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SHOOTOUT: TravelWeb's wealth of information bests Preview Travel site

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To travel the world, Web users need turn no further than their personal computers. Nearly all airlines, hotel chains and car rental agencies allow online reservations. In addition, a number of third-party Web sites offer a complete range of services in a single location.

For this month's Marketing Shoot-out, we asked 80 WebScore panelists to compare two of the top travel sites: Preview Travel and TravelWeb. These Web sites were selected because they have search engines that can locate hotels with specific amenities.

Business with pleasure

Panelists were asked to imagine that they were trying to combine a weeklong business trip to Miami with a family vacation. Accordingly, they would need a hotel with the following amenities:

Business facilities (for meetings).

A pool (for the spouse).

Child care or baby-sitting services (for the kids).

An on-site restaurant (for the whole family).

A cost of less than $150 per night (for the accountant).

We asked panelists to use the search engine at each site and compare the two experiences.

By a margin of 51 to 29, respondents said they would prefer TravelWeb over Preview Travel to make reservations in a Miami hotel.

One of the main reasons for TravelWeb's victory is that the majority of panelists (52 vs. 28 for Preview Travel) said its search engine was easier to use. Many said they liked the fact that TravelWeb advertises its hotel search up front.

The search is on

"On TravelWeb's home page, there is a very obvious link to the search page," one respondent said. "At Preview Travel, first I had to guess that the `Destinations' link was what I wanted. Then I found a small link [to the hotel search] on the side of that page."

Respondents who preferred Preview Travel's hotel search engine tended to make two observations: The search form is shorter and easier to fill out, and all the results appear on a single page.

"TravelWeb's search required you to fill out a lot more data, then required you to load a new page for each hotel you wished more information on," said one participant.

On the other hand, these same factors were virtues to those who preferred TravelWeb. They observed that the longer search form allows searches to be more targeted and that TravelWeb can provide more information about hotels when each gets its own page.

More is better

In fact, respondents said by a 52-28 margin that TravelWeb has more hotel information. In addition to giving each hotel its own page, panelists said the site describes each hotel's amenities. Preview Travel's write-ups mention whether each hotel has a restaurant and a pool, but offer no information on business facilities and childcare.

Those who said Preview Travel has more information argued that, while TravelWeb offers many facts and figures about each hotel, Preview Travel evaluates hotels, making its descriptions more useful.

"With TravelWeb, you get basically a list of standard stuff," wrote one participant. "With Preview Travel, you get a nice summary with commentary about the hotel."

These summaries are a product of Preview Travel's relationship with Fodor's Travel Guides, which also rate hotels on a system of stars.

We also asked panelists which was the better overall site. The vote reflected earlier results: 48 favored TravelWeb, 31 preferred Preview Travel and one couldn't decide.

Naturally, many respondents' answers were colored by their experiences with the hotel search, which is the only area of each site they were required to visit. Among those who looked at other areas of each site, opinions were split. Both received high marks for overall ease of use, for layout and graphics and for offering a variety of features.

It's a package deal

Apart from the hotel search, both sites have the elements needed to succeed in the online travel services market. When asked if they would use either site to plan their next trip, 14% of respondents said they were extremely likely to do so. An additional 30% said they were very likely.

Matthew Weinshenker is an online services analyst for N.Y.-based CLT Research Associates. He can be reached at matt@cltresearch.com.

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