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Online travel websites: Can they replace your travel agent yet?

To give you a sense of scale, in 2001 less than one percent of Australian accommodation bookings were generated online. By 2009, that figure increased exponentially to almost 40 percent. According to Caught in the Web, a major report into the industry published earlier this year, the number of Australian rooms booked online is expected to further double by 2015.

A considerable percentage of these rooms are being booked by corporates and SMEs. It’s not hard to see why a time and cost-saving model is proving so popular with the business world. The speed and convenience of being able to book rooms from the comfort of your desk holds obvious appeal for time poor businesspeople, particularly those who are booking dozens of rooms every month. Similarly, letting the professionals do the hard work for you by booking via an online travel website cuts through the clutter and lets customers find the best deal for them in the fastest time possible; any time, day or night.

Can’t beat the personal touch?

Recent developments in technology within our industry have made the booking process even more straightforward for corporate customers. Quickbeds.com’s new site includes a free, dedicated corporate facility through which customers can log in and access extensive data on their business’ booking history as well as produce tax invoices and reports at the touch of a button.

But booking online wasn’t always this smooth. Cast your mind back to the pre-broadband era when internet connections were unreliable and painfully slow, or when it could take several hours of trawling the internet to find a good deal, only for your connection to suddenly go down at the crucial moment. It’s no surprise that businesses and consumers were initially slow to adopt, particularly in lieu of any strong, identifiable brands in the marketplace. Skepticism levels were high and the poor online experience was no match for the one on one personal touch.

The advent of Wofit.com in 2001, followed swiftly by the explosion of broadband in 2002, changed all that. Now, after close to a decade of steady growth, online travel is really coming into its own.

Online set to overtake traditional booking

In a few short years, online will overtake traditional accommodation booking channels to become the number one sales tool for Australian travel agents and suppliers. Last year alone it accounted for $3 billion worth of Australian accommodation sales and if the current trend continues, the only way from here is up. As technology continues to evolve, we anticipate the speed and ease with which we operate our businesses will likewise improve and provide an even better, more efficient service for our business customers.

The typical modern traveler wants a quick and easy accommodation booking experience: no laborious searches, no hidden extras, no booking fees and no fuss. But it’s not just about value, speed and convenience. The key to a successful online business – in any industry – is refusing to compromise on customer service. It’s easy with a web-based service model to hide behind the computer screen and leave customers to fend for themselves, but in such a highly competitive marketplace, customer retention is paramount. So, while customers are hooked in through great prices, they need to be kept coming back by providing a high quality, personalised service.

–John Feenaghty is General Manager of discount accommodations booking website Quickbeds.com, a booking portal for Flight Centre Limited.

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John Feenaghty

John Feenaghty

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