Online Travel: The Mountain Just Got Higher

As the days take us further from the horrific events of September 11th, it becomes clearer that the tech industries have lost some of their best and brightest.

Still, with the indomitable spirit that Americans typically display in times of crisis, essential online industries have hung tough. Chief among them is the online travel industry, a sector that is experiencing its greatest volume of work and level of chaos to date — and is admirably rising to the occasion.

Traffic to online travel sites has reflected not potential sales, but Americans aided. Perhaps just as remarkable is that travel sites are doing this while their future looks as precarious as it has ever been.

Change in Plans

Immediately after the terrorist attacks on the Eastern seaboard, as the U.S. State Department was urging citizens to exercise due diligence and increased care regarding travel, online travel sites geared up for the onslaught of ticket changes, cancelled flights, airline uncertainty and general consumer confusion.

Travelocity, Expedia, Orbitz and others turned their focus away from competing with each other over the best fares, travel packages or promotional gimmicks. After September 11th, these sites simply became primary engines to help stranded Americans. It was, and is, no small accomplishment.

To the credit of these sites, as soon as new restrictions were imposed by the government, such as a cancellation of all curbside check-in of luggage, notices were posted prominently on their Web pages. For example, Expedia established a resource center,outlining any interruptions in travel, as well as new governmental restrictions.

When the Dust Settles

However, the emphasis that commercial travel sites have placed on public service, while noble and appropriate, raises a number of questions.

First, how long can the travel sites focus primarily on customers who have already purchased travel items? At some point, the volume each site experiences must generate a certain level of fresh revenue.

Second, what will be the true financial impact of the worst terrorist attacks in our nation’s history on one of the few Internet-based business models where companies turn a profit? Some observers believe Americans will go into a nesting mode, traveling less and opting for the security of their own living rooms.

Less Product

Several major airlines, bracing themselves for decreased volume as they wait for an infusion of cash from the government, have announced significant reductions in flight schedules. This hurts travel sites by reducing the overall inventory of seats they can sell.

Even if the government comes through withsome sort of bailout for the airlines, it is unlikely such an offer would extend itself to online booking sites. Such sites are now essentially out there on their own.

Treading Gingerly

Perhaps the diciest question for travel sites is this: How aggressively canany of them go after an increased marketshare without appearing to be capitalizing on thishuman tragedy?

The unveiling of perky new marketing campaigns couldbackfire at a moment when the national psyche is mourning and healing. Yet, withoutsome new push for sales and new customers, the sites could face a shaky future.

Timing is Everything

Some Americans say it is still too soon after the tragedies to bediscussing sales and profits. But the reality is that now is exactly the time that new strategies must be considered.

Corporate America has to learn — quickly — how to grieve and fully operate at the same time. This is especially true for the online travel industry.

There is nothing disrespectful about generating new business, increased transactions andkeeping the bottom line solid. When all is said and done, the best of American industry is that which survives in the face of full adversity.

What do you think? Let’s talk about it.

Note: The opinions expressed by our columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the E-Commerce Times or its management.


  • Travel is one of the great and true freedoms enjoyed by peoples of the world.

    As Margaret Thatcher said in 1993, travel is not only the world’s #1 industry, but it is also the world’s great hope to bring lasting peace, as cultures get together and learn more about each other through travel.

    I firmly believe that the travel industry must compete, at a time and place that is appropriate(which I would suggest will come sooner rather than later). And the industry also has a right encourage travel by Americans and our allies around the world.

    The terrorists are hoping for empty aircraft flying to countries with vacant resorts and abandoned marketplaces. But let’s remember that the terrorists’ diabolical advantage of secrecy and and stealth also requires they exist in small, non-unified “cells” – a disadvantage in numbers, scope and scale. Leisure travel to many regions of the world might be about as safe as it always has been.

    All brave travelers of this world have both a need and a right to assert our freedom to travel. We can begin by booking trips to those countries who have joined the worldwide coalition and as a result have promised to track down and bring terrorists to justice.

    Franklin Roosevelt said this during and about the Great Depression (another worldwide cataclysm), but it is worthwile quoting today, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

  • Very well put – couldn’t agree more! Let’s hope this indomitable spirit will prevent large numbers of travelers from cancelling their future trips as this would only play into the hands of terrorists.

    It’s also a period when there likely will be some weeding out in the online travel space as only those sites backed by live person customer support in call centers are likely to earn the customer’s trust and hopefully future business.

    We will have to compete with the best of what the bricks world has to offer to succeed in the long term and make this already large and profitable ecommerce vertical continue to grow at a rapid pace.

    If handling, in the short term, more unproductive traffic is what it takes to achieve this goal it will have been worthwile.

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