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Chapter 7 The Web coordinator: creating, updating, and monitoring a Web site.

Chapter Outline

The Web Coordinator

A View of the Future

Selling: One Step at a Time

Web Site Form and Content

Design Considerations

Vital Data and Consistent Design

Objectives

After completing this chapter, you should be able to:

* Detail the need for and uses of a Web site

* Develop a Web site philosophy

* Discuss Web site design considerations

The Web Coordinator

Everyone needs to know how to use the Internet to send and receive e-mail and to find information. In contrast, the tasks of creating, updating, and monitoring commercial Web sites take specialized skills and are usually carried out by Web coordinators. Responsibility for the Web site should be clearly assigned to a Web-savvy individual in the agency. The Web coordinator should be a staff member who is well versed in both the retail travel business and online technology. A good on-staff (preferably in-house) Web coordinator is essential to keep a site's content accurate and current. Offsite solutions tend to lead to inaccuracies and slow site updates.

Web coordinators deal with outside Web-related matters (servers, consultants, CRS services), produce site style guides, keep the site up to date, upload edited and new pages to the server, and obtain traffic reports. Web coordinators who can create and write highly sophisticated pages and pull together entire Web sites, and who can handle an onsite server, are typically referred to as Webmasters. Visiting http://www.clickz.com keeps Web coordinators well informed.

All new entrants into the travel industry need to be conversant with Web site content and design considerations, because Web sites will become a centerpiece of agency life. Agency managers need to be familiar with the subject matter so they can give direction to the Web coordinator; agents need to be involved in the process, too, because the Web site can be truly effective only with their input. For these reasons, the following discussion is not aimed only at the technologically advanced-each agent should be aware of all these considerations.

A View of the Future

REI (Recreational Equipment Incorporated), headquartered in Sumner, Washington, has a fine Web site (http://www.rei.com) where the company provides excellent information about its products and where it increasingly sells them, too. To spread similar information throughout the company, REI tested online computers in lieu of cash registers; online kiosks were installed in many of its stores. This expanded access to the company's Web site was designed to enable sales clerks to provide customers with information about any aspect of the store, including inventory, out-of-stock products, travel services, and so on. In addition, employees could access client profiles, such as past purchases, and thus suggest appropriate new products without having to ask repetitive questions. This function was to be automated over time, much as amazon.com automated book recommendations for established customers. The apparent oddity of REI's approach was that in-store access to the Web provided live customers with as much information as virtual visitors.

As shown by the REI example, the Web has invaded every aspect of every business, with innovative new uses springing up constantly. It should be obvious that at least some knowledge of Web site creation and management is becoming essential.

Selling: One Step at a Time

You have come to appreciate the sudden emergence of the Internet as a major force in commerce and perhaps in our entire culture. You have learned to collect information on the Internet, and you have learned to communicate using e-mail. However, some people estimate that between 30,000 and 50,000 pages are added to the Web every day, so consider this warning from the president of CDnow Inc. before you decide to set up your own Web site: "There are a lot of people out there who are developing online presences because they feel they have to, and not because they have justification." He also noted that "selling is a reason to bother with the Web. Marketing isn't." (1) The following sections will help you consider the advantages and disadvantages of operating your own Web site, and learn what it takes to operate a Web site--your virtual store/office that is open around the clock to the entire world.

Previous chapters explored the changing travel marketplace and discussed some ideas on how to adapt to it and make it work for you. The concepts covered previously--including entrepreneurial thinking, niche marketing, and aggressive selling--can work only if you can offer something that your clients consider unique. The earlier chapters also emphasized that the Internet reduces the value of physical proximity to clients as a unique asset.

E-Mail Marketing, the Simplest Approach

Many agencies and agents consider the relationships with their clients to be a unique asset, and location may be part of this relationship. Therefore, anything that can strengthen these ties should be considered. E-mail marketing, as discussed in chapter 6, may be the way to keep online clients from straying to big online agencies. This approach does not require a Web site.

An Off-the-Shelf Web Site

The CRS services offered Web sites to their agents at no or low cost, as discussed in chapter 2. With the combination of e-mail selling and a CRS-built virtual Web site, your online customers can use your Web site to research travel plans and make reservations. Small or home-based business clients may especially appreciate your simple Web site.

This is an easy step into the online environment. First, it tells your online clients that you're moving with the flow. More importantly, you give them the opportunity to use the Web's travel potential without abandoning your agency. Last but not least, this technique requires only minimal input from you.

A Custom Web Site

Keeping up with the Internet and the World Wide Web is a continuous process. Ten years ago, few people even knew about the existence of the World Wide Web, yet today it has become commonplace.

Using e-mail and a virtual CRS Web site may very well fulfill your agency's online needs, but you may find that to provide your clients with information about products only your agency offers, you need a custom Web site. A custom Web site can help you sell and promote:

* Group departures (tours, cruises, and other packages)

* Unique travel programs (incoming and outgoing)

* Discounted programs

* Coupons

* Last minute specials

Selling on the Web is not much different from traditional travel selling, inasmuch as both use essentially soft-sell techniques. Plenty of information must be given to a potential client before a sale is made. The beauty of a Web site is that it hands out this information and advice automatically and around the clock. For a Web site to become an effective part of an agency's sales and marketing efforts, careful consideration must be given to site form and content.

Web Site Form and Content

You must know precisely what you are selling before you can start thinking about the contents and location of your Web site. You must have a clear idea of how your agency is different from others, and how its strengths benefit clients. Because the Internet is information driven, you'll have to spell out your unique selling proposition on your Web site.

A Web site must be fully integrated into an agency's structure. Thus, general knowledge of Web site management is a must for anybody in charge of such a business.

Content Considerations

A consultant cannot help you figure out what the best content for your Web site is. Only you know what attracts, interests, and is useful to your clients. Only you know what has been selling profitably and repeatedly. Only you know the unique strengths of your services, your staff, your location, and your contacts. Only you know what price advantages you can offer. Simply put, only you can establish the content of your Web site. This section helps you organize that content.

Web Site Musts

Although the Web is a chaotic and dynamic place, some key features simply must be part of a good Web site, regardless of that site's content. It is important for the people who are dealing with and deciding on Web page content and design to look outside their specific industries often, to remain informed about what's new and what's hot. Some of the following considerations and factors may not apply to your situation, but most of them will.

Vital Links

Links to pages that show "What's New," "Where We Are," and "Who We Are" must appear in one form or another on your home page, preferably in your navigational top bar. The main benefit of a "What's New" feature is that it prompts visitors to return to your page to check out changes. Consequently, this feature (page) must be updated regularly, and its design ought to be simple so that it can be edited easily by agency staff. The "Where We Are" section tells visitors about the agency or agent's location (with a map), hours of operation, telephone and fax numbers, and so on. Finally, the "Who We Are" page talks about the agency's philosophy, its management, and its staff. Photographs and chatty copy are perfect for this section.

Navigation

Navigational tools help visitors find where they want to go within your site. If they cannot quickly find what they are looking for, they will look elsewhere. Often, a navigational top bar meets this requirement (see Figure 7-1).

[FIGURE 7-1 OMITTED]

Interactivity

Make it easy for visitors to get in touch with you. References to your guest book and opportunities to send e-mail to individual staff members ought to be sprinkled liberally throughout the site.

Simple, Consistent Design

Display your navigational tool(s) on each page and keep the design simple and user-friendly. Place your company's name, address, telephone and fax numbers, e-mail addresses, and Web URLs on each page--remember, visitors may first reach one of your sub-pages instead of your home page. Therefore, a "Home" link (leading back to your home page) must be part of every page, too. Although animated elements can be cute, they tend to increase download time, clutter up a page, and distract your visitors' attention from your message.

Privacy and Security

Unless you publish your privacy policy, visitors may be unwilling even to consider leaving their names and addresses in your guest book. Be honest and upfront: tell them what you plan to do with the information you receive from them, and provide them with complete information about your security protocols for financial transactions. This, of course, means that you must have security protocols in place-and they must be as good as you can possibly get if you intend to conduct financial transactions over the Internet. Many consumers are (justifiably) still quite reluctant to reveal any personal or financial information on the Internet.

Offsite Links

Consider including a list of links to sites that might be of interest to your clients, such as the U.S. State Department's and the Centers for Disease Control's travel advisories.

Behind the Screen

Responsibility for the Web site should be clearly assigned to an individual in the agency, the Web coordinator. Even if he or she does not do the initial Web design, this person is usually tasked with maintaining the site, updating it, monitoring use, and troubleshooting any problems that arise.

Design Considerations

Market research is essential before you even begin designing your site. The best look and content for your Web site are what intrigues, attracts, and serves your clients. Find out what kind of computer equipment most of your clients use, and avoid advanced features that your clients cannot handle or take advantage of. Be aware of your clients' demographics: You don't want to fashion your Web site in a way that shocks or offends clients, or clashes with their lifestyle. Beware of Web page designs that dazzle with the latest special effects. At best, those amazing effects may distract your site visitors; at worst, they may not display properly on users' screens and may take forever to download. If clients have to wait too long--more than about 15 seconds!--for a Web page to display, they'll be gone before it appears. Professional Web site designers use the latest equipment and are often infatuated with frames, sound, Java, XML, and other wonderful, newfangled techniques that may not work for your clients. Know your market and know what you're selling; then make sure the site designer presents your message appropriately.

You have already visited many Web sites and you have a good idea of what you like and what you don't, of what works on your screen and what doesn't. You have seen sites that wowed you and others that bored you. You may have been overwhelmed by glitzy, flashy, tricky sites, or you may have been impressed with a conservative but well-executed approach. Remember that a successful site must astound, inform, and entertain your clients, not you and not your Web page consultant. Decide which general presentation style is best suited to your clientele. Use a look that will appeal to your clients.

To work well on your clients' computers, your Web site must be written in a language that can be deciphered by the majority of your clients' browsers. Unfortunately, there is still precious little standardization in this area. Each new browser performs more tricks than its predecessor, but Web site developers must be careful not to load a site with too many new features that older browsers cannot recognize or display. Many sites offer special pages with a low graphic content or text-only content for users with older browsers and/or slow modems. Depending on your business's clientele, this is a technique to consider.

Users' Attention Span

Surfing the Internet is often much like channel surfing on television. You stop when you come upon an interesting, arresting scene; you move on when something is not of interest to you. Your Web site's home page (your opening page) must cause the casual viewer to stop and look. What's more, your pages must not only halt the viewers' click-throughs while they digest your presentation, but they must also cause these users to click on your links. A good home page draws in clients just as a good store window display draws customers into a store.

Essential Design Elements

You get attention with three design elements that must be present on every page of your site:

1. Headlines and concise text

2. Graphics

3. Links

These elements are particularly important on your home page. Keep in mind that many visitors are casual browsers, and you must capture their attention very quickly. Be sure your home page loads within a few seconds; many visitors will click on the Stop button if they have to wait longer than 10 seconds for a page to load onto their screens.

Embed these three design elements in an open, consistent overall design that continues throughout your site's pages. Don't crowd the screen with too much material-less is more! When you have a lot to say, break it down into a multipage presentation (see Figure 7-2).

[FIGURE 7-2 OMITTED]

Text

Writing copy for the Web differs from other writing because of the Web's unique technology: The Web is nonlinear, interactive, and very graphic-oriented. It's also an informal place where brisk and pithy language succeeds better than wordy, complicated text.

Web site visitors are used to jumping all over the place with links. They tend not to read a document from top to bottom, and they tend to follow links until they find precisely what they want. Large chunks of plain text are boring, look awful on the screen, force viewers to scroll, and often drive them away.

Engage visitors in interactivity by asking questions and conducting surveys and contests.

Replace text with graphics whenever possible.

You have some choices as to the font, or type style, of the letters that will appear on your visitors' screens. The written characters are created by each browser and are standard, but you can select the size of a font and the placement of words and lines on the screen.

Headlines

Organize text neatly by using headlines. These headlines instantly impart a visual structure to your page. Your text has to be short and viewer-oriented: Address visitors with "you" and be casual but respectful. Present lists with links and complement them with graphics whenever possible. It's usually a bad idea to turn a brochure into a Web page, because printed information is usually verbose, linear (you read from beginning to end), and passive (there are neither links nor fill-in forms).

Links

A Web page without links is like an action movie without sound. Links and graphics bring pizzazz to your pages. You can create text links easily, and viewers spot them quickly. The screen usually shows text links in blue letters that are underlined. This tells viewers that a "wormhole" to another world exists right there. There's no telling which routes viewers will take, but you can nudge them in the right direction-toward interactivity-by designing with the viewer in mind.

Cater to Wandering Eyes

After Gutenberg ushered in the printed book with his invention of movable type in the 15th century, it took more than 100 years for organizational concepts to become standardized. Chapter headings, indexes, pagination, and so on were wildly different or entirely missing in early printed books. It is the same now with the Web: It will take time for standards to develop. However, you can follow a few "universal" design concepts that have been shaped by Western traditions of reading and manuscript production. For example, text in English is read from left to right across the page and from top to bottom. Principal graphics tend to be in the upper left area or centered at the top of a page. There is nothing sacred about these conventions; it's just the way tradition has shaped readers' (and Web site viewers') expectations.

Nevertheless, you will get a better response and cause much less confusion and irritation if you allow viewers' eyes to do what they are used to doing: wandering from top left to bottom right. Let the information flow from important, attention-grabbing items at the upper left or top of the page to the less riveting items toward the center and the lower right of the page.

Graphics

Your company logo may be the most obvious graphic element of your page, but it may also leave your viewers cold. Don't abandon your logo, but don't let it dominate your design. Other design elements, such as maps and travel pictures, are probably more exciting for your visitors. Use pictures that involve and stimulate the viewer.

Background

Support the general atmosphere of your Web site with an appropriate background. When you look at other pages, pay close attention to how the background color and texture create a mood. A vast selection of background graphics is available. In fact, with so many nifty designs, you may be tempted to use a whole smorgasbord of backgrounds and colors in your site. Resist this temptation! Instead, aim to establish a consistent design throughout your Web pages, and stick to the same general layout and background as much as possible.

Vital Data and Consistent Design

Make it easy for your viewers to know whose page they are visiting by giving your company name and a link back to the home page on every page, in the same place on each page. If your agency provides assistance in foreign languages, you may want to add pictures of flags as links to your foreign-language pages; be consistent with the placement of these graphics. If your agency specializes in travel for the handicapped, you may want to add a picture of a wheelchair as a link to your handicapped travelers' information page; again, be consistent with the placement of these graphics.

When you visit Web design sites, you'll see many attention-grabbing elements that could enliven or jazz up your pages. You might be tempted by a flashing, red burst indicating your best sellers; you might fall in love with an animated mail box that invites people to send you e-mail; you might want to punch up your bulleted lists with bullets that are full-color turning globes. A word of caution, though: When using other people's work (graphics, photos, text), you must respect the copyright laws, or you may find yourself in very serious trouble.

You have undoubtedly seen pages that are chock-a-block with graphic gismos that blink and move and streak across the screen. Be cautious and use such special effects judiciously! Your Web site has to appeal to your clients for its content and ease of use, not as a testimonial to your imagination and design prowess. Furthermore, large or complicated graphics almost always significantly reduce the speed at which your pages appear on visitors' screens.

A consistent look to and organization of your Web pages are most important in supporting the content of your site. Your visitors ought to feel stimulated by your information, and you want them to feel comfortable visiting and using your site. A congenial and constant design appropriate for your audience is mandatory.

Essentials

Regardless of the organization and design of a travel agency Web site, some essential areas simply have to be included on the home page:

* Complete agency information

* Link to reservations page, area, or facility

* Link to last-minute deals (specials)

* Link to agency specialty (for example, Hawaii packages)

* Link to an "About Our Agency" page or section

* Links to e-mail for the agency in general and for specific agents

* Copyright information

More on Links

Links are endemic to the Web for good reason: They add depth and pizzazz to your pages, they make this medium truly different and exciting, and they are useful. Links allow the visitor to jump from page to page and from site to site. For example, a viewer could click on "Hawaii" and be transported instantly to your Hawaii page, where you give more specific information about your Hawaii tours. Your Hawaii main page would have yet more links to more detailed information about hotels, specific islands, departure dates, included services, and so forth. Figure 7-3 shows how a Web site might be organized.

[FIGURE 7-3 OMITTED]

Links can also allow your visitors to jump to an altogether different site. Continuing the previous example, you might want to have a link to the Hawaii Tourist Council pages, where your visitors can find a treasure trove of information. When you provide external links, be sure to recheck the URLs periodically, as sites may change or disappear. Cyber travelers hate to be led to dead sites. You also want to make sure that your links don't lead to your competitors' Web sites!

Interactivity

Engage your visitors in fun and meaningful activities and games. A simple example of interactivity is an e-mail address linked to a fill-in form, so that-upon completion-the form is automatically and immediately forwarded from the client to your e-mail address. Forms are a good way to draw in clients and to expand your client database with very little effort.

Here's another example: Within your cruise page selection, you could offer some cruise jokes and invite visitors to contribute their own. You might invite your visitors to enter a contest for one of your travel products, or you could set up a "Travel Quiz of the Month."

Remember, by sending you messages, visitors reveal their e-mail addresses, which you can add to your mailing list (database). It is important that you state your privacy policy whenever you invite a visitor to leave his or her URL with you. Be honest and tell your visitors what you intend to do with their addresses.

It's unlikely that visitors will sign up for a trip without making a phone call or contacting you directly. Aim your entire Web site, and especially its interactive features, toward the more casual visitors, and invite them to come in. Once they are comfortable with you, they'll be ready to buy.

Freshness

You need to keep your site fresh and updated. A page devoted to "What's New" must be attended to constantly. Design this page so that it can be updated with a minimum of cost and fuss.

Summary

A simple Web site, like those offered by most CRS services, is a must for every travel agency. Know what you are selling, and to whom, before you think of starting your own Web site. Establish content and form yourself--an Internet business consultant cannot do this for you! Form follows content on Web pages, too. Tailor content and design to the taste of your clientele; include the three basic design elements on each page, and keep your site up to date.

End Notes

(1) Quoted in Jared Sandberg, "Making the Sale," Wall Street Journal, 17 June 1996, R6.
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Author:Maurer, Ed
Publication:Internet for the Retail Travel Industry
Date:Jan 1, 2003
Words:4130
Previous Article:Chapter 6 Disseminating information: selling on the Web.
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