Time to conquer our fear of the web

While many offers on the internet look tempting, we are still reluctant to arrange even a short break on it. Oliver Bennett looks at how dot.com companies are encouraging us to take the plunge

City breaks are booming - particularly among the British. According to a survey by car hire firm Avis Europe, we have become the most compulsive weekenders in Europe, with short breaks increasing by 76 per cent in the past five years.

City breaks are booming - particularly among the British. According to a survey by car hire firm Avis Europe, we have become the most compulsive weekenders in Europe, with short breaks increasing by 76 per cent in the past five years.

Much of the cause lies in the rise in numbers of low-cost airlines - Ryanair, easyJet, Go and Buzz among them - which enable us to fly to Barcelona, Biarritz or Bilbao at low prices and short notice. And they have had other significant spin-offs.

Firstly, they are making us much less chary about travelling independently, so that we are happier to book direct with the destination's hotels, or wing it on arrival. And secondly, they are making us happier to buy over the internet.

Go, the low-cost airline from British Airways, reports that on average half of all bookings are online - with the figure reaching a high of 73 per cent during one promotion. Like its low-cost competitor Ryanair, it offers £2 discounts for online bookers to stimulate custom on the Net.

"It's continually going up, but you have to provide telephone booking as well, because a lot of people prefer to speak to someone," said a spokeswoman for Go, adding that it is often older people who book via the internet - belying the popular fallacy that only the young are switched on.

As a consumer, I have bought online with Ryanair and Go - though I have never purchased anything else over the internet. Somehow, the limited amount of destinations, cheap fares and a desire for a weekend break somewhere pleasant in continental Europe added up to a strong lure, and I found the sites easy to navigate. Yet my attempts to find flights through various dot.com start-ups - including Bob Geldof's deckchair.com, lastminute.com and ebookers.com - have ended in frustration, and sent me scurrying for the small ads.

Such are the travails of our slow transition to the internet economy, and as travel companies are realising, you have to give people a reason to buy online, be it either the promise of a bargain, the friendly face of a trusted brand, or enhanced content and information.

Joel Brandon of whatsonwhen.com - a website that gives information on upcoming global events backed up by travel links - says that we are witnessing a change in the sales ethos of internet travel sites.

"The earlier principle was that you come to a home page, plugged in your dates and departure and found out the cost," he says. "That approach may work for low-cost travel. But people are realising that there needs to be more content and customer service."

Brandon says that customers using a high-street travel agent will typically seek out the various offers in the window and choose their holiday according to a wider set of criteria than merely price: weather, cultural attractions, visa requirements, children's facilities etc. Therefore, he says, consumer travel websites need to be "value-added" and carry this kind of content as well as raw data on flight availability.

"You've got to give people a reason to go to the site," he says. Thus websites like whatsonwhen.com link with other travel companies such as otcuk.com to provide an integrated service where the consumer gets information about the destination itself as well as price.

In a week that has seen the first internet bank "theft", it seems that British holidaymakers are wary of parting with their money to dot.com travel companies. Neil Pettifer of otcuk.com, says that of the visitors to the site, only two per cent book "and that is reasonably high in the online travel world". British buyers may still be nervous of credit card fraud and encryption, but it is also about the nature of the product. "Buying holidays is a very emotional purchase that requires more warmth than, say, a CD."

Consequently, otcuk.com offers support in the buying process and, like whatsonwhen.com, has themed sections and links to trusted travel brands such as Lonely Planet.

"The purchase process rather than the end product is becoming more important," says Pettifer, who adds that the time will come when the process of buying will in itself be entertainment. "It'll be very exciting when you can click on a street map and go into a district, or do a walk-through of your hotel."

Another effect of the internet is that it enables us to devise our own itineraries: choosing hotels from home pages and hiring cars online without recourse to a travel agent or tour operator. This is potentially problematic for agents and operators, admits Colin Trigger, chairman of the Association of Independent Tour Operators (AITO), "but at the same time, the customer is often buying blind and there's no bonding," he says.

"With an established tour operator, you get financial protection in the UK and they can take care of various different elements such as transfers." With an established company "you can be assured that your villa has been researched".

As many as 60 per cent of AITO's members have a web presence. "Our members are small niche companies," says Trigger. "They don't have big budgets for television commercials, but with the internet they can make many pages for a comparatively small cost."

So while market share may be lost from those customers who go it alone, those tour operators may gain from new markets. The same story applies to the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA). "Travel agents are grasping the internet," says Keith Betton, head of corporate affairs. "They have realised they can get to new markets via the Net, such as America."

About a quarter of ABTA's members have an internet presence, but these are nearly all online brochures, rather than online shops. "They do not generally accept sales, as people still like to talk to somebody about their holidays," says Betton. "The way things work for our members is that customers peruse the website but still make their booking over the phone."

Betton believes that it will change when digital booking moves to the medium of television, but even then he doesn't think that the growth will be as enormous as some predict. "At the moment it's less than one per cent and I think it might become two or three per cent over the next few years," he says.

Like many travel businesses, the German Travel Centre does not sell directly over the internet - 99 per cent of its business is done over the telephone.

But since setting up his website, director Mohamed Bhimani has had a couple of surprises. "I have found that a lot of companies use the internet for research, and recently, I took a lot of bookings from Bosch because of our presence." They had found his site while surfing, and while Bhimani was delighted, he thinks that it is crucial that they saw his affiliations to ABTA and the German National Tourist Office.

Whether by financial incentive or friendly content, it seems that we online buyers still need as much encouragement as we can get.

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