agencies could prove to be a winner.