The internet has had a huge impact on the travel sector – Cameron Bayley talks to a travel agent who was at the cutting edge way back when doing an online booking was a radical geek experiment.
The travel bug bites everyone sooner or later, but in Karsten Horne’s case it was a lot sooner than most. Receiving a ticket to South America as a high-school graduation present was hardly unusual in a family that, among other adventures, went backpacking through Europe, Iran and Pakistan, after trying to sail from Australia to the UK in a rubber raft, sparking a search and rescue at one point—the raft was ditched at Yeppoon.
Coming from a backpacking background plus experience in more exclusive travel services, meant that Horne was the right man to take Reho Travel, one of the original discount travel stores, to the next level. Joining as corporate manager in the early 90s, he is now managing director of the Melbourne office. At that time, all roads for Reho seemed to be leading to quality travel services, rather than cut-price travel. Clients who had come to Reho looking for cheap travel were now older and less concerned with saving than with organising a top holiday experience. Horne also brought clients, with the same expectations, from his previous job.
As Flight Centre, which started around the same time, continued down the discount flight service route, Horne took Reho Travel in a different direction.
“We wanted to go more towards corporate travel and servicing our clients,” he says. Corporate bookings now make up 90 percent of Reho’s Sydney business, and 70 percent in Melbourne. Through its journey the business has picked up several awards, including Qantas UTAG Travel Agent of the Year in 2001.
The focus on corporate bookings was partly why Reho decided to relaunch their website. Horne got Reho on the internet when the world wide web was just beginning. “That’s why we’re rehotravel.com, because in those days it was about a three month wait to get an ‘au’; I didn’t want to wait that long.”
Horne admits the original website, launched about a decade ago when the web was in its infancy, was riding on the wave of eighties day-glo design and was quite basic in content: “Lots of fluoro colours and letters bouncing around. It was a sort of brochure.” The site contained staff profiles and travel reports, and a few useful links. Horne knew things had to change. “As clients were using it for practical reasons, we couldn’t have fluoro colours bouncing around, it had to be corporate looking.”
Another reason for reworking the website was the huge growth in online bookings for point-to-point domestic travel. “The way the trend’s going, domestic travel in retail is dead—everyone’s booking online,” says Horne. The loss of domestic bookings not only reduces business directly but has a flow-on effect for international bookings, as the relationship between customer and travel agency weakens.
The aim is to mend that relationship, Horne says. Getting clients to at least book online using your website is the key to maintaining a relationship. “So if they’re booking through our website for their Melbourne-Sydney weekender, they’re at least bonded to us,” Horne explains. “For us it’s critical, from a retail point of view, to have a website.”
Today, it’s hard to picture anything that’s not on the Reho Travel website. Staff profiles, photo competition details, study tours or coach groups, all provide customers with as many access points to the Reho Travel brand as possible. Separate pages are devoted to links to accommodation, car hire, international rail tickets, and information for travellers—whether it’s finding out the time in Guatemala, or how to say ‘fear of flying’ in Portuguese.
“We’re constantly looking for opportunities,” says Horne, who spends a lot of time checking out what other websites are doing to entice customers, especially in industries other than travel, knowing full well that if you’re trying to keep up with what your competitors are already doing, you’re probably too late.
Crisis hit when Horne’s IT-savvy family member could no longer help with the Reho website. The challenge seemed to be either learn to do it all in-house or get a professional company to build and maintain it, at the time costing up to $20,000. The solution proved to be a compromise between the two. “I’d recommend getting someone to deal with the basic framework, and train you to update it.” These days, he says, it’s much easier to create a working website, especially with a lot of information and software out there for free.
He updates the news pages every few days, believing that continually changing your website content is very important to keeping those hits coming. There needs to be a continual promise of change. “If you’re encouraging people to look at your website, make sure there’s something there to look at. Try to get your expertise to come across on the website, put ideas out there, put your opinions out there.”
A monthly email newsletter is another way Reho maintains contact with clients, and brings them back to the website.
There’s plenty more that Horne would like to add to the site, but it comes down to what’s going to bring in financial return and offset the cost of booking engines, which are necessary but expensive. “Margins are pretty low in this industry,” says Horne, especially for online business. “The challenge is to decide on a figure that is acceptable to clients, and that you can make money on.”
At this stage online bookings make up almost 10 percent of Reho Travel’s business but Horne expects this will hit 50 percent by the end of the next financial year. “I wouldn’t be surprised if in 12 months we have an online support consultant,” he says, “almost like a mini helpdesk.”
A new booking system will soon allow greater monitoring of website traffic and provide more detailed booking services for corporate clients, part of which will allow them to book according to pre-set company policies. The company has already registered reho.travel, in advance of that suffix being approved any day now, which Horne says will take the branding even further.
Horne believes the internet is a great leveller —”we’re the same size as Flight Centre online”—with everyone’s website taking up the size of a monitor screen.
“Remember that once you’re online you’ve got a real opportunity. Just because you’re a one-man business doesn’t mean your website has to look like a one-man business.”