herald

Monday 23 July 2018

Eoghan Corry: Use a real person to book your holidays

Listen. That is the sound of 1800hotels not answering their telephones.

The descent of another internet travel company into cyber-limbo is a reminder of what can go wrong when you click that icon on your computer screen.

If you book a holiday with a travel agent you are covered by the agent's bonding arrangements.

If any part of the deal, airline, hotel, car hire, falls through, you are compensated for the entire package.

And, as an added bonus, you get to ring somebody when things go wrong.

The ash cloud crisis in April was a reminder of the advantages of using a travel agent. The industry went into overdrive to get stranded people home.

We all like to have a travel agent to hold your hand in time of crisis.

Yesterday 500 people who turned up for hotel bookings were told that their rooms had been cancelled because of a dispute they knew nothing about.

The argument was going on behind the scenes between 1800hotels and two of big internet wholesalers, known as 'bed banks' in the business.



Suppliers

People who had paid 1800hotels for their hotel rooms found they had been cancelled and were asked to pay again.

When they looked for help there was no answer.

Credit card companies and travel insurance underwriters are offering no prospect of cashback until the company officially goes bankrupt.

And 1800hotels was nowhere to be found.

More than 5,000 people who have booked with 1800hotels are now waiting to know if their vouchers are similarly worthless.

In America, 1800hotels is using the court system to prevent suppliers cancelling contracts in a bid to re-enter talks to save the company. It is looking for a fortnight's grace to save itself.

Significantly, while the Irish website is down, the American site is still operating.

The likely outcome is that one of its biggest suppliers will take over the brand, which, until last Saturday, had been one of the great success stories in Irish business.

The company was founded by Graham Peakin, using his ingenuity and his laptop in 2002, and recently became the largest independent booking agent in the US market, competing against the giants of the business Expedia (and its subsidiary hotels.com), Travelocity and Orbitz.

Average bookings doubled on a month-over-month basis, making it the fastest growing broker of hotel rooms anywhere in the world

It may have been a step too far by the company.

According to Peakin: "Some of our suppliers are determined to push us into bankruptcy but we are doing everything we can to prevent that from happening."



Bookings

In the meantime, the company has stopped taking bookings in Ireland.

"We didn't want to continue to take people's money while this injunction against suppliers cancelling bookings is being sought in USA," said Peakin.

"We are one of the last independents.

"All the others are owned by major corporations."

Peakin's company employed 12 people in Ireland, fewer than a small town travel agent. Like all internet companies, it was designed around automated transactions, where computers made all the key decisions.

Now that the customers want real people to talk to, there are none to be found.

Which means we have no choice, but to wait and listen to the sound of holding music and our position in the queue.

And think about booking with a real person next time.

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