Thursday, August 28, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Travel Troubleshooter: Don't be blind to 'flash sale' restrictions

Gerald Annable had to think quickly when he found an ad for a 12-day Holland America cruise of Italy, the Greek Islands, and Turkey. The special rate, $1,559 per person, could be his if he acted now, according to his travel agent.

"We were told that it was a 'flash' sale and that day was the last to book," he said. "We were told the cruise must be paid in full that day."

Annable forked over the money promptly - a total of $3,738 for him and his wife, Judith. But that evening, he discovered another ad for the same cruise and the same cabin class. The price: $1,399 per person.

He asked his agent whether Holland America would honor the lower rate, but the cruise line declined. That's how Annable discovered the problem with "flash" sales: Although the deals are often good, additional restrictions often apply, and the price you get might not be the lowest available.

A recent study estimated that flash sales, which offer discounted inventory for a limited time, accounted for more than $2 billion in annual sales.

A deadline-focused sales pitch can yield immediate results for a company. Robert Kissell is a marketing specialist for Southern Shores Realty, a vacation rental company on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. On Black Friday, his company held a flash sale to "turn the heat up" on prospective customers, offering a wide selection of rentals with inventory even on hard-to-get dates, such as the Fourth of July.

"The results were incredible," Kissell says. "Southern Shores Realty boosted revenue by more than 200 percent, and our revenue per booking was up 16 percent."

A recent survey by the hotel flash-sale website suggests the average discount is about 39 percent. Although the actual discount is probably about 10 percentage points less than that because hotels mark the price down from so-called rack rates that customers rarely pay, it's still a deal.

But there's a right way and a wrong way to entice customers into making a fast purchase decision, said Marlene Towns, a marketing professor at Georgetown University.

Generally, travelers know what they're getting when they buy a vacation package or hotel room via a flash sale, she says. They're booking hotel rooms or event tickets at an aggressive markdown with little or no chance of a refund.

"With airlines, it seems trickier," Towns adds. "There are hefty change fees if the purchase is refundable at all, so there is real pressure to make the correct purchase decision. If there is fine print, it discourages consumers from becoming informed and limits their ability to gain full disclosure."

Confusing verbiage isn't limited to airlines, of course. The Lansdowne Resort in Leesburg, Va., discovered that keeping the fine print to a minimum on its limited-time offers was key to a successful - and complaint-free - flash sale, said Patrick Matheson, director of revenue optimization.

Excessive fine print may be a sign of trouble, experts say. But travelers are also turned off by come-ons that force them to push the "buy" button now, such as countdown timers or notifications that there are "only" one or two of the desired items left.

The takeaway? Time-limited offers in travel can be a good opportunity, but not always. Responsible flash sales avoid ticking sales clocks and onerous terms. Don't let yourself be pressured.

Annable is unhappy that neither Holland America nor his travel agent could adjust his fare. After all, even airlines allow a 24-hour grace period for cancellations. I contacted Holland America on his behalf. A representative said records showed that Annable was advised of the restrictions.

"The cancellation schedule associated with the promotion is reviewed when the booking is made and deposited," said Erik Elvejord, a spokesman for the cruise line. As a gesture of goodwill, Holland America offered Annable a cabin upgrade. Elliott's latest book is "How to Be the World's Smartest Traveler" (National Geographic).
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