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Store Trek: The Next Generation : Shopping: Texas : From a former mega-bookstore chain owner comes a one-stop travel superstore in Austin.

March 05, 1995|SOPHIA DEMBLING | Dembling is a free-lance writer based in Dallas

AUSTIN, Tex. — Entrepreneur Gary Hoover had a vision of you, J.Q. Consumer, in your car on Saturday morning, your disposable income burning a hole in your pocket.

And there was Home Depot suggesting, "Why don't you build a deck?" There was CompUSA, flashing its software. Bookstar was trying to tempt you with a long, leisurely browse, Toys R Us was wondering, "What about the kids?" and Petco was shaking gourmet kibble in your direction.

But nobody, anywhere, was calling out, "How about Paris? Seen Las Vegas yet? Have you ever thought of Tibet?"

"Our country makes dog food sexier than travel," Hoover says. And so in July, Hoover opened TravelFest, which, to his knowledge, is the nation's first travel superstore. The 6,000-square-foot store in Austin is the first of what Hoover hopes will grow to a national chain--and he's not one for idle hopes. Founder of the Bookstop/Bookstar chain Hoover opened the first Bookstop in Austin in 1982 with $350,000 seed money. By the time he sold the chain to Barnes & Noble for $41.5 million in 1989, it consisted of 23 stores stretching from Florida to California. Hoover also founded Reference Press, which publishes the Hoover's Handbooks business directories. He'll open a second, 10,000-square-foot TravelFest in downtown Austin this spring.

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The concept is one-stop travel shopping. TravelFest offers not only guidebooks, gadgets and luggage, but also software; a large selection of world, country and city maps; videos for sale and rent; games; literature; cookbooks; language books and tapes; newspapers from around the world; magazines, and a full-service travel agency. At TravelFest, you can book a package to Las Vegas, pick up an audio course in colloquial Albanian, and get the latest edition of Detroit magazine. It's the logical next step in an ever-growing travel industry and ever-shrinking world.

The flagship store, which Hoover says attracted 18,000 to 19,000 people its first week, sits in a brand-new shopping center, also home to a CompUSA and a Discovery Zone, one of a large chain of supersize indoor entertainment centers for kids. A 3-D TravelFest logo--a brightly colored postmodern Atlas--stands above the entrance, somewhat reminiscent of a Hard Rock Cafe. The store is packed with merchandise. On an airplane wing flap opposite the entrance, a sign touts travel packages. In the middle of the main room, airport luggage carts are laden with travel accessories, from backpacks to water purifiers, packets of aspirin to mini-disc players, currency converters to point 'n' shoot cameras.

Newspapers and magazines are concentrated in one area as you enter, books, software, video and audio tapes line the back wall. Doors lead to four "Geocoves"--rooms dedicated to Asia-Pacific-Africa, U.S.A.-Canada, Europe and Caribbean-Latin America. The Kidscove has books, games and toys, from geographic teaching toys to keep-'em-quiet road-trip games. The travel agency and research stations seemed the most bustling while I was there, and the Caribbean room had a couple of browsers too.

The wall in which the checkout counter is set is designed to look like a cruise ship. To the far left, under a faux airplane wing, is the aforementioned travel agency. A board behind the counter lists all airline departures from Austin, and signs detail the agency's special services: For $5, the agency will monitor ticket prices for you until the day of departure, checking the cost of a flight daily and notifying you if the price goes down. Buy an airline ticket worth $399 or more and get 10 "Travelbucks" to be applied to any purchase in the store. Tickets costing $799 or more get you $20 in Travelbucks.

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Since airlines recently have started slashing the commissions they pay to travel agents for bookings, many agencies have started charging consumers fees for previously free ticketing services. But Hoover says that TravelFest will not. Although the situation is in flux, one airline economy has been to cap commissions paid to travel agents on domestic round-trip tickets of over $500 and one-way tickets over $250. As these represent less than 5% of TravelFest's ticket sales, Hoover doesn't see a need to charge for ticketing, but suggests his business may benefit as other agencies do.

In front of the counter are stations where customers may research trips themselves, using industry guides such as the Official Airline Guides.

Here, on a recent Friday, law student Lynn Bey-Roode helped her parents plan a visit to Florida en route home to Zimbabwe. This was Bey-Roode's second visit to TravelFest. The first time, she let a TravelFest employee plan her visit to San Antonio.

"She knew everything," Bey-Roode said. "I think she used to live there." This time, an employee was helping Bey-Roode research the trip herself. Several Florida guidebooks sat on the desk; she and her parents pored over a lodging directory.

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