By Martin Kelly

POLITICS is complicated and the best exponents generally turn everything into a black and white issue – good guys versus bad guys (no surprise who rescues the damsel in distress).

So you can see what Australian Federation of Travel Agents CEO Mike Hatton is trying to do when, clearly rattled by the growth in online bookings, he identifies the Internet as the travel industry’s ‘bad guy’.

“The message is simple – if you have booked over the Internet and have a problem, who are you going to call – Ghostbusters or some airline’s offshore foreign-manned call centre?,” Hatton told Travel Weekly.

But has AFTA made a mistake? Should the organization be providing online leadership and education to its members rather than criticizing the fastest-growing sales channel in travel?

Comments like these are also incorrect. Most, if not all, of Australia’s leading online travel sites have local call centres and can provide personal assistance if required (and often for a price).

Obviously, that is beside the point – reason has no role to play in a good old fashioned witch hunt.

These anti-Internet sentiments are the reason behind a new campaign AFTA is trying to get off the ground based around the slogan: “Without a travel agent, you’re on your own.”

Hatton, who lifted this idea from the United States, has received top-level support for his stand.

AFTA Chairman and Managing Director of Travelscene American Express, Bob Steel, told Travel Today that the Internet is good for research but “a very dangerous tool for consumers to book on.”

Whatever your thoughts on this statement, Steel, a successful businessman, is no hypocrite – Travelscene American Express has a basic website that does not accept bookings, only email enquiries.

However, a lot of mainstream AFTA members have more sophisticated websites that take online bookings, including two of Australia biggest travel agencies – Flight Centre and Harvey World Travel – not to mention a slew of smaller operators.

Politically, AFTA is clearly in a no-win situation with its present stance, which denigrates a key sales channel and does nothing to represent those travel agents who have chosen to use the internet for their own means.

Surely, the time has come for AFTA to take a positive stance on the Internet and help members adapt to a radically new sales business environment.

Fortunately, at the moment it’s largely trade press rhetoric.

It should not be allowed to go any further because selling travel over the Internet is not a black and white issue, and smart politicians do not paint themselves into a corner, as Hatton and Steel appear to have done.


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