By: Carl Sullivan
It may seem like a peculiar time to roll out new travel Web sites, with bombs exploding at resorts and missiles bearing down on civilian airliners. But that’s exactly what some newspapers are doing.
Total domestic and international travel spending plunged 6% last year, according to the Travel Industry Association of America in Washington, with business treks expected to sink another 4.3% this year. But even with 9/11, leisure travel actually rose 3% in 2001 and another 2% for the first half of 2002, according to the association. And online travel advertising is hot, surging 39%, to 15.9 billion impressions, in the third quarter, according to Nielsen//NetRatings, which is co-owned by E&P‘s parent VNU.
“We’ve tracked the [leisure] market, and it’s rebounded,” said Jennifer Davis, national account manager for Freedom Media Enterprises in Irvine, Calif. “Las Vegas is back at capacity.”
Sin City’s ability to pack in visitors from the West is important to Davis because three Freedom papers have partnered with Travel Worm Inc. of Las Vegas, which provides the trip engine for five Web sites affiliated with The Orange County Register in Santa Ana, Calif.; The Gazette in Colorado Springs, Colo.; and the East Valley Tribune in Mesa, Ariz.
N. Christian Anderson III, CEO and publisher of the Register and president of Freedom Metro Information, thinks papers still have time to win a chunk of the online globe-trotting market. “Are we late to the party? Yes. Are we too late? I don’t think so,” he said when asked about online travel leaders such as Expedia.
Mike Coleman, audience development manager for azcentral.com, Web portal of The Arizona Republic in Phoenix, agrees. “We really bring great content to the table, information you won’t find on the big travel sites,” Coleman said.
Azcentral.com visitors can now book package tours through America West Vacations, with the newspaper getting a percentage of every booking. A separate deal with a Phoenix-based company lets azcentral users reserve hotel rooms. So far this year, 2,879 hotel stays were booked by users of the site, and Coleman expects the number to grow to 4,400 next year.
Azcentral’s travel section is expected to generate $250,000 to $300,000 next year, a 50% increase over this year, Coleman said. He envisions that revenue being split 75-25, advertising to booking.
The keys to making this work include content-advertising integration and visitor growth. Azcentral is doing a good job on the first count, but it has some work to do on the second. If you call up a travel story about San Diego, the site’s booking widget appears at the top of the page with the destination field automatically filled in for San Diego — a small feat, but one that makes the online experience demonstrably more pleasant.
With about 250,000 page views a month, traffic is admittedly too low, said Coleman, who’s aiming for 1 million page views a month by the fourth quarter of next year. “This will take some marketing effort and dollars,” he said. “Like most newspaper sites, we’re up against the fact that few people think of us as a destination for travel information, and even less for travel booking.” Among new promotions is an azcentral.com Traveler’s Club, an online rewards program that grants points to registered users every time they visit the site. Each travel point is one entry in that month’s contest for travel prizes from azcentral. The registration eventually will allow for targeted e-mail advertising.
The Republic is wisely not biting off more than it can chew by focusing only on three markets: Arizonans who either travel in-state or visit popular Western vacation spots such as Mexico, and out-of-state visitors who want information about Arizona. “That’s why you’ll never see a story on our site about the top 10 things to see in Paris,” Coleman said.
You’re more likely to read about Paris on The New York Times on the Web, which relaunched its global travel section in October to include booking capabilities through Trip.com. Travel accounts for about 12% to 15% of total advertising on The New York Times‘ Web site, said Jason Krebs, vice president of sales.
While travel ads practically vanished after Sept. 11, 2001, they were back about eight weeks later, Krebs reported. Travel advertising is now about 30% higher than pre-9/11 levels.
To boost the audience, the site freed its travel articles from the paid archives, created destination pages on particular regions, and added content from Fodor’s and photos from Lonely Planet. Unique users of this section have nearly tripled since the relaunch, to about half a million a month.
Krebs said newspapers shouldn’t fret about competing with the online travel giants. “We’re not going to radically change our business. … We’re not a
booking engine. We’re a quality provider of content.” That includes objective reviews of travel spots — something you won’t find on sites such as Expedia.