Chapter 5 Gathering information.
Using the Database
The Database and the Web
Information Central: The Internet
Meta Search Engines
The Invisible Net
Limited-Access Search Engines
Personalized News Services
World Wide Wait
Remnants of the Early Days
After completing this chapter, you should be able to:
* Set up and use client databases
* Understand uniform resource locators (URL)
* Use search engines
* Use personalized news services
* Be familiar with listservs and mailing lists
Hunting and gathering took up most of the time of early humans--and as we moved beyond the industrial age into the information age, it seemed that we had come full circle. Instead of grubbing for berries, nuts, and roots, though, we began gathering information on the Internet. The wealth of information available through the Internet is awe-inspiring, confusing, and overwhelming. Cyber-literate travel agents bring order and sense to this information chaos. They process information efficiently to market it to discrete groups of clients, and to prepare travel plans of unprecedented accuracy and breadth. Using the Internet, a travel agent can easily and quickly gather information about any itinerary, even one that includes obscure destinations and special events.
Many clients expect travel agents to do the grubbing for them. Yes, they could gather it on their own computers at home or at the office, but who has the time? And who knows how to do it efficiently or how to evaluate it professionally? Few but cyber-literate travel agents. They not only know their clients' needs and wants, but they also know how to retrieve relevant information from the Internet, how to process that information within the reservation system environment to provide the client with a total package, and how to sell via the Internet.
The most important source of information belongs to you: it is your client database. Client information is best stored in a database that can be queried in a variety of ways. A good client database ought to be given daily massages during which you update client records and compare newly available information with the needs and wants of your clients. A Web site produces inquiries that must be added to the database. The goal of this ongoing work is one-on-one marketing and selling, a technique that is a natural offshoot of the Internet and of database technology. Many software companies offer prepackaged databases, some of which are designed especially for retail travel agencies.
The client database should be at the fingertips of all agents so that they can update, edit, and use it whenever they want. Each agent will need training before he or she can use a database easily, effectively, and efficiently.
In most multitasking environments, the database is never more than a few clicks away.
The database must be amenable to frequent design changes so that it is adaptable to changing requirements. Users must be able to implement those changes quickly, without outside help and without risking data loss. Changes may include addition of new reports (mailing lists and content of mailings; lists of birthdays, anniversaries, etc.), design changes, and new entries. (Please note that learning database management is not within the purview of this book. Some of your continuing education effort is well spent in this area.)
A database earns its keep by continually supporting marketing and sales efforts. Easy access and simplicity lead to frequent use of the database, which should contain at least the fields shown in Figure 5-1 on page 56. In addition to the fields shown in Figure 5-1, you may want to include psychographic traits of your clients, Web sites you think the client would enjoy, and whatever else you think may be relevant and lead to sales.
Using the Database
Use your database to support your information-gathering efforts on the Internet, and for more conventional marketing and public relations efforts (such as the mailing of birthday cards, anniversary wishes, etc.). Working with the Internet will bring new clients to your agency, and the database will help you serve them (see Figure 5-2 on page 57).
The Database and the Web
The Internet and especially the World Wide Web tend to be personal, chatty environments. The casual style of this medium is ideally suited to travel sales and services. Internet-savvy agents use these characteristics to their advantage: They are in a continuous dialogue with their clients about relevant travel information as it becomes available. That's why it is so important to have information about each client's needs. Some agencies are using the resulting one-on-one marketing to replace printed and mailed newsletters with information streams that are personalized for each client.
Although a travel agency may not think it can afford the programs necessary to automate the process of sending personalized information to clients, a personalized but nonautomatic approach is possible. In fact, this approach may suit the personalities of travel agency clients better anyway. A section later in this chapter discusses how to use a client database to market information found on the Internet.
[FIGURE 5-2 OMITTED]
Information Central: The Internet
A most important part of your job is to provide good information. As the dissemination of good information about flights and reservations becomes automated, the Internet becomes your most important tool for gathering information about other aspects of travel. You get better and more up-to-date information from the Web than from most other sources, such as CRS services, books, and journals. Of course, nothing replaces personal experience, and the blending of destination knowledge with the latest tidbits available on the Net keeps your own body of knowledge fresh. Unfortunately, everybody else who uses the Internet can get as much information as you can; you will have to work smart to stay ahead of your clients!
The World Wide Web
Accessing information on the user-friendly World Wide Web is easy but time-consuming. You need to learn to find information efficiently and to evaluate its accuracy and usefulness. Instead of knowing city codes and fares by heart, you'll become expert in finding and using the best Web addresses (URLs) and search engines. City codes are static (FAT will always be Fresno) and the Web is dynamic, so your new expertise will be challenged again and again by this rapidly changing and growing medium. As long ago as 1996, Internet World estimated that the number of Web pages doubles every 12 to 15 months. Part of your challenge is to keep abreast of what's new and important. You will inevitably end up with your own list of reliable, useful sites and URLs, but Appendix A contains a selected list of Web sites worth visiting to get you started.
The other part of your challenge is to think critically when searching the Web (see Figure 5-3). Don't just trust anything you find--consider a site's authority and objectivity before using information you find there.
Uniform Resource Locators
Information is located in files stored electronically on the computers connected by the Internet. The names or "addresses" of these files are called uniform resource locators (URLs). Each article, database, newsgroup, file, or other Internet piece of information has its own URL consisting of clearly distinguishable sections. URLs are case-sensitive; that is, they must be entered as shown. Most URLs use lower case only.
(1) http:// These letters describe the service you are reaching. Typically they are "http," which stands for HyperText Transfer Protocol.
(2) www. These letters indicate a service on the Internet; in this example, the World Wide Web.
(3) iflyswa. This is the address of the host computer. Southwest Airlines chose "I fly SWA" as its easy-to-remember host name.
(4) com/ These suffix letters are part of the host's address (see the list of suffixes in Appendix C). One convention regarding these suffixes or extensions is used in the United States, and another in all other countries. Recognizing some of these extensions may help you avoid wild goose chases when searching for information.
(5) herb/ Name of a directory
(6) herbie. Name of a file within the directory
(7) html Name of the computer language in which the file is written; in this example, HyperText Markup Language (htm or html).
[FIGURE 5-3 OMITTED]
You can access a file by jumping to it with the aid of a hyperlink, by typing its URL into the appropriate window of your browser or portal, or by finding it with the help of a search engine. Regardless of how you access a file, you can always store its name in your bookmarks to reach it faster the next time.
Microsoft's Internet Explorer calls its bookmarks "Favorites," and all you need to do to add a Web site or page to your list of frequently visited and/or important Web addresses is to click on "Favorites" and then on "Add." This procedure adds the particular URL to your list. The procedure for Netscape is essentially the same, except that bookmarks are called "Bookmarks."
Web Information Management
If your list of bookmarked URLs becomes extensive, you may want to keep track of interesting sites with a database containing the type of information shown in Appendix A. It may be easier to match Web sites with client needs with the assistance of such a searchable database. You can also cross-reference your client database with this new keyword database.
Hyperlinks are an integral part of the World Wide Web, and you will see them used liberally throughout most Web pages. Hyperlinks can be in the form of text or graphics. Either way, your cursor will change from an arrow to a pointing hand when it is over a hyperlink. As soon as you click on a hyperlink, the linked file will appear on your screen. Often, you are linked to a file in a subdirectory of a site, and you can navigate your way to the site's main or home page by clicking on the word "home."
There are millions of URLs, with thousands more added weekly. We call a person's or organization's page (or series of pages) a Web site, and the first page the home or index page. Each page or file has its own URL. In other words, you can select the home page of an organization, and from there find directions to the page containing the information you are seeking. You can also go directly to the URL of a specific page of an organization's Web site.
Selecting a Site by Typing Its URL
Both Microsoft Internet Explorer and Netscape Communicator feature auto fill-in of URLs; that is, you only need to fill in the host computer's name. For example, you want to find passport information, so you check the Web site of the U.S. State Department. Its URL is state.gov, which is all you have to type if you are using one of the major browsers. However, users of older browsers may have to type the entire URL: http://www.state.gov/. As soon as you hit "Enter" after typing the URL, the browser goes into action and (using the protocol contained in the URL) connects you with the Web page uniquely identified by this URL (see Figure 5-4).
In our State Department example, the home page of this huge organization's Web site leads to its various departments and services. As you move your mouse over the various graphic and text areas, you will notice that the pointing arrow sometimes turns into a hand. Whenever the hand appears, you are pointing to an active link to another page. Use your mouse to point to the "scrabble board" picture (it contains the word passport), and then click. Depending on the speed of your modem and the general status of the Internet at the time of your click, your screen will sooner or later fill with the State Department's "services" page. You note that the URL in your browser's location window has changed from http://www.state.gov/ (as in Figure 5-4) to http://www.state.gov/ travel/ (see Figure 5-5 on page 62).
[FIGURE 5-4 OMITTED]
This page serves as an index to the many services of the department. As you move your mouse, you will see that your arrow again changes into a hand as you move over the many items listed. Notice that the URLs to which each one of these links would lead you are shown in the bar just below your browser's image. Move your pointer over the word "passports," and the URL of http://travel. state.gov/passport_services.html appears below the active screen of your browser (see Figure 5-6 on page 63). Click on the word "passports" and soon the new page will appear on your screen. This page again gives you a choice of directions to go, from "Passports the Easy Way" to "Frequently Asked Questions."
[FIGURE 5-5 OMITTED]
Obviously, it would be much faster to go to the page http://travel.state.gov/passport_services.html directly, rather than wading through the various layers of the State Department's Web site. Therefore, you will want to add important URLs to your list of bookmarks. The next time you need to find passport information, you simply go to Favorites/Bookmarks and click on the State Department's Passport Information listing. Voila, this Web page appears on your screen.
[FIGURE 5-6 OMITTED]
When you don't know the URL of the page containing the information you're seeking, you turn to a search engine, the "phone directories" of the Internet. Almost all browsers offer easy access to search services. Using the previous example, you would click on "Search" and enter the word "passport" in the window following the words "net search with (name of search engine)." You may have a choice of search engines, and these choices are discussed later in this section. At this point, don't worry about which search engine you're using--just enter "passport" and click on "Search." Depending on which search engine your browser chooses to do the search, you end up with different displays and listings, but you may not see any of the State Department URLs discussed in the preceding section. This is because the engine is simply listing all sites where it found the word passport. The search engine HotBot found almost 90,000 matches (pages containing the word passport) and the first item listed is "Passport to Knowledge: Live from Mars!"
This simple exercise demonstrates the need for precision in searches: To do an efficient, effective, and productive search, you must narrow the scope of your queries as much as possible. Try "passport application" or "U.S. passport information," and you'll begin to see the State Department pages located earlier. (The HotBot search listed about 17,000 matches with the U.S. State Department, but ranked them in 23rd place.)
Finding Information with Search Engines
Search engines are the tools to find what you are looking for. Effective searching is an important time saver, but an extensive list of frequently visited pages is even better, as it avoids some searches altogether. Keep in mind, though, that any static directory (such as bookmarks) becomes obsolete quickly because the Internet is such a rapidly growing medium, as illustrated in Figure 5-7. This caveat applies with full force to the listing of URLs in Appendix A as well.
[FIGURE 5-7 OMITTED]
Another way to reduce search time is simply to type the name of the company into the browser. Thus, you can reach the adventure travel company OARS by entering "oars," or, if you use an older browser, by entering its complete URL: http//www.oars.com/. If this does not yield results, try "OARS"; if this also fails, let the search engine look for "oars."
Although most air, cruise, and rail lines; tour operators; tourist offices; hotel chains; and the like have Web sites (for examples, see Appendix A), you may not have their URLs handy. However, Web information is generally more up-to-date and therefore more accurate than printed brochures, and a look at a company's Web site ought to be your first step before requesting or giving information about a particular travel service. The Internet's information-gathering capabilities make it an indispensable tool for travel professionals. Many Web sites are more versatile, as well as more up-to-date, than printed materials. Some companies also offer regular updates on new developments.
Before investigating the nitty-gritty of searching, you need to know how search engines work. Each search engine sends out electronic "spiders" and "crawlers" that continually look into every nook and cranny of the expanding Internet. Depending on their instructions, they may harvest everything they find (complete content of all Web and other Internet sites), or may pick only the tastier stuff. Limited pickings may include a portion of the content, or only the titles and descriptions of Web pages, or only information that has been added and updated since the last crawlby. Each bit of information sent home by these busy crawler programs is automatically indexed and stored.
Each search engine has its own way of indexing this vast influx of information: some indexes favor recently added or updated pages; others favor pages where the indexed word or words occur often. This indexing allows the search engine to display the results of your search according to a relevance ranking. When you search, the engine will compare your request with its index, not with what is actually available on the Internet at the time of your search. Therefore, your search results will vary from search engine to search engine and from day to day.
Regardless of which engine you use, specific and detailed queries produce the best results. Ask for "Paris Hotels Left Bank" (161 matches in HotBot), not for "Paris hotels" (11,392 matches in HotBot). Learn and use the special commands and techniques each search engine offers, such as Boolean logic (most search engines have help pages that explain their particular wording and character-use requirements). Although each search engine uses a different query format to apply this logic, the basic idea is to link your words with AND, OR, and NOT. It may be better to look for "desert AND resorts" than for "desert resorts," and for "desert AND resorts AND Arizona" than for "desert resorts in Arizona."
The following subsections describe a few of the most popular search engines by type: search engines, subject directories, and meta search engines. A continuously updated list of major search engines and their characteristics can be found at http://infopeople. berkeley.edu/search/tools.html.
AltaVista boasts that its search engine collects the complete content of all sites. Consequently, if AltaVista can't find it, it probably is not on the Web. Multiple-word searches are much improved if the string of words is enclosed in quotes. Looking up the term New York City returns more than 76 million items, an impossible number to comb through. The term "New York City" returns more than 300,000 items--an improvement, but still too many items to review. Clicking on "Refine Search" allows additional narrowing of the search results. Using AltaVista's zones may produce better results than a general search.
Google offers the largest index of Web sites, and it presents its findings with the most popular sites at the top of the list. This ranking feature, which is a unique characteristic of Google, is based on the number of links a page has (that is, a link from page A to page B counts as a point for B and thus increases the ranking of page B). Moreover, an important, high-quality site will receive a higher rank, which Google remembers each time it conducts a search. This technique usually yields useful results very quickly.
HotBot's advantage is its fast spiders that cruise around the Internet every two weeks. This may be important when you need to look at the latest additions to or updates of Web sites. Another time-sensitive HotBot feature is the choice to limit the search to sites that are not older than a given time that you select. This option is very useful when looking for travel information; after all, who wants to know about events in Boston three months ago?
Although subject directories allow searching of the entire Internet, their strength is breaking down your search by category.
Yahoo (http://yahoo.com/) offers specialized areas within which to conduct searches. In addition, this engine allows you to search within geographic areas (World Yahoo!s and Yahoo! Metros).
Specialized Search Engines
The Scour (http://scour.com) search engine, designed by UCLA students, looks only for multimedia files: images, audio, and video. It is an excellent example of a specialized search engine.
A variety of search engines specifically geared to find products for sale on the Web have appeared. They make comparison shopping for common products and services a breeze. Junglee (http://shoptheWeb.amazon.com/stw.template/home.html) is obviously within the amazon.com fold. MySimon (http://www.mysimon.com), Bottom Dollar Shopping Agent (http://www.bottomdollar.com), and Shopfind (http://www.shopfind.com) are also leading shopping robots. Although travel is not yet a listed category on some of these sites, Bidders' Edge (http://www.biddersedge.com) has a travel category.
Meta Search Engines
A meta search engine looks for matches in several search engines at once. Dogpile (http://www.dogpile.com) and MetaCrawler (http://www.metacrawler.com/index_metafind.html) both search multiple search engines simultaneously.
The Invisible Net
An estimated two-thirds of content available on the Internet is hidden from easy view because it is stored in databases that cannot be located with a simple search. For example, suppose that you're trying to find out whether a small hotel in Switzerland, where a client wants to stay, accepts credit cards. A simple Google search does not provide this information. However, by going to the Swiss Hotel Association's database (a list of member hotels), you can access complete information about credit card acceptance at any member hotel in Switzerland.
Limited-Access Search Engines
As part of the SABRE CRS, SABRE AgentExplorer[SM] is a private (password-secured) service that allows agents quick and easy access to Internet travel content. In contrast to the publicly available search engines mentioned earlier, the content of SABRE AgentExplorer[SM] has been prequalified to ensure that it is kept up-to-date, so that it will remain a productive tool for travel agents.
The content of AgentExplorer is grouped into ten main categories:
1. Destination Information
4. Hotels & Lodging
5. Rental Cars & Ground Transportation
9. Shipment Tracking
10. Discounts and Deals
Personalized News Services
These programs provide you with a steady stream of mentions of your topic(s) in articles, Web pages, and so on. In other words, a personalized news service automates your searches. As the president of AltaVista Internet Software, Inc., pointed out, "As the Web continues to grow, a simple search query returns tens of thousands of results. The AltaVista search index is comprehensive, but users can feel overwhelmed by so many results." An AltaVista news release further explained the need for personalized news services: "[W]ith the addition of LiveTopics to the AltaVista search service, we are solving this problem. LiveTopics is a simple, intuitive tool for managing users' searches, and a faster, more effective way to pinpoint the information they need as well as learn about a new field of knowledge." (1)
Personalized services such as the "LiveTopics" feature of AltaVista Search simplify advanced searches of the Web by organizing thousands of results into useful topic categories and bringing structure and meaning to the results. For example, a search for the term "ATM" brings up references to 400,000 Web pages using that acronym. LiveTopics results appear in clear, concise topic categories. You can quickly zero in on Web pages discussing asynchronous transfer mode networking or automated teller machines.
AltaVista Search was one of the most popular search technologies on the Web, providing comprehensive and high-performance Internet search service to end users. Since 1995, both search services and sites and uses thereof proliferated rapidly; AltaVista got more than 5 billion hits in its first year of service. The frantic search for loyal customers by Internet service providers (ISPs) and search engines spawned another type of business that bundled services such as personalized news and search capabilities. This is the Web portal discussed in chapter 3.
A mailing list is a computer program that automatically distributes messages among a list of subscribers. A mailing list has an e-mail (listserv) address, and mail sent to this address is distributed automatically to all subscribers. Participation in some lists is screened; in others, participation is automatic upon sign-up. Once you subscribe to a mailing list, you will receive copies of all the messages that people on the list find of interest (see Figure 5-8 on page 70 for a sample from Google Groups).
Many newsgroups and listservs started out on the Usenet, which predated the Web. Usenet was text-only, and a special search engine, "dejanews.com," was used to find appropriate groups of messages. In early 2001, Google, Inc., a leading search engine and index, acquired Dejanews.com. When the full Deja Usenet archive is added to Google's inventory, more than 500 million archived messages will become accessible and searchable.
To find discussion groups, visit Google's group site at http://groups.google.com. There you can search for newsgroups by topic. This site allows you to search, read, and participate in a myriad of discussion forums, in English and in many other languages. This multilinguistic aspect may be of special interest to agents serving non-English-speaking clients.
Another excellent service to access discussion groups and newsgroups is Talkway (http://talkway.com). It works like a directory-based search engine and offers a special access channel for Java-enabled machines.
[FIGURE 5-8 OMITTED]
World Wide Wait
These visits to the Internet and the World Wide Web have shown the incredible array of information available on the Net, but they may also have exposed you to some of the Internet's problems: namely, information overload and slow data transmission.
Most Internet users complain about waiting: waiting to make a connection with the ISP, waiting for a browser to load, waiting for Web sites to appear on the screen, and so on. These problems are symptoms of the rapid growth of online use and online technology. Remember that although today it's a commonplace tool, the World Wide Web was hardly known by the general public seven years ago. Picture the current situation on the information superhighway in automotive terms: Not only does the number of new cars (online computers and Web sites) on the road double every year, but all cars (new and old) double in size (graphics, audio, video) and power (interactivity) during the same year. Real roads (analogous to telephone networks and servers) would be unable to carry the traffic, and construction efforts could not keep up with the demand for more roads. It's a tribute to technology that Internet problems aren't even more common and that most users' needs are accommodated within a reasonable time.
The dedicated telephone line needed to connect to a traditional CRS transmitted data at 9,600-14,000 kilobytes per second (kbps). This speed is nowhere near sufficient to handle the graphical information of the World Wide Web. Today's requirements demand, at the very least, modems with a speed of 56,000 baud. Your needs will dictate the selection of equipment.
Because there are so many more users and Web sites every day, the capacity of telephone lines and modems is being severely taxed. Fortunately, new lanes on the information superhighway are available, albeit at a price.
In 1994 the cable television industry announced, with great fanfare, that it would be investing billions of dollars to bring interactive television to our homes. The plan included home shopping and video on demand. Much of this grandiose scheme fizzled because "interactive programming ... found another pipeline to the home, and that pipeline [was] the Internet." (2)
Some cable television companies got on the Internet bandwagon by offering cable modems that were enormously faster than anything else available in a similar price range. "If you were downloading a file from the Internet of a picture of the Mona Lisa, it would take 1.4 hours over a telephone modem, but just 18 seconds over the cable modem." (3) In addition to vastly improved speed, a cable modem does not use a phone line, and the computer to which it is connected is always online. Modem speed and continuous access became critical as more and more audio and video features were added to the Web and as Windows-based systems became more popular.
Unfortunately, cable modems were available only in buildings that were already wired for cable television; in other words, mostly in residential areas. Until commercial areas and buildings could be hooked up to cable, homeowners had better and faster access at a smaller price than businesses.
Data transmission via satellite became another option to increase bandwidth (speed). The field is still relatively open, as the demand for speed and bandwidth constantly spawns new technologies and services, as well as aggressive competition for customers.
File Transfer Protocol (FTP) is one good way to download big files (audio, databases, pictures, text, video) and to upload large files, such as new Web pages, to a server.
Remnants of the Early Days
While you watch the ever-changing field of telecommunications and Internet access options, you may as well learn a little about ancient Internet information sources that people used in the olden days--the early 1990s. Most people using the Internet today work within the confines of the World Wide Web. As an informed user, though, you ought to know about some other nooks and crannies that contain information. These backwaters predate the Web and are almost exclusively limited to text. Archie and Gopher resources are just two examples of Internet information formats that have, for the most part, gone extinct, though the information remains available to those who know how to find and access it.
Before you leap onto the Web, you need to know what you are looking for. A client database comes in handy for this purpose. Once on the Internet, you navigate with specific URLs and with search engines. You can also participate in mailing lists and look up information in non-Web areas.
The Internet is a democratic place: it gives the same information to everybody. If you want to maintain an advantage over your clients, you must learn to get to the needed information more quickly and more accurately than they can. You must also be able to judge the veracity and relevance of displayed information.
(1) AltaVista press release, 11 February 1997.
(2) Jube Shiver, Jr., "Time Warner's Interactive TV Project Blinks," Los Angeles Times, 2 April 1997, D4.
(3) @Home press release, 13 July 1996.
FIGURE 5-1 Sample fields in a client database Personal Information Business Information First Name Company Name Last Name Department Title Title Street Street City City Zip Zip State State Phone Phone Fax Fax E-Mail E-Mail Web Site Web Site Birthdate (MM/DD/YY) Birthday (MM/DD) Anniversary (MM/DD) Passport Expiration (MM/DD/YY) Past Vacation Destinations Past Business Destinations Hobbies, Special Interests Clubs, Organizations Conventions, Trade Fairs
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|Publication:||Internet for the Retail Travel Industry|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2003|
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