Long haul tour operators – In it for the long haul

Until now many of the long-haul operators have steered clear of diving deep into the online pool. Paul Norris looks at the arguments for and against, with Kuoni on one side and a fair few of its rivals on the other.

Long-haul operators are split over online tailor-made bookings, with the jury out on whether consumers and agents will use the web to make complicated itineraries.

Two of the largest and most well-known operators – Kuoni and Trailfinders – have hugely differing views on investment in web bookings: the former sees it as the future, but the latter has no plans to go down that route for the time being.

And Trailfinders is not alone. Quest Travel, Travelbag and Travel 2/4 have information on destinations and types of holiday on their websites, but none has a facility for clients to booking their own itinerary. Instead, customers are asked to telephone their reservation staff or visit one of their shops.

British Airways Holidays does allow itineraries to be booked, along with hotels and car hire, but you are only offered BA flights and preferred hotels and car hire.

The big four operators – Thomson, Thomas Cook, First Choice and MyTravel – are no different.

They offer comprehensive information on holidays on their sites, but no online bookings for tailor-made itineraries. Straight packages to places such as Florida or the Maldives can be booked on the web, but they direct you to shops or call centres for complicated bookings.

Kuoni, as it claims, can truly be credited with starting a revolution in online sales for tailor-made holidays – something it is pushing during what is its centenary year.

It has just launched two booking options for travellers wanting to visit the US and Australasia. The option to ‘design and book your holiday’ is easy to use, you can add in extras such as car hire and tours and it gives you a price automatically.

The North American section will let you fly or drive round the US and then venture over to Canada. A package is put together on your terms and everything is clearly explained and available to print out.

Similarly, the Australasia option allows you to go to Australia, New Zealand or the South Pacific. You can state where you want to stopover, book car hire or upgrade your flights. Return flights to the UK are the route you came or you can carry on around the world and take in the US. Again, the usability is clear and allows you to make a very comprehensive itinerary.

The North America booking engine was launched in January, while Australasia came online the following month. More destinations will be launched soon, with the Far East and Europe likely to be next.

Kuoni also sees the use of 360-degree images and videos of destinations and hotels as key to giving people more confidence to book on the web. Indeed it is widely accepted that consumers who opt for the long-haul, expensive destinations are still looking for additional information to put their minds at rest – and the websites, in theory, can be a bottomless pit for content, images and videos.

Managing director Sue Biggs says the launch of the system is a “huge breakthrough” for the company and is revolutionary for the industry.

“There are no other operators, even Expedia, Travelocity or Opodo, that can offer this. It is a revolution,” she argues.

“The technology allows you to play around with the options and takes absolutely no time to use. It is a major tool for us.”

Staff at Kuoni took part in trials to ensure the technology was working before the soft launch of the systems earlier this year. Using laptops at home they worked out their dream holidays, flying first class and taking all manner of tours.

Biggs adds that the new option on Kuoni’s website also allows people to become more involved with their holiday and this includes a fun element.

“We also see agents saving themselves time with this and it really pushes out the itineraries to them,” she says.

And prices are also not necessarily less on the web – as many cynical agents suspected.

“We will be building on these launches,” Biggs explains, “as our online bookings are moving in the right direction.”

Nevertheless, web sales still only count for less than 10% of Kuoni’s business.

All this optimism from Kuoni is in stark contrast with Trailfinders’ reading of how customers will continue to book their tailor-made holidays.

The country’s most popular independent operator for long-haul trips is sticking with the ‘human touch’ and its heralded staff experience of the world’s far-flung places.

The Trailfinders website offers a huge range of holidays, flights, hotels, car hire, tours and extras, but users have to contact a call centre to make a reservation.

However, the company uses the web to help people trace their booking with its Viewtrail option. This allows bookers to keep tabs on costs and any changes which are made. Users can also submit a web quote on a suggested holiday to a sales consultant and receive a price back by e-mail.

Trailfinders marketing executive Andrew Appleby says the fact the company is opening more travel centres around the country proves consumers still want face-to-face contact when making a complicated holiday booking.

“People like the power of the human touch and at the moment we are not looking to have online bookings,” he says. “We value our well-travelled consultants and people appreciate this when making tailor-made bookings.”

He says future improvements to the Trailfinders’ website would include more content and the ability to e-mail details of visa requirements to airlines for immigration purposes.

Other long-haul operators are also still unsure of investing huge amounts into ensuring their sites are bookable by people wanting tailor-made holidays.

Travelbag, which sits alongside Ebookers in the Cendant stable of travel companies, steers customers to a booking number despite having a range of holidays and flights available on its website. Travel 2/4 has the same policy.

It appears the bigger long-haul operators are not yet prepared to take the risk with full online bookings as they forecast the public has a desire for human contact when parting with large amounts of money for complicated trips.

Quest Travel, which is part of the Opodo brand, also does not have what it calls a “transactionary” website. Even for flights and hotels, consumers still need to call a consultant.

Former Lastminute.com executive Simon Bennett, now head of air product at Quest, says: “It is a challenge for us and Opodo to make multi-stop itineraries online and we do ask people to call our consultants and use their experience. It is what nine out of 10 customers want from us.”

He says web sales are very small but may well increase as Opodo puts more emphasis on Quest as a brand. A pay-per-click tender process is also being undertaken to get the Quest website up and running with flight bookings.

Apart from Kuoni, it is clear long-haul operators are still happy to let clients come into shops or arrange bookings over the phone. The appeal of human contact and experience is a big draw for many consumers and this is holding the operators back from making a substantial investment online.

But as consumers become more experienced at travelling long haul and more confident at booking online, other operators may be forced to follow Kuoni’s lead – a transition that has already taken place in the short-haul and package market.

Who does what on the web?

Bookable tailor-made holidays to North America and Australasia/Round-the-world and package bookings using individual reference numbers
Manage your booking
General product content and specialist interest
E-mail brochures

Web quote, to receive a price by e-mail
Manage your booking
General product content
Add-ons – airport parking, insurance, clinic
Brochure request

BA Holidays
Tailor-made bookings, using British Airways flights and preferred suppliers
Bookable flights, car hire, hotels, sightseeing, transfers and insurance
Manage your booking
General product content

Quest Travel
General product information
Brochure request

Travel Bag
Flight, hotel and car hire bookings
General product content

Travel 2/4
General product content
Brochure request

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