Holiday bargains just a click away

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 December, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 December, 2003, 12:00am

Booking a holiday used to be a nerve-jangling exercise involving endless trips to the travel agent, interminable waiting lists and so much stress and strain that you needed a weekend break just to recover from it.

Today, more and more Hong Kong people are cutting out the hassle factor by booking their journeys over the internet - and one online company predicts the number of holidaymakers booking by computer will grow more than fivefold in the next 12 months.

In the past year alone, online flight and holiday retailer Hutchison-Priceline has seen its customer base almost triple from 120,000 at the end of 2002 to 300,000 this month.

Newcomer Zuji, which had its hard launch in October and already has more than 20,000 members, says it expects to see an explosion in the popularity of internet holiday bookings in the coming year.

Kerry Wong, general manager of Zuji Hong Kong, says: 'Online bookings currently account for 1 to 2 per cent of travel purchases for Hong Kong. We predict that by the end of next year that figure will rise to 10 per cent.'

Ray Li Ho-fung, regional managing director of Hutchison-Priceline which began inviting people to name their own price for flights and holidays in April 2002, says: 'The online market is growing and growing. From buying movie tickets online, people are now confident enough to buy big items.'

Mr Li says Hong Kong people have switched from using the internet simply to check prices to making their purchases online, realising that companies like Hutchison-Priceline - which matches airlines and hotels with spare capacity to customers seeking bargains - offer deals they simply cannot get in travel shops.

Surprisingly, for a territory with a reputation for embracing new technology, Hong Kong is still a long way behind other markets such as the United States, where 29 per cent of holiday bookings are expected to be made online by the end of next year.

'It has a lot to do with consumers' perception of security,' says Ms Wong. 'Credit-card fraud has been more prevalent than overseas, so Hong Kong consumers are more cautious when it comes to purchasing online.

'The geography of Hong Kong is also a factor. It is a relatively small city. People like to go out and get the total shopping experience. In the US, by contrast, you don't have major shopping malls on every corner. People in Hong Kong love shopping. It is a culture, a pastime. They use it as a reason to get out of their homes.'

The introduction of secure new credit-card payment systems had dismissed many of the fears surrounding online purchasing in Hong Kong, and its development speeded up during the Sars outbreak.

Online travel bookings held up well while other retail sectors floundered during the outbreak as enthusiasm for crowded shopping malls plummeted and tens of thousands of customers tried online shopping for the first time. It also created a situation where airlines were prepared to sell seats at rock-bottom prices through web sites like Hutchison-Priceline, which at one point sold return tickets to the US for just $2,000.

The fallout from Sars is still evident in the sector with a surge in Christmas and the New Year holiday bookings caused by pent-up demand and a surfeit of unclaimed vacation held over from earlier in the year.

'I have had some customers booking three to four different trips before Christmas,' says Ms Wong. 'They are trying to burn up annual leave before the end of the year. And because fares are at really budget levels, it is cheaper to go away than to stay in Hong Kong.'

Ms Wong believes the benefits of booking online with her company are choice, convenience and control. Zuji offers a range of 300 airlines, 33,000 hotels, 50 car-hire companies and 3,000 attractions in a one-stop shop that is open 24 hours.

Zuji customers tend to be internet-savvy and as interested in choice and the ability to take control of all aspects of their travel booking as in the price. Price benefits are there too, however, and one of Zuji's exclusive December offers has been a business class return to Bangkok with Finn Air for $2,200.

Mr Li says two factors are gradually driving more customers towards online bookings and causing the steady expansion of the sector.

The first is time sensitivity: many travel agents do not give confirmation on bookings until two or three days after the booking, whereas Hutchison-Priceline gives confirmation within an hour and in some cases within minutes.

The second is price sensitivity.

'A lot of our business comes through word of mouth,' says Mr Li. 'When people get to go to Singapore for $800 they tell 10 or 20 friends about it. Their friends then come to us as well.'