The Web Advantage

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Call it two sides of the new online booking technology. When Michael Purvis of Philadelphia booked his ski vacations through Moguls Ski & Snowboard Tours, he couldn't have been happier. "I used them to book a trip to Salt Lake City on a moderate budget and another to Steamboat, Colo., on a moderate-but-slopeside budget. Moguls nailed everything."

But when San Franciscan Mary Shank Rockman booked an anniversary trip to Whistler/Blackcomb, B.C., last March, the "cozy-looking" hotel she'd found on Whistler's website turned out to be "a Holiday Inn-style property." Disappointed, she walked into the upscale Fairmont Chateau Whistler to see what was available. "We'd seen the Fairmont on the Web, and it looked beautiful, but the prices were exorbitant," she says. "But the front desk quoted us a price that was a third of the Web price, so we took it." While it's not a strategy that often pays off, walking up to the front desk and securing a sharply discounted room is possible. It happens when a hotel has a room available because of a cancellation. Better to unload it at a discount than to have it sit empty and generate zilch.

For Purvis, as for thousands of other skiers, the sheer convenience of being able to book a ski trip on the Web has turned what used to be a time-consuming process into an easy point-and-click experience. But Rockman, an executive with an Internet company who well understands the Web's constraints, encountered two of its major limitations: conveying fluctuating prices and accurately depicting a hotel room.

SKIING THE WEB
Over the past few years, visiting ski resort websites has become de rigeur for large numbers of skiers and riders. Vail's website received nearly two million visitors last season, and 46 percent of the resort's vacationers used the Internet to make some or all of their reservations, compared to just 18 percent the year before. That trend is apparent at other resorts, too. "Approximately 30 percent of our total number of skiers and riders come to us through the Web," explains Joan Christensen of Winter Park, Colo. "They book their vacations with us directly online." The same is true at Heavenly, Calif., where 44 percent of bookings were made through skiheavenly.com. "In addition to tickets, lessons, rental equipment, lodging and transportation, skiers booked activities such as massages and snowmobile tours," says resort spokeswoman Kristen Aggers.

WANTED: DEEP SNOW
Why do skiers visit resort sites? "They're interested in our mountaincams and snow conditions," says Amy Kemp of Keystone, Colo. At Winter Park, Park City, Utah, and Whistler/Blackcomb, it's the same story. Web-savvy skiers want live information direct from the source. These allow skiers to see what the slope and weather conditions are like as they pack their bags.

"You have to keep snow reports religiously up-to-date," says Joe Stevens of Snowshoe Mountain in West Virginia. "And you have to update your picture two or three times a day. It's the page that drives our site."

"People love photos, which especially helped us two years ago when Colorado had no snow, and we had lots," says Brian Schott of Big Mountain, Mont. "We could actually show people what we had, and if you have snow, then people will look for special deals."

BOOKING YOUR TRIP
If you haven't visited a ski-resort website lately, you'll be surprised by how easy new technology and interfaces have made research and reservations. The ability to price things in an itemized way is what appeals to Christina Brown, who lives in Atlanta and always books her ski trips online. Last winter she booked with Heavenly because of the Heavenly Indulgence Package she found at the resort's website; $690 covered three nights' lodging, two days of skiing, daily continental breakfast and a massage. Had she paid for all of those items individually, she would have pai$767. She booked her airfare separately, directly through an airline website. At most major resort websites, you can do everything but book airfare, unless it's part of a package. And even package scenarios require at least one phone interaction. Leaders in online booking, such as Whistler and Telluride, Colo., are hoping this will change by next season. That many resort sites still require you to pick up the phone to complete a transaction is partly for practical reasons and partly by design. "We've found that the vast majority of our guests still like to talk to a person to book their vacation," says Melissa O'Brien of Park City Mountain Resort. At Big Mountain, where skiers can book only lodging via the Web, Brian Schott agrees, adding, "many people still want to talk to that agent who can give a human voice to the lodging and conditions."

Even at the most advanced sites, where it may seem you are actually booking online, what you're doing "is not true online booking," explains Bruce Rossard, president of Moguls. Even his company, which has been at the forefront of Web-booking, still requires phone or email interaction.

"We require guests to fill out a Web-based trip request form," Rossard says. "Once they've filled that out, we'll get back to them within four to 24 hours. The technology for true online booking isn't quite there yet, but it's coming." Though it's often viewed as a limitation, such Web-assisted interaction pleased Michael Purvis when he booked with Moguls. Purvis appreciated the fact that he could customize his vacation by communicating with an agent via email or phone. "It makes it very easy if you work a lot and don't have a lot of time," Purvis says. He also reports that he's saved about $200 every time he's used Moguls. "The airfare was a little cheaper than if I had done it straight. The lodging seemed like a good deal. And I know that lift tickets through Moguls for Steamboat were a steal. I only paid $5 more for a six-day instead of a five-day pass."

If your schedule is flexible, take advantage of last-minute deals. Travel email newsletters are great tools to find such bargains. Even resorts that don't send out such emails usually post weekly specials. Jackson Hole, Wyo., skiers go to the resort's Hot Deals link and Vail skiers often check the Cool Deals at Vail.com. This is where excess room inventory gets discounted. At Skiutah.com, one great feature is the automatic snow report email offered through the "Powder Lounge." It's indispensable for skiers just waiting to book a trip to Utah until the next the big dump hits Alta or Solitude.

HUNTING DOWN AIRFARE
There are two kinds of travelers: Those who have flexible schedules and those who don't. While the former few can take advantage of bidding sites such as Priceline.com and Hotwire.com, the rest of us either have to cash in frequent-flier miles or go farefinding at various sites. Expedia.com and Travelocity.com have set the gold standard for farefinders, but don't count out Lowestfare.com and Cheaptickets.com. Orbitz.com, the much touted airline-owned megasite, scans all of the airline reservations systems for the best fares and only shows you seats that actually exist. It also shows cyberfares from smaller airlines that never make it onto Expedia or Travelocity. You should also check in with Qixo.com and Sidestep.com, two bots that quickly compare the fares unearthed by major farefinders. If you don't like the price Qixo quotes, give it your dream price and the Qixalert will contact you by email if the price drops. Even if a broad search yields fair prices, don't forget to check individual airline websites. They sometimes undercut even mega fare-finders and often offer incentives to frequent fliers for online booking. For example, United gives Mileage Plus members 2,000 miles the first time they book online.

Even when Purvis finds a package that seems too good to be true, he does additional research. "When I went to Steamboat, Moguls had me flying out of Newark and connecting somewhere," he recalls. "I went to Continental's website and discovered that there was a direct flight to Hayden the local Steamboat airport. While it wasn't cheaper, it wasn't too much more, either. Moguls was happy to rework the package to include it."

Don't care where you ski as long as you ski? Dream Maps at Travelocity.com is your link. Just enter your departure city and how much you would like to spend on a flight, and a map of the United States will tell you all of the places you can fly to for that amount. As the 2001-02 season unfolds, you can expect to see more sites using video cameras, flash movies and 360-degree tours of hotel and condo rooms. You should also encounter faster search engines and a move toward real-time online booking. In a marketplace where presentation is everything, it's a safe bet that resorts are putting as much effort into grooming their sites as they do their slopes.

Travel Hit
More than $13 billion was spent online last year for airline tickets, hotel reservations and car rentals, making travel the No. 1 generator of online consumer revenues.
Source: Travel Industry Assoc. of America.arch. "When I went to Steamboat, Moguls had me flying out of Newark and connecting somewhere," he recalls. "I went to Continental's website and discovered that there was a direct flight to Hayden the local Steamboat airport. While it wasn't cheaper, it wasn't too much more, either. Moguls was happy to rework the package to include it."

Don't care where you ski as long as you ski? Dream Maps at Travelocity.com is your link. Just enter your departure city and how much you would like to spend on a flight, and a map of the United States will tell you all of the places you can fly to for that amount. As the 2001-02 season unfolds, you can expect to see more sites using video cameras, flash movies and 360-degree tours of hotel and condo rooms. You should also encounter faster search engines and a move toward real-time online booking. In a marketplace where presentation is everything, it's a safe bet that resorts are putting as much effort into grooming their sites as they do their slopes.

Travel Hit
More than $13 billion was spent online last year for airline tickets, hotel reservations and car rentals, making travel the No. 1 generator of online consumer revenues.
Source: Travel Industry Assoc. of America.