See ya later, Lea

By | September 19th, 1996

Maybe the news of David Lea’s quiet departure from PCTravel, the legendary online agency he helped build, was just coincidentally overshadowed by a far more tragic event.

After all, hurricanes like Fran don’t come along every day. The storm devastated the part of North Carolina where Lea is based, toppling trees, decapitating roofs, and – a few miles away – taking big bites out of the fragile shoreline.

Still, you can’t help but think that Lea planned to exit unnoticed while nature wrought her vengeance on the Southeastern U.S. He’s the kind of guy who doesn’t like to call attention to himself, who is noticeably uncomfortable when he’s singled out for recognition.

But Lea is gone, and I’m sorry to foil his near-perfect getaway. Call his old number at PCTravel and it will refer you to his home phone and to George Newsom, the man in charge of the cyber-retailer. Though still a consultant with PCTravel, Lea is now a full-time independent contractor in a one-man operation called Web Advisors LLC.

It is a bold step for Lea, but a necessary one. The companies that want to hire him are confused by the maddening pace at which the Internet is changing. They need his skills to make sense of it all.

“The idea is that I’m going to work with my clients to merge face-to-face selling with Web-based selling,” he says. That’s a talent few infopreneurs have developed. Still fewer of them count themselves part of the interactive travel business.

“My view is that what’s missing in the Internet environment is strength in sales and marketing, a combining of what you want to do online with the regular world. You can’t just market on the Internet. You can’t just market outside. You have to put the two together,” he says.

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And effective promotion, he believes, is the Achilles heel of interactive travel. “I don’t know of anyone else doing this, but I can tell you that it’s very needed. The clients I’m doing this with are strictly word-of-mouth clients.”

He should know. Lea spent a total of 22 years in computer sales. In 1993, longtime friend Newsom persuaded him to join PCTravel as its vice president of marketing.

“When we got started, the Web was just a figment,” says Lea. “There were 400,000 Mosaic browsers online. It wasn’t much.”

Today, PCTravel claims 250,000 registered users and $12 million in air volume. Its booking software is so successful that it’s being sold to other online agencies. And a proprietary hotel reservation product is about to debut that ties into the Apollo database and links to 30,000 properties on the Web. Users will be able to peruse rates in any currency, display several hotel dossiers on a single screen, and “basically do anything an agent can do,” says Lea.

“I’m taking what I’ve done at PCTravel and applying it elsewhere,” he says.

Asked what he thought of the business, Lea turned cautious, as he has from time to time when I’ve interviewed him over the years. “I think the travel industry is . . . very interesting,” he answers.

“But for an industry that uses computers in transactions, there’s a lack of understanding in how to apply the technology. I’ve been surprised at how slow everything has gone,” he adds.

Let us hope that Lea – and those like him who preach a gospel of harmony between on- and offline marketing – remain with us in interactive travel. We need them.

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