TRAVEL MEDIA: WATCH WHERE YOU GO - As TV and computing converge, travel brands are battling to establish a foothold in the rapidly growing screen-based travel market, Amon Cohen writes

Some things are made for each other: cheese and onion, whisky and a good book, car stereos and Chuck Berry, to name but three. To this list must be added a match made in marketing heaven: TV and travel.

Some things are made for each other: cheese and onion, whisky and a

good book, car stereos and Chuck Berry, to name but three. To this list

must be added a match made in marketing heaven: TV and travel.



It’s a combination that viewers cannot seem to get enough of, judging by

the number of holiday programmes in the TV schedules. The enthusiasm

extends beyond editorial to direct selling, with travel accounting for

70 per cent of the business of ITV’s text service, Teletext, which

shifts an estimated 10-12 per cent of all holidays sold in the UK.



Great things are also expected of TV Travel Shop, the recently launched

holiday advertising cable channel. No figures are available yet, but one

media executive believes its policy of showing location films, with

on-screen promotions for relevant tour operators, is a sure-fire winner.

’It is such an easy sell,’ he enthuses.



’If you can sell crappy bracelets on QVC, then think what you can do

when you put a video travel brochure in front of people.’



Small wonder, therefore, that media and travel companies are rubbing

their hands at the opportunities presented by digital television. By the

end of this year, it will be possible to book a holiday through a TV set

and remote-control. When the digital TV company, NTL, recently

researched what people would want to buy through interactive TV, it

found travel was the leading category.



Travel is also a major force on the internet, where it is the second

largest category of e-commerce, after computing. The technologies are,

in any case, converging - Teletext has a website showing ten of its

pages at a time, while there are websites from which one can buy travel

on NTL’s digital offering. Before long, it is thought, the differences

between TVs and computers will be negligible - a household will simply

have some screens that are viewed from a distance of two feet and others

from ten.



This proliferation of opportunities can be bewildering. Digital TV is

thought to have the brightest future, but will involve much trial and

error. Travel products are expected to remain much as they are, with

strong demand for package holidays as well as for tailor-made flight,

hotel and car-hire bookings.



Traditional travel retailers may find their days are numbered,

however.



’In 25 years, there will be no such thing as a high street travel

agent,’ Paul Richer, partner with travel technology consultancy,

Genesys, predicts.



’Customers will be perfectly at ease with buying information products,

like travel, online. How quickly we will move there is a question no-one

can answer, but I see digital TV as the major catalyst for change in

consumer habits.’



The internet has dominated the online travel market for the past four

years. The low-cost airline, easyJet, picks up 25 per cent of its

bookings over the internet, for example, although it does not accept

bookings from travel agents. United Airlines took more than 4 per cent

of its reservations over the net in 1998 - worth around dollars 170

million. Marriott International sold hotel room bookings worth more than

dollars 50 million online in 1998, a 213 per cent increase on 1997.

However,United and Marriott do most of their business in the US, where

local calls are free and internet penetration in homes is higher than in

the UK.



Nevertheless, Forrester Research estimates that 4.2 per cent of global

travel transactions - worth about dollars 2.8 billion - will be

conducted online this year, rising to 6.8 per cent in 2000.



In Richer’s experience, the internet is better suited to selling

individual travel elements, such as flights or hotel rooms, than

packages. ’Hoteliers now see it as core to their distribution strategy,’

he says. ’But it is also ideal for marketing. When my clients mention

their web address in their print advertising, they are surprised at the

high level of response.’



An internet-style service is the initial offering from NTL. Presentation

of pages has been altered to take account of the viewer’s distance from

the screen and the lack of a mouse. Graphics and navigation are simpler,

text is larger and on-screen choices fewer. Truly interactive television

is to be introduced in the final quarter of this year. While watching a

travel programme, the viewer will be able to shrink the image and use

the remaining screen area to call up destination or booking information,

or to order a brochure.



NTL’s travel channel manager, Ian Gosling, claims digital TV will be a

hugely effective medium for selling travel. He argues that targeting

will be precise because digital broadcasters know where their viewers

live and can tailor the messages for specific audiences. They can also

monitor the response to individual campaigns.



In terms of pricing, Gosling says: ’The amount I will charge varies.

Some clients will be on revenue-share, others on a flat fee. This is not

an advertising model but an e-commerce model.’



TV Travel Shop is also preparing to move into digital, as is Travel, the

cable and satellite channel received by 4.6 million households around

Europe. Its diet of conventional travel editorial will be supplemented

by two virtual channels, one allowing viewers to superimpose text from

an online travel encyclopaedia, the other superimposing booking

details.



Sky is also said to be planning a digital travel service. Teletext,

which is estimated to account for a staggering 40 per cent of all late

holiday sales, is expected to continue to dominate TV travel selling for

the short term. Long term, it would be under threat if it did not

change. Teletext’s analogue technology is primitive, giving it

unappealing type and graphics as well as limited capacity, so users wait

an eternity for pages to download.



However, it plans to introduce digital later this year. ’We will start

moving to photo-quality images, smoother fonts and logos,’ commercial

director, Lawrence Lawson, says. ’It will also be quicker to navigate

and there will be more control over which pages you choose.’



Teletext will also eventually offer connection to the internet. If

viewers are interested in more information about a holiday on Teletext,

they will be able to go online to get more details and even make a

booking. Teletext is making itself ’platform-neutral’, so that it can be

accessed through any screen medium.



Convergence will make much of the new-media environment a

platform-neutral one. Lawson believes that ’a lot of these services are

going to be very similar’, in which case a strong brand will be critical

to success. As Lawson points out, Teletext is a well-known brand, with

2.5 million holidays each year to its credit. The battle for supremacy

of the online travel market may yet be a battle of the brands.



A VIEW OF ON-SCREEN TRAVEL: TIM O’KENNEDY SETTLES INTO HIS ARMCHAIR AND

PERUSES TRAVEL OFFERINGS ONLINE AND ON-SCREEN



It’s been said that the two great crutches of latterday commercial

profitability are consumer ignorance and consumer inertia. For decades,

consumer decision-making has been believed to be determined by rational,

non-emotional considerations. Why?



People in the main don’t objectively compare product or service

performance because the real, unhyped, raw data that would form the

basis of such comparisons isn’t easy to find. And even if the whole gory

truth was laid bare before them, most people probably couldn’t be arsed

to change their habits. New application forms, account transfers,

finding new providers in the first place ... Oh no, that all sounds a

bit, well, hard.



At its best, new media kicks out both of these crutches, snaps them over

its knees and says: ’Okay, your next excuse for making a bad decision is

...?’



It does this by offering real, often comparative information about a

product and by making it easy to act on this new-found wisdom - all from

the comfort of your armchair. And nowhere is this phenomenon better

explored than in the travel industry.



Of the 19,140 sites currently dealing with travel, many are worth a

closer look. Step forward, www.previewtravel.com, you’ve got it all. For

practically any US city, and for a growing number of cities in the rest

of the world, this site combines city guides by Fodor’s, including all

the usual categories of tourist (or business) interest.



Need to know how to get to the restaurant, meeting or theatre? The site

offers point-to-point driving instructions with a customised

street-map.



Of course, you’ll need a car: Carfinder will find you one. Not just any

car, but the cheapest deal available from any rental company. Same goes

for the air tickets you need to get there. Everything can be booked,

direct, through the site. And the prices are guaranteed to be the

lowest, or they refund the difference.



The lessons to be gained from this site are profound: aligning related

and complementary product and service offerings around sensitively

observed customer needs is where the world is going. And if brand

marketers don’t have the stomach for this kind of ’co-opetition’,

retailers will.



Swinging to this side of the pond, www.holiday.beeb.com is worth a

look.



This is a hugely popular site, enjoying one of the highest eyeball

counts in Europe and, as you’d expect from the BBC, the information

provided is both solid and wide in scope. But here’s the rub: apart from

a cursory telephone number or two, there’s no way to act on the

information provided.



The same goes for www.condenast.com and, frankly, 95 per cent of the

sites visited in an evening’s browse: lots of pretty pictures, lots of

flowery language, not a lot of functionality. This may be an adequate

solution for now, but it won’t be enough in a couple of years.



In fairness, UK players are beginning to make the effort at least:

www.1ski.com gets quite a lot right.



The California-based venture, www.armchair.com, also looks like it’s

heading the right way, if you can get past its wretched appearance. By

the way, what exactly is the relevance of downloadable holograms of

dinosaurs?



Then, of course, there’s the other online medium, TV. Assiduously

following the brief given to me by Campaign (for at heart, I am a suit),

I trawled around looking for a dedicated travel channel and, for my

sins, found one: the imaginatively monickered TV Travel Channel. It does

exactly what it says on the tin, or something.



Dear God, what a mess. Cliche-ridden, insight- and objectivity-free

hard-selling, fronted by two people drawn from the same bag as the

people I invariably wind up next to on long flights. I spent some time

wondering what ’see you, perb’ meant, until chronic repetition revealed

the word to be ’superb’. As in food, glass-bottom boats, pina coladas,

dumplings and white sand beaches. Honestly, I just can’t imagine paying

a grand or more for a week at Le Sport when it’s presented to me in this

way.



The surprise of the evening was good old Teletext: data in as raw and

unspun a manner as you’ll ever get it, and seemingly amazing deals.

Check the last-minute specials on ITV.



What’s to be learned from all this? It seems to me that there are two

kinds of animal out there: publishing animals like Conde Nast and the

BBC, and commercial animals like Preview Travel and PriceLine. On the

face of it, the commercial animals are finding it much easier to add

visual and linguistic clothing to their offers than the publishing

animals are finding it to play commercial hardball.



I know which I’d rather be.



Tim O’Kennedy is a partner at Circus.