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Site luring travelers back to "live" agents

An online company has launched a campaign to stem the exodus of travelers from traditional travel agencies. It wants people to visit the Web but still interact with a "real" person.

Scores of travelers have defected from traditional travel agencies to book their own fares at Web travel sites. Now, a 2-year-old online company has launched a campaign to stem the exodus.

Privately held WeBeenThere said Monday that it plans to combine the convenience of shopping on the Web with the comfort people can receive by discussing travel plans with a trained agent.

Under WeBeenThere's "get 'em back" strategy, travel agents with firsthand knowledge of specific vacation destinations can post biographies on WeBeenThere.com. Should a traveler want to pick the brain of an agent, he or she can fill out an online questionnaire and notify the agent of the location, time of departure and any special travel interests.

Based on how the customer wants to be contacted, the agent will phone or e-mail details about travel fares and accommodations.

Travelocity.com, Expedia and Orbitz have swooped in to snatch large shares of the travel market away from traditional travel agencies. Instead of calling up a travel agent, many consumers are logging on and shopping for airfare or hotel rooms themselves.

PhoCusWright, a research group that studies the online travel sector, estimates that 15 percent of all travel fares will be booked online this year. In 2003, that number will skyrocket to 28 percent, more than a quarter of the industry.

Meanwhile, the traditional travel sector is in decline, with some estimates indicating that the market has slid 21 percent since 1997. Worse yet, the airlines and other travel suppliers have been cutting the commissions they pay to agents for the fares they sell.

Not long ago, travel agents could be paid a 10 percent commission. Last year, airlines capped commissions at $20 for a round-trip ticket. Several airlines have dropped paying commissions to online travel sites altogether.

The industry is fighting back. Trade associations representing traditional travel agents staged protests last summer against the commission cuts. They are also recommending that agencies expand their services.