gets smart

It wasn't so long ago when travel-related web sites were brushed off as being "static" and "good only for browsing and getting information" - surely not measuring up to the services of the traditional bricks-and-mortar travel agent.

Today, however, there are sites that sell you everything you need for a holiday and more ( hawks luggage, clothes and even gifts in addition to travel) in a secure environment where online payments can be made.

The sites are hardly static - at you can state the price for the product or service you are willing to pay; take part in message boards or chat rooms which give you a chance to relive your latest travel tales with fellow travellers and surfers.

Granted, most such sites exist in the US, offering domestic bookings within the US only. But Asia has seen several of its own lately. One of these is Touted as Asia's premier Internet-based TRS (Travel Reservation System), it is a one-stop travel shop for flights, hotels, tour packages, transfers, meals and car rentals.

The site offers more than 20,000 products at the moment in over 100 countries, is e-commerce enabled and accepts payment in nine different currencies (more available soon). Users have instant confirmation of their bookings and can print out their own receipts and vouchers to redeem their travel services. Its discounted air fare module is expected to be launched this month. trades within both the Secure Electronic Transaction (SET) and the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) protocols with 128-bit encryption.

Since its inception in 1997, the site has attracted more than 50,000 registered users.

One of the virtual travel agency's strengths lies in the trade experience and understanding of founder and chief Alex Kong (in picture). Kong has worked in the travel industry almost all his life. From chef to incentive planner to outbound tour operator, Kong has done it all. His family business was involved in hotel and travel agency operations.

"The various experiences I gathered allowed me to see the industry from many angles. This further fuelled the fire that was burning in me. I was frustrated with the way the travel industry worked, which is based on legacy systems, with its many limitations that drove up the cost of conducting business. The rule of the industry at that time was to survive by killing each other.

"I was determined to find a way to overcome the many limitations and obstacles faced by not just the travel suppliers, but also by the customers. I knew instinctively that Internet was the way to go. I was intrigued by the potential of the Internet. The possibilities were endless. Imagine having direct access to airline bookings, accommodation, meal arrangements, vehicle reservation - plus all the information the tourist needs - and the convenience of it all at a mouse-click!", says Kong.

Kong got his first break from AsiaTech Ventures which, after seeing his prototype, saw it fit to pump in RM700,000(US$200,000). That was the beginning of

Now in its fourth year, is expecting to sign up its one millionth visitor by year end.

To add credibility and bulk to its site, has solicited ePartnerships with major players in the region. It can now claim names like LycosAsia, Altavista/Skali, MSN Singapore, JARING, and as partners. "Our ePartners programme allows website owners to generate extra income for themselves. All they have to do is register on as our ePartner. Following a simple procedure, a link will be created from their webpage to

"They can sell all our travel products instantaneously. Every time their users click onto this link or make any purchases, the ePartners are empowered to access and track all the information about the registered users, their confirmed purchases and all sales track records. Besides these facilities, our engine also provides the option for ePartners to personalise and tailor-make the layout, or the look and feel of their travel site to be consistent with the overall website, by using simple and user-friendly HTML code from our engine. In other words, they can brand the site their own and maintain a consistent identity," explains Kong. has not been left out in the IPO frenzy. According to Kong, it is on target for listing on the NASDAQ index by the fourth quarter of this year. Since its first round funding of RM700,000, Asiatravelmart has managed to secure RM13 million and it will soon close its third round funding with US$20 million (an online travel reservation system doesn't come cheap).

* Revenue to date: RM13 million (US$3.4m) from 1999 to date
* Projected figure at the time of launch: S$110 million (US$64m) by 2000.
* Total unique visitors per day: 5,000-8,000
* Over 60 percent of bookings come from US and Europe and the others from Asia and other parts of the world.
* Flight reservations will be available on the site this month.

* Usability: Five clicks would get you booked in a hotel. A lot of features ranging from the general booking functions to time zone converters and wallpapers for your computer.
* Presentation: Limited graphics and small font-size text. Very busy home page but second level pages are clear and easy to navigate.
* Rate offerings: Competitive rates
* Products: Good range of hotels and tours. Air component not up at press time.
* Online booking: Yes
* Customer Service: Response to queries by email promised within 24 hours; call centre within office hours but no toll-free lines.

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