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April 15, 2004: Online Travel Part 2: Is Bigger Better?

Hotel chains use Web specials and features to draw bookings away from travel sites (part two of three).

Yesterday, we looked at tactics airline sites use to differentiate themselves from general travel sites. Hotels have similar motivations.

According to Dawn Hepper, manager of brand Web sites for Carlson Hotels Worldwide, the company's sites are critical touch points for their customers. The firm's Web sites have had more than 2.5 million visitor sessions since 1996 and revenue generated through the sites grew 56 percent in 2003 over 2002 -- which Hepper says is higher than the industry average of 35 percent.

Carlson is one of the largest privately-held companies in the United States. Based in Minneapolis, the company employs about 190,000 people in more than 140 countries. Carlson's travel and hospitality properties include Regent® International Hotels, Radisson® Hotels & Resorts, Park Plaza® Hotels & Resorts, Country Inns & Suites by Carlson® and Park Inn® hotels.

The Radisson Hotel Web site was one of the first hotel brand sites, debuting in 1996. In 2000, Carlson launched sites for the remaining Carlson Hotels Worldwide portfolio.

Hepper says hotels often opt to reserve special offers or bonus loyalty points for visitors to their Web sites, and to offer enhanced features, such as a personalized account home page.

"Over the past year, many hotel chains have retaliated against the claims made by aggregators -- e.g., -- that they have the best rates online by introducing our own 'lowest rate guarantees' on most of the major hotel brand Web sites," she says.

In return for the reach offered by many of the large third-party aggregator sites, many hotels are forced to give up as much as 30 percent of their daily room rates as a commission, and the customer doesn't necessarily benefit from the lower rate the hotel is providing the aggregator.

"Driving consumers direct to the hotel brand Web sites allows hotels to retain rate parity across their channels at a higher daily rate, as well as removing the manual intervention by having third-party reservations delivered via fax," Hepper says.

But Hepper notes that hotel brand sites typically don't offer the ability to compare hotels across brands. And some customers may be more interested in the one-stop approach of going to a single site for air, hotel and car information. However, she says many hotel brand Web sites now offer vacation packages through partnerships with aggregator sites.

Carlson draws customers to its various hotel sites by adapting a wide variety of interactive marketing strategies -- online partnerships, email marketing, search engine optimization, direct search inclusion, paid placement and cross-channel marketing integration -- to ensure that guests receive similar messages regardless of their choice of booking channel.

Jon Peddie, who heads up Jon Peddie Research (, a Tiburon, CA-based marketing and management consulting firm, travels the world 50 percent of each month. He still uses a travel agent and prefers airline and hotel Web sites, because he's not confident that the general sites will enter his frequent flyer mileage numbers and correctly register his hotel preferences.

"Many of the hotel, and most of the airline sites, send weekly or monthly special deals via email -- if you allow them -- and that information is helpful, and even sometimes influential, although most of the time I can't take advantage of a free weekend at the Hyatt in Peoria, or a $100 roundtrip ticket from Newark to Anchorage," he says.

Peddie adds that not all of the airline, hotel and general travel sites have the same objectives, and while he predicts that these types of sites will continue to expand and proliferate, he says many travelers will prefer the personal touch of dealing with a human being.

"Online banking, for instance, is great, but I'm still on a first-name basis with our local branch vice president," he says.

Monday: What general travel sites are doing to draw customers away from booking direct at airline and hotel sites.

Neal Leavitt is president of Fallbrook, CA-based Leavitt Communications, an international marketing communications company with affiliates in Paris, France; Hamburg, Germany; Hong Kong; Bangalore, India; and Sao Paulo, Brazil. He writes frequently on Internet and high technology topics. Contact him at, 760/639-2900.

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