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BUSINESS FOCUS - TRAVEL & TOURISM - INTERNET OFFERS VARIETY FROM A SINGLE POINT

Tourists take their travel plans online

SLOWLY but surely, Slovaks are booking their holidays over the Internet. They are discovering that online reservation portals provide them with wider variety, better information and greater convenience than they can find with traditional "brick-and-mortal" agencies.
Although there are no official statistics on the volume of online reservations made by holidaymakers, industry analysts say the practice is on the rise. Online travel and tour sites say business is increasing every year.

SLOWLY but surely, Slovaks are booking their holidays over the Internet. They are discovering that online reservation portals provide them with wider variety, better information and greater convenience than they can find with traditional "brick-and-mortal" agencies.

Although there are no official statistics on the volume of online reservations made by holidaymakers, industry analysts say the practice is on the rise. Online travel and tour sites say business is increasing every year. And with national Internet penetration improving, Slovak companies in this field have a lot to be happy about.

Tomáš Hasala is an executive of Limba (www.limba.sk), Slovakia's largest online booking agency. He told The Slovak Spectator, "I am very optimistic about the future. So far, the interest [in booking online] keeps growing. The market potential definitely has not been played out. Slovaks are just starting to shop online."

Jozef Köles, reservations manager at Travelguide (www.travelguide.sk), another multilingual site, says two main factors bode well for online travel and tourism portals: an increase in the number of households with personal computers, and the coming of age of a generation that grew up with Internet.

"It is just a question of time before this generation becomes financially secure and can afford a holiday," Köles said.

Marek Rapčaniak from UbytujSa (www.ubytujsa.sk), a travel and tour portal, agrees: "More and more people will be logging into Web-based portals and booking holidays."

Travel and tourism portals vary in look, content details, and how that content is managed. But they all aim to provide essential travel information without which a tourist would be lost.

The benefit of online tourism portals is that a visitor can theoretically access everything he or she needs from a single point of contact: the computer. The user can access detailed destination information along with descriptions of accommodation facilities, available services, sports activities and cultural venues, suggestions for daytrips - the list goes on.

Sophisticated online travel and tourism portals update their sites with special seasonal offers from a variety of travel-related suppliers including travel agencies, tourist facility providers (hotels, resorts) and even airlines.

The best online agencies are supported by a complex information technology (IT) infrastructure ensuring that their websites can handle anticipated volumes of online traffic and remain available around the clock. Some of these IT environments are linked directly to travel-related suppliers, so that the very latest travel offers will appear on the site without delay.

These complicated, behind-the-scenes mechanics are entirely invisible to online visitors, so that all they are aware of is sifting easily and intuitively through relevant and informative travel-related data.

Online tour and travel companies have a significant advantage over brick-and-mortar travel agencies. In addition to offering a wider variety of travel deals to suit individual needs, online agencies benefit from Internet-based client relationships. E-mail is cheap, instant and convenient. Online catalogues save on printing and distribution costs. And office premises can be purely functional - not showrooms to lure potential travellers.

An online agency can build credibility easily as well. "If an online agency's backend [its IT infrastructure] is of a high quality, it can support marketing efforts better than any team of agents working in a physical agency. For example, an online visitor to Limba can access more than just brochures. They can tap into customer logs, where tourists have written their opinions of the services they received," Hasala said.

So, how does one go about choosing an online travel agency?

"There are some unprofessional companies out there. An online visitor should pay attention to how expertly the portal is designed, whether content appears updated, and how flexible the site is in terms of communication, especially in regards to making reservations. These details say a lot [about the professionalism] of the online company," Travelguide's Köles explained.

Moreover, an online visitor normally does not pay for the brokerage service provided by the online agency. (This can depend on the price policy of the provider, however.) Sometimes an online visitor can find better prices on the Internet than they could otherwise. Savings on promotion is sometimes passed onto the customer.

More and more foreigners are using online agencies to book their holidays to Slovakia. A great incentive is avoiding the language barrier. Travellers can find everything they need to know about accommodation facilities without having to make a clumsy phone call to a remote bed-and-breakfast where the receptionist only speaks Slovak.

Hasala says that Limba is multilingual. "Our Web page is available in Slovak, Czech, Polish, Hungarian, German and English.

"This pretty much reflects where the majority of our clients come from. In 2003 we served 45,572 clients, of which 21,617 were from Slovakia, 14,340 from the Czech Republic, 4,976 from Hungary, and the rest were Germans and other mostly European countries."

Although Internet use is becoming more popular in Slovakia, compared to other EU countries, Slovakia is lagging behind. Online businesses say this is directly connected to the low Internet penetration rates in Slovak households.

"Internet penetration is the biggest barrier to online travel services. Once Internet access increases, there will be pressure on accommodation providers to make themselves known online as well," Hasala said.

Köles believes that the Internet reservations market in Slovakia is weaker than in the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland because people in those countries are 40 percent more likely to have PCs in their homes than Slovaks.

Online travel-related agencies started popping up in Slovakia in the mid-1990s. Since then, many portals have been created and many have disappeared. Physical travel agencies have also created Web presences.

Larger companies often offer reservation services on their websites. However, Internet traffic is not their core business.

"One can see that [these agencies] are offering the same products they offer in their shops," Köles said.

According to Hasala, travel shops with Web pages differ greatly from companies who operate exclusively online.

"Internet travel and tourism portals are operated by people who use the Internet as their principal business model - not as an addition to their traditional shops.

"Sometimes [Internet companies] tend to be driven by the idea of travelling and forget that portals have to include well-formulated offers apart from beautiful photographs. Online companies need to attract visitors to the site but also sell holidays," Hasala said.

Online reservation agencies agree that cooperation with travel-related suppliers is, in the majority of cases, beneficial for both parties. Travelguide says that high-quality providers understand the importance of Internet portals.

"Providers that fail to discover how their clients found them in the first place are generally the ones who think the Internet holds no value," Köles says.

According to growing Internet trends, these providers are missing out on a big piece of the market.

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