One hub of activity at the ABA Convention in Philadelphia was the GroupConnect kiosk on the trade show floor. Jim Palmeri, managing director of the developing online travel planning site, worked with others to demonstrate the program and its subsidiary sites, CharterBusConnect and GroupTravelConnect, to prospective bus operator and travel industry users.
All are joint ventures of the American Bus Association and the Ontario Motorcoach Association.
“The GroupConnect concept began in 2008, and I came onboard in September of 2009,” said Palmeri. “I was brought in to get GroupConnect up and running. Jennifer Powers was already onboard in a sales capacity when I came on, and then we brought in Tony Funderburg from IMG as part of the team, too.”
GroupConnect is the base site for the joint venture and is a business-to-business website designed to allow bus or tour operators to put tour planning inquiries and itineraries out to participating travel industry members. Participating hotels and attractions receive online requests for quotes for accommodations and services.
CharterBusConnect and GroupTravelConnect are consumer sites designed to make bus equipment and travel industry services, respectively, available online to the public.
“We rewrote the software when I got here — it was more technical than it needed to be,” said Palmeri. “It had to be more user-friendly if we were going to get our operators to use it.
“We launched in the fall of ’09. We did a soft launch first in Canada and then a full launch after that in Washington, D.C. We launched in a tough economy, but the second half of 2010 has been phenomenal.
“At first, our operators thought GroupConnect was sales-oriented for them, which is not the case,” said Palmeri. “For them, GroupConnect is operations-oriented. It’s about saving them time in the tour-planning process.
“If you need rooms in a given city, you put that into the system, and hotels in the system respond. Once your operations staff understands it and buys into it, it’s a tremendous time-saver.”
Palmeri stressed that GroupConnect isn’t designed to replace entire tour-planning systems or methods that companies have used for years.
“The word connect says it all,” said Palmeri. “We don’t pretend that we’re doing anything more than bringing buyers and sellers together online. Then it’s up to them.
“If they want to do business transactions online they can. If they want to follow up by phone or e-mail, they can. Whatever’s best for the parties involved still applies.
“For the travel industry members of ABA, it’s one input,” he said. “All the same data they send to us for GroupConnect also goes into our print publication, the ‘Motorcoach Marketer.’”
CharterBusConnect is a consumer site designed strictly for chartering equipment.
“It’s for the end-user who needs a coach,” said Palmeri. “That could be a travel professional or a group leader or just a person out there looking for a reputable bus company.
“Right now, 20 percent of our operator members are in the system. All our suppliers are in as part of their membership. Currently, for $79 a year, you get a menu of extras. We’ll move all this into our membership dues payment system over time to make it more convenient for everyone.”
As with any startup, there is a threshold of participation that must be crossed. In this case, as more tour operators come into the system, suppliers will see more value, said Palmeri.
“One operator in December put in over 500 requests,” he said. “In the same month, 1,588 suppliers had the opportunity to give quotes online to operators. Start multiplying that out as the system grows and you can see the potential.”