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«Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain sierra Abstract In this paper we present the findings of a study that aims at identifying the reasons that ...»

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Travel Agents vs. Online Booking: Tackling the

Shortcomings of Nowadays Online Tourism Portals

Anton Bogdanovych", Helmut Berger",

Simeon Simoff" and Carles Sierra"

a Faculty ofInformation Technology,

University of Technology Sydney, Australia

{anton, simeon} @it.uts.edu.au

Electronic Commerce Competence Center - EC3,


Donau-City-Strasse 1, A-1220 Wien, Austria


Artificial Intelligence Research Institute (lIIA-CSIC)


Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain

sierra@iiia.csic.es Abstract In this paper we present the findings of a study that aims at identifying the reasons that let many people still rely on traditional travel agents instead of booking their trips online. The prime motivation for investigating this issue is that it is impossible to have direct experience with the product prior to consumption in the domain of tourism. The Internet provides a powerful environment for the creation of virtual representations of tourism destinations allowing indirect experience that greatly surpasses the possibilities of traditional travel agents.

However, the results of the study show that social interaction with travel agents, their expertise and the possibility to save time on search can be of even higher importance. So, we derived the "best of both sides" and suggest the application of an established methodology in the area of multi-agent systems, namely 3D Electronic Institutions, to the tourism domain in order to satisfy the growing demand on human assistance related to online inquiries and to offer customers cutting-edge visualization facilities.

Keywords: Travel Agents; Online Tourism Portals; User Study; 3D Electronic Institutions.

1 Introduction and Motivation Tourism is a quite unique area of business in a sense that a product cannot be observed or manipulated through direct experience prior to purchase. Instead, customers have to purely rely on indirect or virtual experience. Due to that, appealing presentations of travel destinations have always been an important factor of success in tourism. Traditional travel agents are being quite successful in their efforts of creating illustrated catalogues that provide potential customers with a significant amount of information jazzed up with highly aesthetic photos, useful tips, maps and much more.

However, it becomes more and more difficult for traditional travel agents to compete with web sites that offer online booking possibilities. One of the main reasons for the increasing number of people booking online is that online experience has much greater potential in visual ising travel destinations. 3D interactive tours, for instance, might be used to convey a clear impression of the travel destination and interactive on-demand videos may be shown online without interfering with other (in-store) customers. Daugherty et al. (2005) conducted a usability study comparing indirect experience (form-based web sites), virtual experience (web sites with 3D product presentation) and direct experience (direct product manipulation) in order to better understand consumers reactions on different product presentation methods. The study showed that virtual experience provokes similar impressions as direct experience.

Product knowledge and decision quality are both significantly higher when exposed to interactive 3D products than to static products presented in a form-based way.

Additionally, Edwards et al. (2001) argue that one of the factors that makes virtual experience even more successful is its novelty since people that have not yet been exposed to 3D product presentations may simply be curious to experience it. Despite the aforementioned advantages, the mistaken idea that using 3D on the Web is far too expensive and too resource consuming greatly inhibited the proliferation of 3D applications in e-Commerce (Hurst, 2000). Nevertheless, recent developments prove that in the future 3D applications may be faster and cheaper to create than quality photographs (FrUh et aI., 2005). Moreover, the broad availability of broadband Internet access supports this trend.

Besides visualisation, users require support during their decision making process. It must be taken care of user's behaviour and personal preferences, e.g. track past user interactions to determine individual areas of interest, adapt results according to temporal phenomena such as vacation periods or seasons. Aiming at providing extensive support to customers, Fesenmaier et al. (2003) developed a tourism recommendation system DIETORECS, that offers various form-based ways to interact with the system. In particular, users are asked to express their needs by choosing from a fixed set of attributes represented by option sets or dropdown lists.

Due to the domain diversity a broad set of attributes is available and, unfortunately, this plethora of options creates confusion for those booking trips and results in a dramatically overloaded interface. As Dittenbach et aI., (2003) report in their findings obtained by conducting a field trial on the acceptance of a natural language user interface to tourism information, alternative approaches are needed in order to take away the burdens associated with traditional form-based tourism environments.

With that in mind we conducted a study to get a better understanding of the relationship between online booking systems and traditional travel agents. Its main purpose is to derive clues for improving nowadays online tourism solutions in such a way that these systems profit from the expertise of traditional travel agents without loosing the flexibility and benefits of the Internet. In particular, we try to identify the "best of both sides" and highlight important features of traditional travel agencies such as simplification of decision making, support of impulse travellers, collaborative booking possibility, etc., that are likely to be incorporated into future tourism portals.

To this end, we propose the application of 3D Electronic Institutions (Bogdanovych et al., 2(05) as the basis for building a system that will provide experienced support from travel agents to online customers. Firstly, this approach facilitates the integration of human operators into tourism portals and, secondly, allows saving human resources using autonomous software agents that expand their knowledge and intelligence through learning from human operators. Finally, we consider 3D visualization of travel destinations as a key feature that enhances the online booking experience and can be conveniently accomplished with 3D Electronic Institutions.

The remainder of the paper is structured as follows. In Section 2 we present the research methodology that grounds the study. The hypotheses are formulated in Section 3. In Section 4, the hypotheses are validated and some interpretations are given. Section 5 summarizes the findings and introduces 3D Electronic Institutions as a possible solution for incorporating the beneficial aspects of traditional travel agents into online tourism portals. Finally, in Section 6 some concluding remarks are given.

2 Research Methodology The research methodology follows qualitative research inquiry. Chowdhury's (2004, p. 494) statement "Customers value, and are willing to pay for the simplification of decision making, the reduction of perceived risk, the optimal configuration of the transaction for their specific usage context, and the enhancement of the in-use experience" summarises the initial position of our research. This statement was confirmed by the majority of subjects we interviewed. The study addresses the research question "Why do people go to travel agents instead of booking online?" To

investigate this question we conducted a two stages qualitative inquiry:

Stage I: Hypothesis formulation. The set of hypotheses aims at answering the research question. They have been formulated based on the literature review and the information obtained through semi-structured interviewing of a carefully selected target sample - 10 PhD students from the Faculty of IT, University of Technology Sydney, Australia. The sample has been composed of people possessing ample expertise in online booking. Moreover, we also considered travel agents' point of view. The results of the publicly available interview (Stewart, 2005) were used for formulating the hypotheses.

Stage 2: Hypothesis validation. The set of hypotheses provided the dimensions for constructing a questionnaire. After testing and refinement, the questionnaire has then been used to collect data that provides evidence in favour or against these hypotheses.

3 Hypothesis Formulation Below we present each hypothesis, the supporting reference in the literature and some relevant quotes to each hypothesis, indicating the gender and age of the respondent.

HO: The majority of people prefer booking their international trips from a travel agent. Domestic trips are usually booked online. [according to the interview results.] HI: Human expertise is an important convenience factor that is missing in online booking. (Stewart, 2005) [travel agents know dates when flights are cheaper, may give a good advice (visa, insurance, dangers, etc). So there is no need to spend time on searching the web; travel agent will do everything for the client.] "It's more a lazy decision. Going to a travel agent is like to study with a teacher. It will save my time!" [Male, 25J "Online booking can be real pain if your travel plan is not simple" [Male, 30J "Travel agents have much more knowledge in travel issues than I do. I think the experience comes both from a lot of travelling they do and just from the fact holiday booking is their profession. They can provide me with a valuable suggestion regarding where to go and with some details about the destination. "[Male, 45J H2: Social interaction with a travel agent is the key to a good customer experience.

(Prasarnphanich & Gillenson, 2003; Stewart, 2005) "I just need face-to-face communication to understand all the details! This is very important to me. It is easier to understand each other via face-to-face communication! I work in distance learning... there is clear evidence that distant students perform worse than those who attend the classes. " [Male, 44J H3: Travel agents satisfy impulsive buyers better. (Armata, 1996) [i.e. decision making during planning and purchasing a travel arrangement is not always rationaL] "Sometimes I just don't know where I want to go. I may go to a travel agent and say that I have 500$ and want to go to a warm place where I can swim in the ocean and enjoy palm trees on the beach. It will take ages if I will go searching the web with such requirements. "[Male, 27J H4: Collaborative booking experience is important. (Brown & Chalmers, 2003) "We usually go to a travel agent with my partner. But it may be very hard to get together as we work pretty far away from each other. It would be great to be able to meet online with her and the travel agent to discuss everything. "[Male, 27J H5: Security and trust towards humans is higher. (Stewart, 2005) [i.e. people feel more secure interacting with people and have higher trust to them than to web sites, interfaced with forms.] "Booking in Internet is insecure. I will not book from a web site that I know nothing about". [Male, 35} H6: Loyalty is rewarded and appreciated. (Koppius et al., 2005; Stewart, 2005) [Customers believe that for their loyalty they will be rewarded with personal care and member discounts] "I always use the same travel agent. I shop aroundfirst to find which one is cheaper.

But once I found the travel agent I like, I always book from them, because my loyalty will be rewarded. They know all my preferences, know that I'm an old customer. They will make a discount for me or at least offer me better service. " [Male, 25} H7: Detailed information about a trip is important. (Chu, 2001) [travellers use as

many sources to gather the information about the travel destination as possible:

Internet, opinions of other travellers and travel agents etc.] "If I have never been to a place before I need heaps of information. In this case I'm more likely to go to a travel agent". "I use many sources. I take brochures from travel agent, ask my friends and search the web ". [Female, 27} H8: The way package deals are composed now is not satisfactory and can be done better on the Web. (Klein et aI., 1999) [i.e, customer or travel agent enters the requirements of the trip and flight companies, hotels etc. make their offers literally bidding for a customer.] "I'd like to take those cheap packages that they advertise. But my requirements rarely go inline with what they offer there." [Male, 3D}

4 Hypothesis Validation

To gather evidence in favour or against these hypotheses we conducted an online survey. The questionnaire of the survey comprised 40 questions. Most of the questions are formulated as multiple-choice statements (e.g. "I believe that loyalty is always rewarded.") with answers on a 5-point Likert-type scale (Strongly Agree, Agree, Neutral, Disaree, and Strongly Disagree). The questionnaire was publicly available on the Web. The call for participation was sent to travel enthusiasts via email and travel-related forums. No rewards were offered to the participants, as we believe that voluntary participants will answer the questions more accurately. We focused primarily on people that are experienced computer users, familiar with navigating the World Wide Web. Since this group of people deeply understands the technology and is free to use all available facilities they are expected to possess the hnp://www.my3q.com/view/viewSummary.phtml?questid=76535 I experience to clearly identify the benefits and drawbacks associated with online tourism portals. More precisely, we are interested in the reasons why such people still prefer to rely on travel agents instead of booking their trips online.

4.1 Sample

Subsequent to posting the call for participation, 132 people from 25 different countries filled in the questionnaires (61 % male, 39% female). Figure 1 depicts the distribution of age and location amongst the respondents. As expected, almost all interviewees are heavy computer users except for one person. The respondents spent an average of 12 minutes on completing the questionnaire.

–  –  –

4.2 Data Analysis We present the results of the analysis of respondent answers. The presentation structure follows the hypotheses formulated in Section 3.

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