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NEWS, TIPS & BARGAINS | THE INTERNET TRAVELER

Group sites may offer boons to those needing multiple rooms

June 12, 2005|James Gilden | Special to The Times

If you travel as part of a group, you may be what the hotel industry has dubbed a SMERF. That's an acronym for folks who travel en masse for sports or social, military, educational, religious or fraternal reasons.

"It's an industry term for the leisure group market," said Kurt Weinsheimer, vice president of hotels for online travel agency Orbitz.

SMERFs represent a $36-billion market in the U.S., Weinsheimer said, and include people who travel with soccer teams, school and veterans groups, family and friend reunions or weddings.

These trips are often organized by a nonprofessional planner, such as a teacher, a bride's mother or a soccer parent, who must coordinate trip reservations for several, sometimes far-flung, individuals.

Until recently, group travelers who turned to the Internet to help them find the best deals encountered roadblocks.

Online travel agencies, for the most part, limit the number of bookings that can be made at one time, especially when it comes to booking five or more hotel rooms.

To address the needs of group travelers, online travel giants Travelocity and Orbitz have formed alliances with websites that focus on this market. When you visit Travelocity or Orbitz to make hotel reservations for five rooms or more, you can click on a link that takes you to the affiliated site.

Travelocity has had a partnership with group-travel-planning website Groople since last summer. Orbitz's partnership with Group Travel Planet was rolled out last month. Both group-travel-planning websites can be accessed directly at www.groople.com and www.grouptravelplanet.com.

The hotel rates on the group sites are negotiated separately from the rates on their partners' sites. The same hotel may be listed at different rates on Travelocity and Groople, for example.

I compared Groople and its partner Travelocity for the same Las Vegas hotels for a long weekend in late September.

On Groople, I searched for quotes for eight rooms. The website came up with rates for 16 hotels and links to other properties that would e-mail rate quotes on request.

Of those 16 hotels, 15 also were listed on Travelocity, where I found lower rates for 12 of them. The average savings at Travelocity was $16 per night.

Group Travel Planet did better. It listed fewer hotels than Groople, but more of them beat partner Orbitz's rates -- two-thirds were lower, for an average savings of $9 per night.

But a hotel rate comparison doesn't give a full picture of what the group travel sites can provide.

"Travelocity in [this] example could not guarantee the availability of eight rooms or guarantee that if eight were available, that they'd all be that price," said David Loy, chief executive of Groople. "Group events are extremely complex. Distilling it down to the cheapest rate is naive."

The group travel sites offer special services, such as planning tools and an option for individual group members to make changes online to their own itineraries.

They also offer flexible payment options, allowing group members to pay individually, which prevents one person from getting stuck with the whole bill.

And as more rooms are booked, rates can decrease or added bonuses such as a free room can be thrown in.

"Almost always you will find our rates are lower than [nongroup] rates once you get into 20, 30, 40 rooms," Loy said.

Still, the smart group traveler will surf the Web for a bit of comparison shopping.

Contact James Gilden at www.theinternettraveler.com.

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