A car rental operation has limited resources -— in time and money -— to devote to bringing in business. Two of the most challenging "channels" are the Internet and the global distribution systems. It's important for all operators to understand what they are, how to implement them, and their pros and cons.
Today, any business that deals with the general public needs -— and must have -— a Web site. Just how big has the Internet become? Many hotels now offer free high-speed Internet access. Airlines charge a premium if you make your reservation over the phone instead of the Internet. Many travelers now print their boarding pass at their home or office before leaving for the airport.
Surprisingly, not all car rental companies have a Web site yet. Even if you're a local operator, you must have a Web site -— to stay competitive and to stay alive. Why? So people can find you.
What percentage of households have Internet access? A report by cyber-state.org indicated that in the state of Michigan, 89% of parents not only have a computer but also have Internet access. As of March 14, 2004, 204.3 million people in the U.S. had Internet access. That's 75% of the population. It's even greater for those ages 35-50. What percentage of businesses have Internet access? Almost all of them -— and an amazing 75% use it for purchasing.
Internet vs. Yellow Pages
How effective is Yellow Pages advertising? Do you measure or track where your business comes from? Some companies have cut back their Yellow Pages advertising by 75%.
One major advantage to using your Web site to advertise is that it's very easy to update. Compare this to the phone book, which is updated only once a year. Most companies have an employee who can easily update their Web site using one of the popular software packages. However, your Web site must be professional. Don't let your cousin or neighbor's kid take care of it for you.
You should also have it hosted by a reliable provider. AT&T Small Business Hosting, for example, charges only $35 a month. If you host it yourself, use a managed T-1. Update the site at least once a month. Put your Web site address on all marketing materials. You may also want to consider adding hyperlinks to local hotels, regional travel sites, and your local chamber of commerce. List your site on portals such as CheapRentACar.com. Look to reciprocate whenever possible: "I’ll put your link on my Web site if you do the same."
Make sure you monitor your "up time." Use a product such as Internetsee, which alerts you whenever your site is down. Likewise, it's useful to monitor your traffic. Products such as Web CEO can identify where your business comes from. You can run reports on the number of unique visitors, traffic by time zones, and the top 100 referring sites. Run these reports at least once a month, and make adjustments as necessary.
As a car rental operator, you should allow site visitors to get valid, accurate and complete quotes. Let them make reservations. And, when reservations are made, both you and the renter should receive an e-mail confirmation.
What are the pros of selling on the Internet?
• It's inexpensive. After you’ve paid the up-front costs, maintenance costs are minimal.
• It levels the playing field. Your rental business can be listed alongside companies that may be much larger (or smaller).
• A small independent appears like a major player, especially if its site looks professional.
• Many customers prefer a do-it-yourself approach. According to management guru Tom Peters, customers go to your Web site to look up their own information and to enter their own data -— with no intervention by any of your employees. When interviewed about making their own reservation online, many replied that it was "better" service. A study by American Express revealed that 40% use the Internet for speed of service, 35% for convenience, and only 15% for cost savings.
• Corporate travel managers prefer it. More and more corporations require employees to book travel on the Web sites of their contracted travel service providers. This is good news for small independent operators that pursue corporate accounts.
The only obvious cons to launching a Web site are up-front costs and monitoring costs. Expect to pay at least $2,000 to create a good site. Once up, the site needs to be constantly monitored.