A waste of bandwidth. That’s what the travel industry’s collective Internet presence is turning out to be.
Look around. The most high-profile Web sites are little more than electronic brochures scripted for the benefit of advertising executives, not Internet users. Cyberspace pioneers never envisioned their network as a single-protocol medium, but that’s exactly what it’s turning into.
The Web is currently the Internet’s dominant force. But to turning a blind eye to the Web’s obscure siblings and cousins – File Transfer Protocol (FTP), Internet Relay Chat (IRC), and Telnet – condemns a travel site to one track and bores customers.
Programmed properly, each tool adds dimension to an otherwise flat site by offering interactivity that’s currently unavailable to Web users. For example:
– The just-opened Travelocity includes a feature not used often on industry sites – real-time chat rooms. However, most Web interfaces for chat are awkward. To follow a real time electronic conversation, IRC is the most reasonable choice.
– PCTravel allows bookings through its Telnet interface as well as its Web site. Though cumbersome at first, the protocol can exchange data more efficiently than through the Web.
– Delta Air Lines lets users download software through an FTP site and says they’ll soon be able to retrieve schedules and itineraries the same way. FTP is excellent for large files, such as programs, pictures, or virtual reality scripts.
“The Web is not the only game in town,” says Daniel Connolly, a doctoral student at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA, who is researching the subject for his dissertation. “There are a lot of different applications for travel and tourism on the Internet.”
Unfortunately, he says, the travel industry has been “slow to catch on” to alternate platforms. He blames a variety of factors, including the pervasive fear that electronic bookings will threaten travel agents.
Some retailers may go the way of the dodo. Others are determined not to. David Lea, PCTravel’s vice president of marketing, says from Raleigh, NC, the company has embraced new technology with little regard to the prevailing industry skepticism.
“On the one hand,” he says, “you’d be fooling yourself if you didn’t recognize that a lot of people come to the Internet in order to use the Web. On the other hand, it depends what you’re trying to accomplish on the Internet. That’s what should determine what protocol you should, and shouldn’t, use.”
For PCTravel, Telnet’s easy-to-access (but difficult-to-use) interface was the ideal way to launch its direct booking presence in 1994. When the agency threatened to pull the plug on its Telnet site a few months ago-after putting up a Web site in 1995-users protested, Lea said.
“If you want quick access to information, you should be considering protocols that are useful,” says Joe Witherspoon, Webmaster for European Travel in San Francisco. The Web “alone is not enough to push the limits for a travel site.”
Witherspoon believes it is important to distinguish completely frivolous bells and whistles, like memory-munching Shockwave or virtual reality scripts, from useful tools like FTP. One is a distraction, the other an enhancement.
Making every megabit count is not easy. But it’s even harder to live with the consequences of constructing a site around the myth that the Web is the Internet’s final frontier. Adding a few underused features will give a site more depth and appeal.