What Ever Happened to Dot Travel?

I can remember it so clearly… The year was 2004 and an energetic, passionate man named Ron Andruff took the stage at conferences all over the world educating hopeful audiences about how the new dot travel domain was going to put all of our fears about protecting our brands online to rest. Travel industry organizations had finally come to accept that the internet was here to stay and that it was time to get serious about establishing an online presence. But to the horror of many, when we tried to register our company names with a dot com extension, we found that it had already registered by someone else. The moment of realizing that your domain name had already been registered started with confusion (how is it possible that someone else has already registered my name?? Is that legal??) and then it mixed with slight fear (is this my fault for not having registered my name earlier? Now what am I going to do?) and then it quickly turned to anger (I’m going to sue those bastards!). But this emotional roller coaster quickly led to deep frustration as it became clear that the domain was registered by a private registrant in the Cayman Islands. When we called the phone number listed on the domain registration we ended up talking to Borat in kazakhstan, that is, if it was actually a real telephone number.

Then we learned that there was actually a process through which one could recapture a domain which rightfully belonged to them, called UDRP. But when we learned that it wasn’t not such an easy process, and not so cheap either, we began to consider alternatives. “Maybe having three hyphens in my domain name isn’t so bad… I mean, people say that it’s easier for Google to recognize the words if they’re separated with hyphens anyway”… we rationalized. “Or maybe the .net or .org is just as good… if they are not taken already as well.”

So here we were, at one of our first online conferences. Travel industry executives from all over the world had come together from all over the world to discuss what we were going to do about the internet, and how we were going to protect our brands from piracy. Ron Andruff, who was then President of Tralliance, the company that owned the dot travel domain began to present. Dot Travel was going to be the answer to all of the travel industry’s domain squatting nightmares. Each company that wanted to use a dot travel domain was going to be verified. What did this “verification” process require exactly? Originally, companies were going to have to show documented evidence that they had a legal right to register the domain. Nobody else would be allowed to register these names, and finally there would be some sanity, in the travel industry at least, about who owned each domain. Tralliance encouraged the industry to start reserving their dot travel domains after going through the authentication process, and then registering the domains that they wanted.

The big question in everyone’s mind though, was how the consumer was going to learn about the dot travel domain extension. The theory was (and the story sold to the industry by Tralliance) was that they were committed to heavily marketing the dot travel domain to the consumer, explaining that domains ending in dot travel could be trusted because they had been “authenticated”, while the dot com world was full of fraudulent websites posing as real travel establishments. There was still a lot of hesitation though. After all, the cost of registering a dot travel domain was about $100, and if you wanted to register the name for ten years, you were looking at $1,000. At the time I was running online distribution for Sol Meliá Hotels & Resorts and I remember thinking that if this takes off, it’s going to cost us about half a million dollars just to register the domains for each of our brands and hotels! Most people were doubtful. “Even if you tell the consumer that your website URL is ParadisusPalmaReal.travel, they will probably end up typing in ParadisusPalmaReal.com instead. It’s going to confuse the consumer,” people argued.

Maybe the skeptics were right. But I like to support a good idea when I hear one. Sure it would be expensive to register the domains but we were facing such a mess with domain squatters, or even travel agencies that had registered our domains and were using them to poach our direct customers and then charge us commissions. If we could successfully get the industry to buy into this concept, I thought, this would benefit both the industry and the consumer. So I decided to move the Paradisus brand of resorts over to new URLs using the dot travel domain, and used them as the primary domains for the resorts. Other hotel chains had registered their dot travel names, just in case, but were redirecting them to their dot com names. There was too much fear of confusing the customer. I figured, maybe if we take this step as a major hotel company, others will follow.

One day I was in my office and I received a phone call from Tralliance and the dot travel registry. The person on the phone first thanked me for registering several of our domains ending in dot travel, and then asked me when I would be registering all of the other dot travel domains that we had reserved. I responded that I wasn’t sure, and that we were going to hold off registering more dot travel domains until the concept picked up some steam. Then the representative on the phone said “well you need to register these domains or your reservations are going to expire, and then there is a danger that someone else might register the domains.” “Oh really?!” Confusion (but I thought….), Fear (holy crap I just moved a major brand to dot travel URLs and became an advocate of this scam to the entire industry), then Anger (I need to meet with these people…. right now).

So I went to meet with Ed Cespedes, the CEO of TheGlobe.com (currently Vice Chairman), the parent company of Tralliance Corporation, and explained that I believed in the concept of dot travel. I thought it was a necessity, especially in the travel industry which seemed prone to attract domain squatters and online scammers, and that I had already publicly voiced my approval of this concept and hoped that it would be successful, until I got this horrific phone call. I was assured that the phone call was a mistake, and that it would be taken care of, and was reassured of Tralliance’s plans to educate the public about the value of dot travel domain names. But it soon became clear to me, and the entire industry, that Tralliance had a major problem.

They had done an excellent job of convincing destinations around the world that the dot travel domain was going to become a standard in the travel industry. Ron Andruff was a great spokesperson for the movement and had high level meetings with representatives from countries all over the world who jumped at the chance to show the global community that their nation was modern enough to take the initiative on this new fangled internet thing, and register their dot travel domain name. Even today, many destinations around the world are actively using the dot travel name. But the private sector did not jump on board so easily. Tralliance was not selling enough registrations to make money, and so the promises of strict rules about who would be allowed to register the dot travel names quickly faded. The travel industry caught on very quickly and we noticed that certain individuals were buying up dot travel domains for “major city hotels dot travel” all over the world. When questioned about this obvious contradiction to the original promise of the dot travel concept, Tralliance replied that as long as you could show that your domain was ‘relevant’ to the name you were registering, it would be allowed.

So if you created a website where you sell the Sheraton New York, you had the right to register sheratonnewyork.travel. Angry e-mails were exchanged between Tralliance and the very travel industry members who had supported them from the beginning. Tralliance explained that they could not possibly have a legal team verifying each domain registration request and checking documentation of legal ownership of brand names and trademarks. Ron Andruff quickly left Tralliance, which was a very smart move… to show the industry that it was not what he had signed up for. The travel industry had been betrayed, and the dream of dot travel was dead.

So what ever happened to Dot Travel? Well… it was a good idea with good intentions when it first started. But as so many well intentioned ideas do, it fell victim to economics. Theglobe.com’s stock price (TGLO) has hovered just a fraction of a penny above $0 for years now. The only time the stock has ever risen substantially in recent years was in 2005 when the markets believed (just as the travel industry did) that the company had finally stumbled upon an idea that had legs. Unfortunately what TheGlobe.com did not have was the patience to allow the travel industry to believe in Tralliance. The moment that Tralliance strayed from the concept of restricting domain registrations to those companies that had a legal right to register the domains, they lost all credibility in the travel industry and in the financial markets. If anyone is out there wondering if they should pay $100 per year to register a dot travel name, the answer is a clear NO. In my opinion the price was warranted when there was a clear verification process in place, and a plan to teach consumers about the value of that verification process. But that was all gone and buried many years ago, and today the dot travel domain is just a highly overpriced domain extension that nobody really knows anything about.

First published on 23 Mar 2010 in Online Brand Protection at hotelinternethelp.com

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