Small travel agencies historically laid claim to area-specific expertise and hands-on customer service. Then the online travel agencies came around and made mincemeat of them. Now, having played a big part in the slaughter, Orbitz is trying to bring some of the old-school features of a small, personalized travel agent to the 21st century and the online customer base.
In particular, I’m referring to two of the online agency’s features, which it hopes will set it apart from the online competition. First, destination specialists — customer service reps trained to answer questions about the most popular vacation destinations. A caller (or online chatter) might be interested in, say, Cancun, and have questions about different hotels. The destination specialist (who may or may not be an Orbitz employee) should be able to answer some of those questions.
Second, there’s a suite of post-purchase follow-up services that Orbitz promises, under the umbrella of the “OrbitzTLC” label. Sure, it includes the automated “your flight is delayed” e-mails that the airlines offer, but what makes it interesting is the human element: Like a travel agent who would make arrangements for you when things went awry, Orbitz promises to work to rebook you when your flights are canceled or delayed. And going beyond the Main Street travel agent’s limits, a group of former air traffic controllers watches live ATC data to see where the problems arise. A team of former airline employees calls the airlines to proactively negotiate rebookings on your behalf, breaking out the legal mumbo jumbo from the contracts of carriage.
What makes both services interesting to me is the merger of higher-touch human contact with online shopping. But none of this is new. Destination specialists were rolled out at the company in 2008, and TLC has been around even longer. And the concepts behind both aren’t new at all — they’re at the very heart of what travel agencies used to earn their money doing: providing a service that extended beyond the booking of tickets.
I admit that I only considered any of this after a recent visit to Orbitz headquarters in Chicago, in the company of other travel bloggers. (Full disclosure: The flight and hotel were on Orbitz’ dime.) But most of the participants in the meeting — all people who watch the travel space closely — were unaware of the extent to which these services existed. Several of us honestly thought that OrbitzTLC was just the generic flight alerts to your phone or e-mail. That tells me that Orbitz hasn’t promoted these services clearly or effectively.
And let’s face it, the barriers to entry for other agencies aren’t insurmountable. Sure, there’s a recruiting and training expense that’s not negligible, but it’s manageable. It’s not like there’s an entire floor of a downtown Chicago office tower dedicated to these services. There’s nothing stopping a competitor from starting up a similar service. (Travelocity mentions “Proactive Contact” in their guarantees, but again, it’s not very clearly defined or well promoted.)
Orbitz would be wise to promote these services more aggressively, if they really believe these services are an important differentiator from other online (and offline) agencies.