Robin Amster | March 22, 2016 5:15 PM ET
The direct booking saga continues.
The latest news on this issue—so critical to travel agents—involves both Hilton Worldwide and Marriott International.
A recently introduced Hilton Worldwide campaign called Stop Clicking Around rewards members of Hilton’s frequent stay program, HHonors, who book directly through Hilton’s brands and other approved channels with discounted rates, HHonors points, instant benefits and exclusive experiences.
Following that development, Marriott International launched Marriott Rewards Member Rates, which are exclusive room rates available to Marriott Rewards members who book through direct channels, including Marriott.com, the hotel chain’s app, its call centers, and approved corporate travel professionals.
That campaign came, in turn, on the heels of Marriott’s It Pays to Book Direct Campaign, introduced last year. This series of You Tube videos, featuring celebrity Grace Helbig, touted the benefits of booking direct at Marriott.com. ASTA—and the agent community in general—denounced the campaign in no uncertain terms.
While agents protest—and rightly so—the direct booking initiatives continue, either with highly publicized announcements or policies that remain under the radar.
Consumers have always been able to book tours, cruises and hotels directly, for instance, although there are a few tour operators who do sell exclusively through agents.
But—to play devil’s advocate—the direct booking issue isn’t always a straightforward one.
Tour operators, cruise lines and hotel companies, to state the obvious, are businesses operating with an eye on their bottom line. It’s understandable that they would want their websites to give travelers the option of booking direct. And virtually all of these suppliers have a call to action, suggesting consumers “Call Your Travel Agent.”
There are other motivations behind some direct booking initiatives. Both Hilton and Marriott have said their direct booking campaigns were born of a desire to dispel the belief that third party websites offer lower prices than their own websites.
There’s also more than initially meets the eye to some direct booking campaigns, again, like those from Hilton and Marriott. Hilton’s Stop Clicking Around campaign rewarding HHonors members who book directly with various perks, extends its “approved channels” to “preferred corporate travel partners” and “approved travel agents.”
And Marriott’s new Marriott Rewards Member Rates also include “approved travel agents” along with select corporate accounts in its definition of direct channels.
ASTA, in fact, has said that while it’s been “vocal about supplier incentives that do not take into account the value travel agencies bring to suppliers and their customers,” it applauds both companies for including partner agents in their direct booking initiatives.
No friend of travel agents can give their whole-hearted endorsement of direct booking policies that bypass agents, but taking a closer look at a campaign—like the recent ones from Hilton and Marriott—is in order along with an effort to separate suppliers’ egregious policies from those that grow out of the demands of an increasingly competitive market.
Beyond it all is the fact that agents demonstrate their expertise to consumers by providing the kind of indispensable guidance, service and value that travelers couldn’t possibly receive by booking a tour or a cruise or a hotel directly on their own—let alone putting all those components together to arrange a hassle-free, memorable vacation.
Judging by the kind of robust business performance agents have been turning in lately, consumers have gotten that message.
More by Robin Amster
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