Holding Pattern 2-1-2000

Meetings & Conventions: Holding Pattern - February 2000 Current Issue
February 2000

Holding Pattern

Despite the hype about booking online, the Web doesn't work for meeting fares - yet

By Sarah J.F. Braley

L ow fares!” “Easy shopping!” “Quick ticketing!” “Name your price!” It is difficult to resist the siren songs of the Internet travel sites. Web enterprises like Travelocity, BizTravel.com and Priceline.com have opened up the trip-planning process for the computer literate, allowing the average traveler to act as his own agent. The lure of online booking has attracted not only leisure travelers. According to the American Express Business Airfare Index, business travelers have become increasingly vigilant about how they spend the company dime. The index compares typical business fares essentially, the price airlines want business travelers to pay to average fares paid for actual business bookings across 215 routes. The gap between these two numbers is growing.

Is the Web responsible for the bargains? For those with the patience to shop and the flexibility to accept restrictions cheaper fares can be found online. But for now, these deals do not apply to meeting fares. in the relatively near future, however, attendees will be able to book flights with meeting discounts online, say industry experts. It could happen as early as this year.

You can look, not book
Typically, negotiated fares for meetings are about 5 percent off the lowest published fares at the time of ticketing; attendees who book on their own are given a code to mention to a travel agent in order to receive the reduced fare. According to the airlines, an employee who finds a good price on the Web should be able to call a travel agent and get the meeting discount on that fare.

A traveler cannot book that price using the meeting discount over the Web, however, because the technology is not yet available, says Candie Gerakos, manager of group and incentive sales development for Continental Airlines in Houston. “We’re trying to make our meeting fares available online, but we have no time line,” adds Gerakos.

Meeting attendees cannot take advantage of all online deals, even with a call to a travel agent. In some cases, airlines hold Internet-only sales, with varying ticketing restrictions. “We will periodically offer a discount to use the Internet, generally 5 percent off,” says spokesperson David Castelveter of Arlington, Va.-based US Airways, whose Web site offers a request for proposal for meeting fares. “But usually, someone shopping on the Web doesn’t have access to something the travel agent doesn’t have. We may be approaching a time when using the Internet will be the only way.”

Big business
Although corporate planners see employees trying to find good rates online, the designated travel agency, which has access to negotiated corporate discounts, still is responsible for the bulk of the work. Employees traveling to meetings or for other business usually are required to go through the agency to facilitate tracking and reporting.

Several major travel agencies have products that allow corporate customers to book trips online and within company policy. “Our everyday corporate travelers are opting to book on the Web more and more through sites that we provide for that service,” says Sue Gill, director of group air and operations for Fenton, Mo.-based Maritz Travel Co.

In fact, the phone is becoming an increasingly minor player in the process of booking a ticket for a corporate trip. With agency- supported Internet tools, “it won’t be wasting employee productivity and undermining corporate negotiated fares to shop online,” says Melissa Abernathy, spokesperson for New York City-based American Express Corporate Services. “And it will force airlines to keep their negotiated fares competitive with sale fares,” she says, explaining that if a traveler consistently gets better sale prices from a competing airline and opts to forgo the discounted corporate fare, the airline that made the deal with the company loses out.

Some traditional agencies, like Traveline in Cleveland, have started accepting bookings through the Web, but an agent is still at the end of a phone line when a traveler needs help. “corporate travelers are used to dealing with a travel agent, who gives them the TLC they need and who knows their preferences and frequent-flyer numbers,” says Brian Walsh, a meetings and incentive sales representative for the agency.

To each his own
For association planners or others who have attendees coming from different organizations all over the country or abroad, the traveler’s personal experience is paramount. Attendees buy tickets through the outlet with which they are most comfortable.

Planners who arrange for meeting fares do not expect everyone to use the chosen airline or travel agency. Lynne Tiras, CMP, is glad when attendees can find deals that bring them to the meeting. “We are used to some attendees getting better fares for air or rooms,” says Tiras, owner of International Meeting Managers Inc. in Houston, who plans continuing-education meetings for medical societies. “Believe me, attendees will call and let us know they can do better.”

To track those who do use the negotiated fare, Tiras gets reports from a designated travel agent. “For U.S.-based meetings, maybe 10 percent of attendees use the chosen agency, and the rest do their own thing. When a meeting is held offshore in Hawaii, for example, the number of those who use the agency jumps to about 30 percent, and for international destinations the percentage is even higher. The comfort level of ‘doing your own thing’ in the United States is typical. Once someone goes offshore, they want more hand-holding.”

It still pays to negotiate a meeting fare for an association gathering, says Gloria Matarazzo, CMP, of the Hunt Valley, Md.-based Foundation Fighting Blindness. “We want to be able to get a discount for as many of our participants as possible,” says the national conference and events manager, who gets a comp ticket for every 40 or 50 tickets booked through the official airline. “In 1998, we used United for our conference in Chicago. I think we ended up getting one free ticket. For a nonprofit, one free ticket is one free ticket.”


Slipped recently into a ticket envelope from a corporate travel office at one firm was a little note addressing the topic of fare-shopping on company time. Points like the following can inform travelers of reasons to use the designated travel agent and not the Internet.

Company revenues are lost. Your travel office will not receive commissions on fares purchased directly through the airlines. If your company contracts with a travel agency to provide services to employees and enforce travel policy, commissions often come back to the corporation in the form of free tickets or a rebate from the agency. This loss of revenue negatively affects the agency and ultimately your company’s bottom line.

Negotiating power is compromised. When buying a ticket through the Internet, the travel data is not captured as it is through a designated travel agency. Reports used for future vendor negotiations will be negatively affected.

Productivity is lost. Because it can take some time to find and confirm a reservation over the Internet, using an experienced counselor who has access to all airlines at once enables travelers to use their time more productively for their work at hand.


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