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Executive Travel | ON THE MOVE / CAROL SMITH

More Firms Have Sites Set on Web Travel Agencies

September 04, 1996|CAROL SMITH

With more business travelers logging on to the Internet, a growing number of companies are launching online reservation systems to try to capture their business.

Within the last month, for example, American Express Co. in New York, and Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft Corp. announced that they were jointly developing an online reservation system for corporate travelers. It's expected to be available early next year.

The same week, Performance Quest International, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based company, announced the debut of Travel Quest, a Web site that allows business and leisure travelers to book airline, hotel and car reservations in one step. The site, at http://www.travelquest.com, claims to be garnering about 15,000 "hits" a day.

Meanwhile, Direct Travel Inc. of New York has been gathering converts to DirectLink, an online booking service aimed directly at business travelers (http://www.dt.com). DirectLink, which is available to clients of Direct Travel (one of the largest U.S. travel agencies), lets employees make their own arrangements, but offers them only reservations that are in compliance with their companies' travel policies.

If, for example, a company permits travel only in coach class, an employee couldn't book himself into first class through DirectLink. Or, similarly, the system will search for the cheapest fare within a two-hour window of a requested departure time.

Through DirectLink, the executive submits an e-mail request detailing when and where he or she wants to go, and within six minutes DirectLink sends back a report of available options. The traveler then confirms the selection online. In addition, DirectLink will check the itinerary against current rates every few hours so that if favorable changes in fares occur, the traveler will be alerted and re-ticketed.

These three ventures are just the latest entrants in the growing field of electronic travel agencies. Others include TravelWeb, Internet Travel Network and Travelocity.

Official Airline Guides, a division of Reed Travel Group in Oak Brook, Ill., also has a new electronic edition for booking reservations. And American Airlines is launching AAccess, a combination of technology products designed to tie together ticketless travel, automated boarding and interactive software for online booking.

Many of the existing Web sites are aimed at general consumers and lack the ability to take into account company travel policies, said Mike Mulligan, senior vice president and general manager of American Express' Interactive Travel Group. Along the lines of DirectLink, the Microsoft/American Express offering will be geared more to corporate guidelines.

Another limit to these Web sites is that they handle either airline or hotel reservations, not both. And in some cases sites have been set up by specific vendors for handling reservations exclusively for their own properties. There hasn't been any place for one-stop shopping. Eric Otto, executive vice president of marketing for Performance Quest, said his company's Travel Quest site is staking out a niche to do just that.

The Web sites with the most potential for gaining steady business from executives will be those that combine one-stop airline and hotel booking with corporate travel policy management. American Express is expecting some competition in this area, Mulligan said.

Indeed, Mulligan is not alone in forecasting an explosion of interest among business travelers for online booking.

In a survey by Air Travel Card of more than 200 corporate travel managers, taken at the National Business Travel Assn. meeting in Dallas last month, 62% said either they or someone in their firm gets business travel information online. About 17% said they or their colleagues use the Internet to make some reservations, although only 1% said they made the majority of their reservations using online booking. Within two years, however, 72% predicted that the business travel industry will be regularly using software reservation systems.

Smaller players are figuring there's room enough in the online travel booking market for more than a few big players: Corporations spend an estimated $145 billion a year on travel-related expenses.

"Microsoft does not get involved in things that are small potatoes," said Tim Cridland, spokesman for Performance Quest.

Despite all the hoopla and interest, the actual use of online booking remains quite low. Of the 15,000 Web site hits Travel Quest documents each day, for example, it is getting only 10 actual reservations.

"We're very comfortable with that for now," Otto said.

So is the Alexandria, Va.-based American Society of Travel Agents, a trade group that says it doesn't expect online booking to make travel agents obsolete any time soon.

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