Have Desktop, Will Travel

Almost as quickly as email emerged as a cheap and effective alternative to direct mail and phone communications, the “killer app” has stumbled to a second rate status, with spam and cluttered inboxes getting the blame. Whether it’s deserved or not, this perception of email has firmly taken hold among many advertisers, who are now casting around for alternatives.

While search is the popular successor to email this year, one familiar underdog that may be getting some traction is the downloadable desktop application.

These can deliver marketing messages in one of two general ways. The first is to provide valuable content or a utility that is accompanied by ads, a strategy that has been tried in the past with some success. Examples of this approach include Gator, WhenU, and WeatherBug.

The second method is to deliver information or special offers directly to people who really (really) want them. It’s like taking the email newsletter approach — an opt-in list, regular communication, and a relationship building focus — but removing it from the cluttered email box.

A travel technology company called REZconnect is betting the travel industry is a great candidate for this latter approach, and its story may have applications for other marketers seeking alternatives to email.

REZconnect last month deployed technology from desktop software developer Arcavista, enabling travel vendors to deliver breaking and last minute offers directly to the desktops of travel agents. Called the Travel Communicator, the system will give agents access to “perishable” travel deals that travel providers don’t want to advertise broadly. So far, REZconnect says, “tens of thousands” of people have downloaded the application.

The first client to deploy offers via the Travel Communicator is the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), a group of 24 cruise lines that is among the most vocal email broadcasters in the entire travel industry, according to REZconnect President and CEO Michael Brent. CLIA will market the downloadable app to its 17,000-member database of travel agents — and then use it to send them offers.

“Filling empty holes via last minute reservations is extremely important to the cruise industry,” said Brent, a veteran of the travel industry. “What this tool does is flag important but short-lived offers for agents.”

CLIA Director of Marketing Walter Morales confirms that the association is trying the channel in the hopes that time-sensitive travel fares will not be overlooked.

“Typically, pertinent information sent to travel agents has been in the form of email, which usually does not get read in a timely manner,” he said.

Agents can install the Travel Communicator onto their desktops from the REZconnect Web site or from an email link. Once installed, the Travel Communicator checks for new information and automatically alerts the agent.

“The Travel Communicator is the first application that allows suppliers and travel agents to react immediately to market conditions and incentives,” said Brent. “Since information is updated in real-time and delivered directly to computer desktops, travel agents can become informed at a faster rate.”

Brent understands that pushing travel fares directly to users’ desktops requires that the subject matter be of true value. Therefore he said the interactive content, which can range from simple text to rich media, will be filtered for relevancy and distributed to appropriate lists.

“If you want to send a message to the CLIA list, it can only go out so long as it’s cruise-related,” said Brent. “We have to be very careful that the messages users receive are relevant.”

Branding on the Desktop

Arcavista’s technology has also been deployed for more consumer-oriented applications.

One of its recent deployments was a Kelly Clarkson-branded application that targeted fans of the American Idol winner. Included on every Kelly Clarkson CD from RCA, the app delivered news and video content about the teen idol.

“It can be seen as the 21st century version of a fan club. You get exclusive video, and RCA beams you news such as when Kelly will next appear in concert,” said Arcavista CMO Matt de Ganon.

The Kelly Clarkson app was intended to carry ads but never did so, De Ganon said, adding that another unnamed client will serve ads alongside targeted content when it deploys the Communicator technology later this summer.

Other recent examples of advertising on the desktop include an application developed by Agency.com for Paramount Domestic Television, which delivers content from Entertainment Tonight directly to the desktops of entertainment news junkies, extending ET’s brand while potentially increasing its range of offerings to ad clients.

Where’s the Value

While a product such as the Travel Communicator offers a clear value to travel vendors, offering them a way to cut through the clutter of email and reach travel agents directly, how it will work on the user side is less certain.

“More and more travel agents are using the Web while planning travel for clients,” said Jared Blank, a senior analyst in the travel category at Jupiter Research, which shares a parent company with ChannelSeven.com. “But I imagine getting agents to actually download it will be extremely difficult. I’m not convinced they would download another tool.”

Blank said the only downloadable travel app he’s seen that has found success is SideStep, a consumer price comparison tool.

Jupiter’s Nate Elliott concurs, although he gives downloadable apps a bit more leeway. “There are utilities that people will download such as WeatherBug,” he said. “If the tool really proves it’s helpful for travel agents, they may be willing to download it as a utility.”

Elliott is more pessimistic when it comes to using these apps as an advertising medium, citing a slew of tools from yesteryear that have failed to do just that.

“As an advertising medium, downloadable technologies have never caught on with consumers,” he said. “In the end, it’s so easy for consumers to get the info online that downloading the app often doesn’t make sense.”

Meanwhile, REZconnect is trying to muster a large user base. CEO Brent has just secured an agreement from the Hickory Group, a consortium of major travel agencies around the world, to launch an email promoting the Communicator to its members.

In the end, however, the old adage about leading a horse to water will apply. The success of the Travel Communicator will come down to the value travel agents perceive in the utility — not the value vendors perceive in the channel.

If it provides them with excellent cruise and other travel offers that cut through the clutter of email and that they can’t get anywhere else, then they may just take to it. If it’s merely an effort by travel providers to amplify their message to an audience that’s already overloaded, then marketing prognosticators agree it’s destined for the scrap heap.

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