By Don Ross

If you have just launched headlong into a travel agency career you have a right to feel depressed, especially after registering at a travel technology event. I am not a travel agent, but I can sense that these events evoke a cloud of despair for the traditional mom and pop travel businesses, built up on personal experience and loyal customers.

Travel technology events, usually hire a token speaker, who declares off hand that travel agents are not really dinosaurs. He’s spinning a tale, a note in passing, and it is usually borne out in the content over the next two days, as a line up of other industry speakers point travel consultants to the unemployed queue.

So I didn’t dance down the escalator, full of new inspiration, at the close of Wired Travel Asia held in Singapore last week. I left wondering if small-to-medium travel agencies, many of them family run, will wake up to the reality that they need to embrace new technology much faster than they have done so far.

All their previous partners including airlines and hotels are going direct to consumers, using web tools that give us interactive maps, chat communities and detailed booking engines. These tools allow us to order our own seat on an aircraft, buy additional luggage allowances, compare fares and criticise the outcome online. At first, it was fun to pretend we were travel agency savvy.

Then just how much technology and time do consumers have to spend on the task of booking travel? At what point do we switch over to Itunes and play disc jockey?

Technology gurus would like us to believe that on top of doing our regular jobs we can now squeeze enough time out of an already busy day to be our own travel agent dealing directly with the airlines and buying fares based on the airline’s best fare guarantee.

To top off the achievement, we are told to find time to join a community and write about our travels, warts and all. It’s the only way to stay clued up on all the latest travel facts.

It’s all very inspirational. Technology has democratised travel, claims one guru Jim Donnelly who co-founded the web site IgoUgo. We can all buy it and write about it.

Waxing eloquent from the Wired Travel Asia podium, he told us about the inspiration of travel and the sheer beauty of sharing the experience with others, penning travel journals on a live web site to thousands of like-minded disciples.

He cited the example of "Aussie Dave" who lightens the lives of IgoUgo community members with his latest travel journal. If he misses a month, people would worry. They would make enquires and ask about his health. However, IgoUg has thousands like him, dedicated folk who love to write about their travel experiences. They do it for recognition, not money. They may earn a few merit points that can be transferred to an airline frequent flyer programme, but mostly they write to boost their ego, according the web site’s founder.

"It’s like guys and sex," he told the delegates. "Half of the fun is doing it and the other bragging about it to your friends."

That’s what drives travel communities and while they are a big hit in North America they have still to make serious inroads in the travel scene here in Asia.

Mr Donnelly claims he and a few friends built IgoUgo’s huge success from scratch in a tiny New York apartment using up all their life savings, which could not be that much for a bunch of young executives in their 20s.

They convinced people to write travel reviews and share their experiences until the network or community grew to 450,000 members in slightly over five years.

It’s all there. If you want to know where to stay in Karachi or Kentucky, IgoUgo has the advisors who have been there and done it and they love advising people.

Mr Donnelly was in Singapore to pass on this inspiration and provide hints on how the region’s travel corporations could develop their own communities. He called it part of the "web two capability" that allows video feeds, comments and reviews to go live on the Internet. Authors pen an instant travel report that is read before the "digital ink dries."

The formula was so successful that eventually Mr Donnelly, overflowing with inspiration, sold lock, stock and barrel to Sabre, the US global distribution system that supplies the booking tools for travel agents to sell airline tickets and travel packages.

"I had done it for five years and was ready for a change," he said when asked why sell an inspirational business? "Then I am a middle class young executive," he added. "The sale offered me financial independence."

Mr Donnelly still carries a business card that says he is vice president of marketing, but 18 months after the sell off, he is now looking at other ventures possibly pursuing travel video options using the latest web technology.

It reminded me of Bangkok’s well-known travel agent, Luzi Matzig, who created Asian Trails a regional travel network in 2000, and sold the entire stock to Zurich-based Kuoni Travel a month ago.

Like Mr Donnelly he does not disclose the figure paid for a five-year inspirational journey. IgoUg tapped new travel technology while Asian Trails built a more traditional product line in travel. Both sold out after five to six years.

Market guesses suggest the sale of Asian Trails earned for Mr Matzig and three other founders approximately 500 to 800 million baht.

Based on both these success stories, the inspiration for would-be travel entrepreneurs would certainly be to build something worthwhile in five years and sell.

Internet and mobile phone technology is packed with innovations, but unless travel agencies find a way to lift their expertise to the new business platforms they will likely end up with a business model that will be declared worthless a decade down the track.

Wired Asia Travel’s conclusion for today’s travel executive is to play the community space (sometimes called Web2). If you don’t have a community invest in one. Experts at the event suggested a community model costs about US$5000 to start up and around US$1,000 a month in upkeep. So far, travel corporations in Asia have not experimented in social or media community space.

As Wired Travel Asia closed, I noticed a Raffles Hotel executive chatting to IgoUgo’s founder.

"How would we control the input, what do you do about negative comments," he asked.

"You need editors," Mr Donnelly replied.

I danced down the escalator. "Buy yourself a drink, you still have a job," I told myself as I left the building.

Don Ross can be reached through this email address:

November 8, 2006 

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