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Posted: January 21, 2009

2009: The year of the deal

Take advantage of low travel prices

Robert Polk

According to the Chinese zodiac calendar, January 26th marks the beginning of the Year of the Ox. In the Chinese calendar, the ox is the sign of prosperity through fortitude and hard work. 

I predict that 2009 will be the "Year of the Deal" in the travel industry because every airline, hotel, car rental company, tour operator and country with a tourism department will be showcasing their fortitude and hard work to get your travel dollars. 

From travel pricing to airline partnerships to passenger perks, here are my best suggestions to take advantage of what the travel industry will offer in 2009:

Take advantage of falling fares and aggressive airlines

I am asked almost daily about my best guesses for travel costs in 2009. Certainly for the first half of 2009 there will be no upward pressure on any travel costs, unless fuel costs increase rapidly. In fact, I can safely predict that most travel costs will decrease in the first half of 2009.

But even though airfares may decrease, they will perhaps be more complicated.  More and more fare and fee schedules will be introduced by the airlines. Some will stick, but most will be old news not long after the excitement of the announcement has faded. Financial people will continue to run the airlines and the marketing teams will only be allowed to talk about the new fare/fee schemes.

No matter how you slice it, face-to-face meetings are much more effective and profitable than conference calls. With travel costs low, getting out and meeting with your customers and prospects around the globe is better than any time since 2001. Your competitors have gone into the bunker and will not emerge until the "all clear" sign has been given. While they are waiting for signs from on high, now is the time for you to win new customers and continue to touch base with your existing clients.

I believe some airlines will start to think the same way — they cannot be happy with shrinking for another year. Some airlines will start to look for gaps left by competitors and think this is a good year to win market share, either on their own or by befriending one another.

British Airways and American Airlines will win approval to increase their code-sharing. United Airlines and Continental will move closer to the altar during 2009, and we could see a full merger sometime in 2010.

I think Southwest will start flying to Canada and Mexico — without a code share partner.  They will also begin service to Minneapolis and LaGuardia in 2009, and the rumor is that next year they will also add a third major city. If the rumor is true, I think this third new city will be Atlanta. This is the busiest airport in the world and the largest market in the U.S. that Southwest does not serve.

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Look for new business travel programs
All of the airlines need business travelers. They cannot survive without the higher-paying passengers that business travelers represent. Therefore, the airlines will have more promotions and programs to entice road warriors in 2009 than ever before. Do not get me wrong, there will be plenty of leisure fare sales, but creative programs will be aimed at the most frequent travelers that pay the highest fares.

With bargains around every corner, loyalty will become paramount with airlines. Travel will continue to be easier for premier-level frequent flyers in 2009. Everyone else will continue to be asked for many, many nickels and dimes when headed to the airport.

Offer those incentives

Meeting and incentives will be a bargain this year. Hotels that laughed when asked for a great rate along with wonderful events in the past have already started knocking on our agency’s door — and knocking loudly. If this is the time to take advantage of travel bargains and win new customers, it is absolutely the time to incentify your sales force to hit the road with the offer of a fabulous trip.

Take that vacation or weekend getaway
Las Vegas needs your business so badly they will be very aggressive with hotel packages. The first half of 2009 will be a buyers market in Sin City. Cruise prices will fall during most of 2009. If you want a real bargain, cruising will be your best vacation choice in 2009.

Remember your patience

Congress is expected to introduce the “Passenger Bill of Rights” to attempt to protect passengers from the airlines. If passed in the form that was drafted two years ago, it will do the opposite and will be a big pain for both airlines and passengers.

Get up and go
Mostly, I predict everyone will want to travel in 2009.  Last year proved to be hard for most industries and we all deserve a break — in every sense of the word.  With prices low and every travel company vying for your loyalty, planes will be full and patience will come in handy, but we should all take advantage of the “Year of the Deal.”

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Robert Polk is CEO of Polk Majestic Travel Group, Denver's largest independent travel agency. He welcomes your comments and questions at Robert@polkmajestic.com.

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