Databank Travel: Travel sites bounce back after 9/11

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As a whole, the travel industry was badly bruised by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the aftermath of which continues to unfold. While the industry attempts to recover, the online travel segment is showing signs of resilience as consumers poke around the Web comparing fares, researching itineraries and destinations, and finally booking long-postponed trips.

"Online travel sites are doing really well considering the past couple of months," said Fiona Swerdlow, senior analyst at Jupiter Media Metrix. Online bookings fell slightly in September, Ms. Swerdlow noted. Still, the number of unique visitors to online travel sites in September was ahead of April and May. "The category has experienced continuous and steady growth" and will eventually rebound, she said. Even so, Jupiter revised its online travel forecast due to the attacks, reducing expectations for 2001 to $20.4 billion in travel booked online, compared with its earlier estimate of $24 billion.

"It [the revision] reflects that people are holding back on travel purchases in general. It has nothing to do with the Internet as a channel," said Ms. Swerdlow. "I think the Internet will continue to be a healthy channel for sales and service for travel." She and other analysts maintain that in the wake of Sept. 11, consumers increasingly turned to the Web for travel updates, alerts and news on schedule changes, delays and cancellations. Consumers generally appreciate the e-mail updates and instructions they receive from sites like Orbitz. Travelocity.com sought a leadership position during the Thanksgiving travel weekend by disseminating questionnaires in 20 airports around the country that asked travelers about what they encountered vis-a-vis security checks, flight delays and cancellations. The anecdotal comments were prominently posted on Travelocity's site, according to Michael Stacy, senior VP-consumer marketing.

Said Ms. Swerdlow: "I think it's become more clear than ever before that the sites are not just about sales but customer service."

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