Dot Travel - The Rise and Fall of a Brilliant Concept.
By Jens Thraenhart
Monday, 16th February 2009
Personally I still believe in the original dot travel concept, as well as the purity of the dot travel domain extension for travel and tourism related web addresses -

However, I was saddened when I read the press release below, and I realized that the dot travel concept may have been killed by greed and short-term vision.

.travel to release nearly 300,000 destination names.

.travel domain registrar, EnCirca issued a .travel advisory regarding the release of nearly 300,000 reserved destination names. Effective with the new relaxed eligibility policy, the .travel registry is planning to release thousands of reserved place names, such as cities, iconic cultural sites and world heritage landmarks. These .travel domain names are ideal for search engine marketing since keywords in domain names are given extra weight in search engine rankings.  Destination management organizations and tourism boards had until December 21, 2007 to secure their destination names from EnCirca before they are released for public registration.
(For Immediate Release - Travel News Distribution, December 2007)   

To track back, in January of 2006, Ron Andruff and his business partner Cherian Mathei launched dot travel officially to the global travel and tourism industry in New York , after many years of collaborating with industry leaders and ICANN.  The concept was a brilliant one, which had the potential to open up tourism for smaller destinations and small medium enterprises, even in areas of the world that do not have the big advertising budgets or brand awareness. 

It also had the great potential to bring a bit of order into the mess of finding travel-related information on the Internet (now the biggest category on the Web). Furthermore, by making online travel more consumer friendly and reducing browsers' frustration, this initiative would have helped grow a stronger tourism industry world-wide.

Every great concept makes or breaks with the execution.  I believed in the founding team as Ron focused his efforts in building relationships with the industry to embrace this new domain name and tried to make travel and tourism organizations understand that this is THEIR domain.

As CEO of Tralliance, his organization was responsible for the administration and marketing of dot travel both to the industry and to the consumer. It was critical to get critical mass and industry buy-in prior to marketing to consumers as the value proposition (being able to type in any destination and travel supplier followed by dot travel into the browser address bar and being directed to the official website of that respective organization).

Exciting projects were underway in Canada, China, Africa, Asia, Brunei, Egypt, and the Caribbean to name the biggest initiatives.  Canada for example, led by the Canadian Tourism Commission and the Travel Industry Association of Canada went out to engage the tourism industry to register their relevant place names in order to build a value proposition for consumers to find Canadian destinations, landmarks, parks, and heritage sites by just typing in the destination followed by dot travel - not only was Canada.travel positioned as being consumer-centric online, but also better able  to increase tourism revenues and awareness to smaller destinations and tourism businesses.  The "Canada Model" was cited by many nations as a best practice to follow. China.travel on the other hand was designed to be a monumental task to index all Chinese tourism businesses for the first time, and put them online.

Ron also set up an organization (TTPC) that independently from Tralliance was responsible for the protection of the policies and rules of the authentication process - the crown jewels of the concept.  The authentication process made sure that only the correct owner of a brand  was able to register the respective domain name(s), and that destination, heritage sites, countries, cities, etc. (called place names) were protected from for a period of time (and major destinations such as countries were protected forever).  These registered and authenticated domain names were then fed into a database that populated an online directory and search engine.

 A brilliant idea and all seemed to go so well….but what happened??? Operating a venture like that is not cheap obviously, and even though it is a good cause, it still required investors. The Globe.com, an operator of several internet and technology ventures agreed to invest in Tralliance, and at some point gained majority interest.  Nothing wrong at that point - but that unfortunately changed when The Globe unexpectedly decided to operate Tralliance and take control of the execution of the .travel concept by pushing Ron and his team out. 

A very aggressive business practice led to the sale and registration of domain names that were not in line with the authentication process.  Letters and calls both to Ed Cespedes, the new CEO of Tralliance, Michael Eagan, Chairman of The Globe, and Birger Bachman, Chairman of TTPC unfortunately did not result in any action. The train was going down the rails, and one could foresee the crash. Other passionate board members of TTPC distanced themselves from dot  travel when they realized the sudden change in execution, led by the new management. Probably with good reason, since Labigroup (owned by the CEO of .travel) agreed to buy 25,000 .travel domains a year from the registrars of .travel.

On December 20, 2007, the Company, through its subsidiary, Tralliance Corporation ("Tralliance"), entered into a Bulk Registration Co-Marketing Agreement (the "Agreement") with Labigroup, under Tralliance's Bulk Purchasing Program available to entities committing to a minimum purchase of 25,000 ".travel" domain names within one-year. Labigroup is controlled by the Company's Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Michael Egan and our remaining directors own a minority interest in Labigroup. Under the Agreement, Labigroup committed to purchase a predetermined minimum number of ".travel" domain names on a bulk basis from an accredited ".travel" registrar of its own choosing and to establish a predetermined minimum number of related ".travel" websites.

As consideration for the ".travel" domain names to be purchased under the Agreement, Labigroup agreed to pay certain fixed fees and make other payments, including but not limited to, an ongoing royalty calculated as a % share of its Net Revenue, as defined in the Agreement, to Tralliance. The Agreement has an initial term which expires September 30, 2010, after which it may be renewed for successive periods of two and three years, respectively. Labigroup has paid Tralliance the sum of $262,500 under the Agreement to date. (Source: Securities and Exchange Commission, Washington D.C, December 20, 2007)

Just one clear example:
tours.travel - registered by Labitrav on December 20th, 2007, just hours before the opening. Labitrav (Labigroup it is mentioned in the SEC filling) it is also based in Fort Lauderdale, such as Tralliance.   

The result will be just another domain name with a valuable domain extension, but without the powerful authentication. So if you wanted to type in ABCdestination.travel , you may now land on the website of an aggressive link farm site or a company that has nothing to do with ABC destination, instead of the official ABC destination site – without having to find out the correct (possibly dot com) domain name, or sifting through millions of search results on your favorite search engine.  And the dot travel directory, a searchable database of authenticated domain names, which was supposed to become the purest source of relevant travel information online, is now cluttered with irrelevant, inappropriate links offering little value.  Gone the dream of order in online travel. The opportunity to build consumers' trust shattered.

But who is to blame in the end?

- Is it Ron Andruff and his founding Tralliance team, for needing an investor that unfortunately had a different agenda?

- Is it Ed Cespedes and Michael Eagan from The Globe, the new Tralliance Management: for trying to make money quickly off a great concept, but in their haste destroying the value proposition? 

- Is it the TTPC Board of Directors under chairmanship of Birger Bachman, for not guarding the "crown jewels" and therefore letting the value proposition dilute, and for not listening to the outrcrys from the travel industry?

- Is it ICANN, the governing body of Internet domain names, for not taking back the dot travel domain name when the strategy went into a different direction?

- Is it the global Travel and Tourism industry, for not embracing the dot travel domain name extension fast enough, that motivated the new Tralliance Management to open registration up to make money?

- Is it the UNWTO, the World Tourism Organization, and travel trade associations all over the world (such as PATA, DMAI, ASTA, NTA, etc.), for not stepping in and get more involved to make dot travel a UNWTO priority earlier?

- Is it National Tourism Organizations and Destination Marketing Organizations for not encouraging their industry partners and members more aggressively to register their names?

- Or is it maybe even the Consumer for not embracing the dot travel domain fast enough to show value to doubting travel organizations?

In any case, I don't think anybody is to blame and everybody is to blame at least a little bit (some more than others obviously, you can make up your own mind…) - but it just confirms how hard it is to execute a concept, as brilliant it may be – if there is not one entity responsible and in control of the outcome, and if one of the driving forces has agendas that are more self-centered than for the long-tem benefit of the global travel and tourism industry. 

However, it is clear that a lot of passionate travel and tourism professionals came together with the best intentions to make the online travel landscape more consumer friendly.  Dan Luzadder, a Travel Weekly reporter wrote a couple very well researched articles that provide further background information on the developments behind the dot travel concept: Tralliance is changing dot-travel rules in a bid to expand traffic (Dec 27, 2007 - http://www.travelweekly.com/articles.aspx?articleid=59739 ), and Masters of the domain – the future of dot travel (Sept 11, 2007 - http://www.travelweekly.com/articles.aspx?articleid=58063 ).

To close, nevertheless I believe that dot travel domain name is still a powerful domain name, which will not go away.  The domain name is pure, and at least for English-speaking markets and search engines brings tremendous value. That has very little to do with the concept overall, however it is obvious that if the concept could have been executed, the use of the domain name for travel organizations would have been a lot more powerful - simply because the consumer would have seen the value proposition. 

It's a little bit like Google – a superior search engine technology became the most powerful Internet company, not by spending billions in advertising but just by being consumer centric.  But still, Ontario.travel is still a more powerful domain name that OntarioTravel.net, and Canada.travel is easier to remember than CanadaKeepExploring.com - or is it not?

So is there hope, or is the concept dead without any possibility of revival? Well, I think everything is possible, but a true miracle would have to happen – driven by the global travel and tourism industry, and ICANN itself to save the travel industries opportunity to bring order and trust to online travel. In the meantime however, I predict the decline of new truly authenticated dot travel domain name registrations, and a decline in renewals…

Hopefully there can be lessons learned. Any future initiative designed to build consumers' trust – whether it be around relevance, quality, "greenness" or authenticity had better anticipate the threat of greed and short-termism and have developed plans to mitigate same. All the more reason to encourage greater global collaboration and standard setting.

Jens Thraenhart ( www.Thraenhart.com ) is a global travel, tourism and hospitality strategist who operates the Tourism Internet Marketing Blog, and is Editor-in-Chief of the "Tips from the T-List". Currently he works for the Canadian Tourism Commission as Executive Director of Marketing Strategy, but starting February 2008, he will re-launch his consulting practice Chameleon Strategies, as well as joining the executive management team of August Hotels & Properties, among other start-up ventures that he will be involved with.

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