With Tripology apparently on the brink and seeking a white knight, Performance Media Group, with its portfolio of travel agent publications, plans to wade deeper into the lead-generation business with an unusual twist -- free leads for travel agents.
Mark Murphy, the president and CEO of Performance Media, says he never thought Tripology's business model made a lot of sense, and that its woes, coupled with the collapse of dot-com fave eGulliver in 2001, show that such businesses that rely on travel agents to pay for consumer leads won't make it.
"Don't give me $15 for a lead, give me tools," Murphy says.
And, tools -- free social media tools that would enable travel agents and consumers to engage more deeply -- is what Murphy has in mind as an upgrade for a revamped Performance Media beta website, Travel Tribe.
Murphy's new vision for Travel Tribe, which has been around for about eight months or so and hasn't been very successful, would be sort of a blend of Travelzoo (deals and newsletter), Tripology (lead-generation), Lonely Planet (destination guides) and PhoCusWright (market intelligence about destinations).
Travel Tribe already has some of these nascent elements, Murphy says, including a deals newsletter, free leads for travel agents, user-generated and professionally written destination content.
But, within three or four months, Performance Media plans to redesign the beta website, which hasn't been marketed, to enable consumers to ask travel or destination questions, and search for people who have been to particular destinations or people who want to go to those vacation spots.
Social-media tools would be introduced on Travel Tribe to accommodate this functionality, and consumers would be able to connect with and get answers from travel agent specialists, Murphy says.
Performance Media brings something to the lead-generation table that other businesses have lacked, Murphy says, including the destination content it already has and can further develop from existing publications Travel Pulse, Agent@Home and Vacation Agent, a staff of travel editors, a sales force and an in-house roster of 10 full-time developers.
"I have a media company with content," Murphy says, adding that the lead-generation business has a high barrier to entry because others have to license content and get little SEO boost. "For me it's a strategic add-on to my existing core business."
With all of the failures in the lead-generation game, Peformance Media would have something to prove.
One competitor, Travel Weekly, tried to leverage its content and assets in a consumer website, Professional Travel Guide, and came up short.
Murphy offers a basic tenet that such businesses should develop multiple revenue streams, keep an open mind, and "be fluid, go where the market goes."
While Travel Tribe would forego collecting fees from travel agents in favor of advertising and a cost-per-click media model, Murphy also wants to explore the development of market intelligence research for destination marketing organizations.
If consumers on Travel Tribe are discussing Bermuda vacations and their issues with them, perhaps Travel Tribe can develop market intelligence for the DMO, Murphy says.
"If I'm Bermuda, I would want to slice and dice that conversation, depending on how much chatter is taking place," Murphy says.
But would Bermuda be willing to pay? he asks rhetorically.
I phoned Murphy after I'd heard a rumor that Performance Media might be interested in investing in Tripology.
Murphy says he hasn't spoken with Tripology recently, but he would "never say never."
But, Murphy says the Tripology business model, coupled with its overhead, didn't appear sustainable.
"If you can't turn a profit with five or six people..." Murphy says.
Still, he doesn't count Tripology out.
"I think someone with the right assets could buy it and make money," Murphy says, pointing to an agency group like Amadeus' Vacation.com as a fit.
Says Murphy: "Wouldn't it make sense for Vacation.com to be lead-generators?"
Update: Tripology President and CEO John Peters says potential investors have been making inquiries.
"There are indeed a few suitors, some are household names and they are doing a lot more than circling Tripology," Peters says. "I simply cannot release any more information at this point."
Peters adds: "I can tell you that I continue to be so very impressed with the kind words of support (emails, voicemails, etc.) that we’ve received not only from our Tripologists, but from the trade in general. I promise, the Tripology family has been very touched."