Tuesday, 22 November 2005

The Amazing Race 8 (Family Edition), Episode 8

Page, AZ (USA) - Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, UT (USA) - Moab, UT (USA - Green River State Park, UT (USA) - Heber City, UT (USA) - Park City, UT (USA) - Salt Lake City, UT (USA)

I don't have much to say about this week's episode of The Amazing Race 8 . The family teams spent most of this episode driving across Utah (some liked what they saw out the windows of their vehicles, some didn't), and their conversations with local people were largely limited to gas stations and roadside rest stops.

We may be tempted to think of a private motor vehicle, perhaps especially a large "house trailer" like the ones the teams were towing behind their SUV's, as giving us the freedom to get "off the beaten track" and immerse ourselves in the country we are visiting. Instead, it can imprison us in the self-contained world of the highway -- especially if it is as big and hard to maneuver on secondary roads as the racers' trailers -- and the self-contained character of a motor home can almost eliminate any need or opportunity to engage with local people, or learn about local ways of life, in dealing with the daily necessities of food and shelter.

Not nearly so educational a trip, for children or adults, as travel by public mass transportation (poor though that is in the inter-mountain west of the USA) would have been.

Last week "The Amazing Race" was pre-empted on 15 November 2005 by the Country Music Awards. Instead, I got my weekly dose of commentary on the race at the annual PhoCusWright conference in Orlando, Florida, where Michelle Peluso -- CEO of race sponsor Travelocity.com and Executive V.P. of its corporate parent, Sabre Holdings Corp. -- was telling the assembled travel and Internet executives:

We [Travelocity.com] think things like "The Amazing Race", where we can get deep product integration and promote our service guarantee, are really great places to promote our brand.

Leaving aside what viewers think of intrusive, unrealistic, and ill-disclosed "deep product integration" in television "reality" programs, I was pleasantly surprised but also skeptical at Peluso's newfound profession of belief in "customer championship".

When I first interviewed Peluso five years ago at a similar conference, she was CEO of the then-new Internet tour packager Site59.com , later acquired by Travelocity.com. Since Site59.com was an unknown start-up company and one of the first Internet companies to sell travel packages at an all-inclusive price, my first questions to Peluso concerned what, if any, responsibility her company took for ensuring that customers would receive everything that was advertised as included in their package.

Peluso scoffed at the need for any sort of guarantee, and vehemently dismissed the idea that customers should read the fine print on her Web site or pay any attention to what it said. Basically, her message was, "Trust us".

I still don't know whether Peluso hadn't read her own company's contract terms (possible but odd, given her background with a highly-paid business consultancy), had read them and really didn't think they mattered, or assumed that consumers wouldn't read or understand them. But no one who read and understood the original Site59.com terms would have bought anything from them: they allowed Site59.com to take your money while explicitly disclaiming their responsibility to provide or ensure the provision of any travel services.

So when Peluso started promoting her current company's "guarantee", I took another look at whether it's really a meaningful one. What happens if you've paid Travelocity.com or one of the other Sabre subsidiaries for travel services, but the airline or hotel claims that they've never heard of you, or that you have a reservations but it hasn't been paid for?

Site59.com's terms of service have improved only slightly since the company's acquisition by Travelocity.com and Sabre:

No Guarantee, Endorsement or Liability.... We ... cannot guarantee the accuracy of listings or product descriptions.... YOUR SOLE REMEDY FOR DISSATISFACTION WITH ... PACKAGES OR OTHER PRODUCTS OR SERVICES IS TO STOP USING THE SAME. THE SOLE AND EXCLUSIVE MAXIMUM LIABILITY TO SITE59 FOR ALL DAMAGES, LOSSES AND CAUSES OF ACTION ... SHALL BE THE LESSER OF (A) THE TOTAL AMOUNT PAID BY YOU FOR A PACKAGE, OR (B) US$100.00.

A US$100 cap on damages, even for complete non-delivery of packages that typically cost many times that, doesn't look to me like "customer championship" or much of a guarantee.

As for Travelocity.com, its Web site claims prominently that its guarantee "isn't a marketing ploy to win your business".

But if isn't (just) a marketing ploy, what does it really mean?

Legally, nothing. Here's Travelocity.com's actual guarantee (or lack thereof):

6. EXCLUSION OF WARRANTY. TRAVELOCITY.COM AND ANY THIRD PARTY PROVIDERS AND DISTRIBUTORS MAKE NO WARRANTY OF ANY KIND REGARDING THIS SITE AND/OR ANY MATERIALS PROVIDED ON THIS SITE, ALL OF WHICH ARE PROVIDED ON AN "AS IS" BASIS. TRAVELOCITY.COM AND ANY THIRD PARTY PROVIDERS AND DISTRIBUTORS DO NOT WARRANT THE ACCURACY, COMPLETENESS, CURRENCY OR RELIABILITY OF ANY OF THE CONTENT OR DATA FOUND ON THIS SITE AND SUCH PARTIES EXPRESSLY DISCLAIM ALL WARRANTIES AND CONDITIONS, INCLUDING IMPLIED WARRANTIES AND CONDITIONS OF MERCHANTABILITY, FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE AND NON-INFRINGEMENT, AND THOSE ARISING BY STATUTE OR OTHERWISE IN LAW OR FROM A COURSE OF DEALING OR USAGE OF TRADE....

7. LIMITATION OF LIABILITY.... IN NO EVENT SHALL TRAVELOCITY.COM OR ANY THIRD PARTY PROVIDERS OR DISTRIBUTORS BE LIABLE FOR ANY INJURY, LOSS, CLAIM, DAMAGE, OR ANY SPECIAL, EXEMPLARY, PUNITIVE, INDIRECT, INCIDENTAL OR CONSEQUENTIAL DAMAGES OF ANY KIND (INCLUDING, BUT NOT LIMITED TO LOST PROFITS OR LOST SAVINGS), WHETHER BASED IN CONTRACT, TORT, STRICT LIABILITY, OR OTHERWISE, WHICH ARISES OUT OF OR IS IN ANY WAY CONNECTED WITH ... THE PERFORMANCE OR NON PERFORMANCE BY TRAVELOCITY.COM OR ANY THIRD PARTY PROVIDERS OR DISTRIBUTORS, INCLUDING, BUT NOT LIMITED TO, NON PERFORMANCE RESULTING FROM BANKRUPTCY, REORGANIZATION, INSOLVENCY, DISSOLUTION OR LIQUIDATION EVEN IF SUCH PARTY HAS BEEN ADVISED OF THE POSSIBILITY OF DAMAGES TO SUCH PARTIES OR ANY OTHER PARTY.

If, notwithstanding the foregoing, Travelocity.com or any third party provider or distributor should be found liable for any loss or damage which arises out of or is in any way connected with any of the above described functions or uses of this site or its content, the liability of Travelocity.com and the third party providers and distributors shall in no event exceed ... US$100.00....

20. ENTIRE AGREEMENT. This User Agreement, together with any terms and conditions incorporated herein or referred to herein constitute the entire agreement between us relating to the subject matter hereof.

The bottom line, if you read this fine print on Travelocity.com's own Web site, is that its so-called guarantee is not part of its contract and is legally meaningless. Travelocity.com claims the legal right to take your money for the full price of any travel services (even for thousands of dollars), deliver nothing, and pay you no more than US$100 if you sue.

They admit that their disclaimers might not stand up in court, and I suspect they would be even less likely to stand up to a credit card chargeback. But the point is the deceptiveness of claiming in marketing propaganda that their "guarantee" is a "promise", while excluding it from any legal enforceability.

The same goes for Travelocity.com's privacy policy . That privacy "policy" has lots of problems, and Travelocity.com doesn't comply with it, but it scarcely matters what it says (except to mislead consumers and give them a false sense of privacy), since it isn't part of Travelocity'com's terms of service.

If Peluso and her company really believe in customer championship, I challenge them to incorporate both their "guarantee" and their privacy policy fully and explicitly, by reference, in their legally enforceable terms of service, and remove their US$100 liability limitation. If they do and tell me about it, I promise to let you know. But I won't hold my breath.

I pick on Peluso and her company not because their actual terms of service are worse than their competitors', but because they invited the scrutiny with their (unfounded, it turns out) boasts.

Unfortunately, Travelocity.com's so-called guarantee is so effective as a marketing ploy precisely because, as Peluso said in one of the truthful parts of her talk at PhoCusWright, "Consumers increasingly want someone to take more responsibility for every aspect of their trip." There's still an unfilled niche for travel agents who really acts as buyers' agents and advocates for their interests against those of suppliers of travel services.

Later in the conference, Peluso's most important competitor, CEO Dara Khosrowshahi of Expedia.com, was asked in a different way about somewhat the same issue. His answer was equally consumer-hostile, but more honest:

Questioner: In the future, will online travel agencies look more like tour operators, and search engines look more like travel agencies?

Khosrowshahi: Yes ... but we [Expedia.com] don't want the risk model of a tour operator -- that's something we want to avoid.

Some in the audience thought Khosrowshahi was talking about the risk of "owning inventory" (committing to fill airline seats, hotel rooms, etc. before getting paid for them), but I think he's smart enough to know that's not how the industry works. I think he was talking about the liability to the consumer for delivery of every part of the package that a tour operator takes on -- and for which they are paid in the markup they add, in the retail package price, to what they pay at wholesale for the components of the package.

The PhoCusWright Executive Conference ended, as usual, with a panel discussion of "Whaddaya think?" I still think, "Caveat emptor".

Link | Posted by Edward on Tuesday, 22 November 2005, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | TrackBack (0)
Comments

My personal experience with Travelocity is that their guarantee "that everything about your booking will be right, or we'll work with our partners to make it right, right away" is a cruel and expensive joke. It took me over a week to get the information I needed to change a flight. During that week, the price of the flight went up 243 Euros. I emailed guarantee@travelocity.com and requested that they help me to "make it right, right away", but they told me I had to contact customer service. I emailed customer service, and have still received nothing from them. Nothing. Not an email, not a phone call.

So this is their guarantee to make things right? And right away? I think we have different opinions on what is making it right as well as what is
right away.

Jane

PS The 8 days of trying to get this information involved:
1. Being put on hold for long periods of time (I was calling internationally)
2. Being given the answer to "how do I change a flight" when my question was "how do I cancel"?
3. Being given wrong information, ex, fees to change or cancel
4. Being told I had to call Denmark to make the change, being transferred then disconnected after another 5 minutes on hold, and given a telephone
number to call on my own that did not work.
5. Emailing Guarantee to get the correct telephone number, but still being given one that did not work.
6. Finally calling Travelocity.co.uk to get the correct number, and learning it was in Germany not Denmark

Do you think I will use Travelocity again? Hmmm. Geee. No. I have used Travelocity for years and was satisfied - but I never needed customer
service. Now I think it is not worth the risk.

Posted by: Jane Paulkovich, 5 December 2005, 07:20 ( 7:20 AM)

well the show is over for another season and another totally undeserving team won. very disappointing

Posted by: Jim, 13 December 2005, 20:08 ( 8:08 PM)
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