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July 2017    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Vol. 32, No. 7   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Those Internet-Based Dive Travel Websites

what they mean for you and the industry

from the July, 2017 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

As the world changes at warp speed, perhaps the biggest change in the last few decades is how we communicate and shop via the Web. Undercurrent began in 1976 as a printed newsletter that was mailed to subscribers, but we became an online-only publication simply to survive. Today, the Undercurrent publisher lives in northern California, the senior editor in London, the Webmaster on an island in the Indian Ocean, the customer service rep in Texas, the layout artist in San Francisco, and the proofreader in Oregon.

When Undercurrent started, to book a dive trip our travel agent used teletype and wires to contact resorts and filled out airline tickets by hand. Today we can book a hotel on the hotel's website or on such sites sites as TripAdvisor or Trivago. To book a flight, we may go directly to an airline's site, or compare all our options on sites such as Kayak or Expedia. Whether their sites or the people involved are housed in San Francisco or Sao Paulo makes no difference.

Of course, we can also use travel agencies, and they, too, have changed. In the mid-'90s, to book a liveaboard trip, one had to contact Sea&See Travel, owned by Carl Roessler. He had firm control over most liveaboards worldwide, and advertised them in full-page $12,000 ads in dive magazines like SkinDiver while taking a 30 percent commission. As the Internet evolved, the liveaboard owners insisted on doing business directly with customers as well as Sea&See.

That dissolved Roessler's monopoly. He declared bankruptcy, leaving many boats with arriving customers, but without payment, creating hardship for several. Meanwhile, traditional travel agencies expanded into the dive business or opened anew, but without exclusive booking rights. The agencies such as Island Dreams, Reef and Rainforest, Caradonna, and Dive Discovery are staffed by travel professionals who visit resorts and liveaboards, and know the details required for each booking. That's been the business model for two decades. And now, it is under attack.

The New Internet Booking Portals

In the last couple of years, new Internet agencies have popped up, their long suit being clever and skilled use of Internet technology, their short suit being detailed service. Online portals such as diviac.com, liveaboard.com, divingspecials.com and divebookers.com allow you to choose from a range of destinations, dive operations and liveaboards by simply clicking here and there to pick exactly what you want. It's convenient, quick, and with so many venue options, very seductive, especially because they highlight bargain prices.

But, in our reviewing these services, we have learned that because so much of the burden for figuring out the trip falls on the buyer, you had better do your homework. For example, keep in mind these portals serve customers worldwide, and some liveaboards and resorts may not be favored by Americans and Canadians. If English is your only language, you may not have many people at your destination to talk to.

If you're a savvy, well traveled diver, you know what you want -- an airport pickup, nitrox, wetsuit rental, an overnight hotel near the airport, vegetarian meals or an Internet hookup. It can be a long list. If you are just getting started or traveling to an area unknown to you, you may need far more attention than these portals may provide.

The sites are attractive, especially because they tend to push bargain prices. However, one liveaboard operator showed us two price examples on diviac.com , one for the MV Arenui and one for MV WAOW, that did not exist. Presumably a simple error, but they would sure gain one's interest.

To test booking these sites, we made exploratory inquiries to both liveaboard.com and diviac.com for a trip on the Indo Siren in Raja Ampat and a trip on the Emperor Orion in the Maldives during the second week of January 2018, as well as a trip on Argo at the end of this year to Cocos Island.

The Argo and Indo Siren trips were a few dollars less expensive than booking directly with the boats, while the Emperor Orion was actually a few dollars more. The online portal prices were not too dissimilar from each other. If you know what you want, the booking process is very straightforward.

Making contact with diviac from the U.S. resulted in an online chat with a representative in Miami, while making contact from the UK drew calls back ostensibly from Europe. When we failed to finalize a booking, they were persistent, often sending cheery follow-up emails, asking if other options might be more suitable, and so forth.

After our calls had been completed and we failed to book, ads started popping up during unrelated Internet searches or on Facebook for liveaboard deals, as well as regular emails, some related to the trips considered, others generic. Unlike traditional agencies, they rely heavily on their Internet marketing skills to make a sale now or down the line. It's focused advertising.

Just like thousands of online companies dealing in multiple products, these extremely well capitalized online portals are based anywhere in countries like Switzerland -- diviac.com -- The Netherlands -- liveaboard.com -- and Germany -- divespecials.com, but with sales staff based all around the world.

As you can imagine, most people in the travel business don't like this competition by technocrats. One told us "Online portals are all about flashy websites, and they have their phones or emails answered 24/7 with order takers placed all over the world, in all time zones. They even have a virtual agent on their sites, to answer questions. I think too many divers do not understand the differences between booking with these agencies and with an experienced dive travel agency."

However, for divers who have become accustomed to doing a lot of other business on the web, this is what they may expect.

What Do Liveaboard Owners Think?

For one, Alex Bryant, the owner of a large fleet of liveaboards in the Maldives, is getting plenty of new business. He told Undercurrent that he now has serious volume and imagines liveaboard.com to be one of the biggest booking agents for liveaboards in the world.

Others don't like it. Some worry that the online companies can become so powerful they will monopolize the customer base, like Costco and Wal-Mart, and will be able to strong-arm dive operators into giving them bigger cuts. In fact, some dive businesses refuse to be listed by these portals.

Most dive boat operators and reservation managers seem to have accepted the inevitable advance of web marketing, though under silent protest. None wanted to be quoted by Undercurrent, but as one doyen of the liveaboard industry told us, "Our reservation and sales manager complains that these online booking services frequently just provide the client's name and then move on, letting her do all the work while claiming their 20 percent commission. It drives her nuts!" That's because she finds herself doing the detailed work formerly done by a dive travel agent.

Another liveaboard reservations manager told Undercurrent, "We have travel agents who work very hard. They are divers themselves, spending their own money to travel on familiarization trips so they can better serve their diver clients, yet they are losing business to these online booking portals that have rarely been to the destinations they are selling, do not pre-screen diver customers and do not give their clients proper information for their trips. It is frustrating for us, because we get guests on board who are unprepared for the diving on offer, and thus, it takes away from everyone's experience."

If, for instance, for divers booking a liveaboard trip to the Galapagos, they should be advised what they will face. This is no place for an inexperienced diver. There are big swells, ferocious currents, cold water, and long travel times in the open ocean. If they had not been warned they'd need a very warm suit and gloves, they'd be miserable. Undoubtedly, divers will want to visit Darwin and Wolf Islands, which requires an openocean passage of around 160 miles from the main archipelago. They need to be prepared for seasickness and be unaffected by it. These things need to be explained to anyone before booking. And some operators are telling us that customers arrive from the online-booking specialists quite unprepared.

Frank Wasson, the former owner of the MV Spree, which dived the Flower Gardens in the Gulf of Mexico, says he did not like booking portals, because they did not allow operators to vet their customers, and that "butts on bunks are their only criteria when appropriateness is more important." He stopped taking bookings through dive shops, too, for the same reason.

He preferred online booking directly to him to ensure "our clients told us about any medical difficulties, reviewed and accepted our release, and reviewed and accepted the terms and conditions of travel before we ever took their money or even knew their name."

So, divers who use these portals better have some understanding of what they're buying. For example, if one is looking for a relaxing time in the water, you wouldn't choose to go diving in the ripping currents of the channels of the Maldives in Springtime, despite the photographs illustrating it showing crystal-clear water and loads of big animals. This is where a knowledgeable travel agent becomes useful.

How Do Traditional Dive Travel Agents React?

Just as dive-store owners once complained about the advent of online equipment buying from companies like Leisure Pro, traditional dive travel agents are up in arms about online booking portals, claiming they often provide inaccurate or insufficient information.

Jenny Collister from Reef and Rainforest told us, "We quote for the cabins that are actually available, whereas at least one of the online portals appears to be advertising cabins that are not available in the budget category. If you click through the site, you will often find the 'from' quoted price is not available and has sold out next to it.

"Reef and Rainforest qualify our customers and have lengthy discussions about what their level of diving is, what they want to see, what is important (food, other activities, the level of comfort) and make sure they know exactly what they are getting."

Dom McCann at DiveAdvice said he is not the only one unhappy with these online portals, stressing that they have entered a mature market while promoting themselves as the future of dive travel.

"They have little experience in the actual industry other than in technology, but give the average diver an impression that they must be wellresourced, professional and that they guarantee the lowest rates."

"They lure [the customer] in with the promise of guaranteed lowest rates, and when they request a trip, they often give a lower rate for non-diver (sometimes a rate that is non-existent), and a rate for diver that might be close to the real rate."

"Many people take them at face value, and by the time they have got into it and have given their credit card and found the rates do not include this or that, they don't bother to fight it as it takes more time and effort."

What's the Real Experience?

We contacted diviac.com to book the Belize Aggressor and got into an online chat with their representative. She was very helpful with questions about transportation from the airport to the boat and hotel suggestions, advised not to go in September since "the weather was bad" (that is hurricane season), and admitted that she had not been to Belize or seen that craft. But she did say she had been on another Aggressor and offered that all the Aggressor boats "are the same" -- not true, of course, but not a deal killer. In a discussion about pricing, she said tips were included, but a careful look at their website shows that tips are not included, but recommended, which would be about $230 one would need to pony up at departure (or else stiff the crew, unintentionally). She did note that for 48 hours after booking, one can cancel.

Subscriber Elaine Doherty (Brisbane, Australia) told us she used liveaboard.com once in 2015.

"The service was reasonable, but after having transferred what I thought was the total amount (and it was a big amount for a liveaboard in Raja Ampat), they then billed me again for port, park and fuel supplement. This meant yet another money transfer, which blew out the cost of the trip! When I initially made an approach to them, I specifically asked for the quote to include all fees including port, park fees, fuel, etc.This they obviously had not done. I have not used them again and do not intend to!"

Now, this is not to say that we haven't seen an occasional problem with traditional dive travel agencies, but overall, it's fair to say they are staffed with more experienced people who can draw on each other.

Nonetheless, the liveaboard and dive resort booking business is changing. And so are the users, people who avoid the telephone and prefer to do their work online, with one-size-fits-all websites. Regardless whom you book with, be a savvy booker. Ask the questions before booking to avoid unpleasant surprises later. With the new online agencies, you will have to dig deeper and dig farther to get the information you need, if you can, indeed, get it.

Remember, when you buy sight-unseen from Amazon.com or Overstock.com, you can return it. You cannot return a $4,000 dive trip.

Let Us Hear from You

Have you booked a dive trip in the last year or so through an online agency or a traditional dive travel agency? How did it go? Tell us about it.

Why did you choose the agency?

Did you get all the information you needed?

Were there any financial or travel surprises?

Did you need help from them during the trip?

Tell us your stories, good or bad. We'd like to know! BenDDavison@undercurrent.org

 

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