Charming little Siam Garden Resort, tucked away on a residential street at the northern tip of Anna Maria Island, owes most of its first 1,800 guests to the Internet.

At least half of its first 700 parties found the 15-room resort on the World Wide Web and 90 percent researched and reserved it by e-mail, co-owner Kent Davis says. He and his Thai wife, Sophaphan, bought the former fishing lodge in 2001, revamped it extensively and opened its doors in March 2002.

"I can't imagine how this place could have opened and flourished as rapidly without the Internet," says Davis, who promotes Siam Garden (www.siamgardenresort.com) as "the best kept secret" on Anna Maria. "It is an extraordinary medium. There are entire months in our year where we are filled with people from England who wouldn't have found us without the Internet. We wouldn't have been able to afford that much print advertising."

Davis and other owners of lodging properties in Sarasota and Manatee counties have seen the Internet dramatically alter the accommodations industry. Properties that have learned how to market by Internet do so in many ways-with Web sites, multiple links to web partners, e-mail and booking services-and they see the Internet-backed proportion of their bookings growing steadily. Internet sales at the Radisson Lido Beach Resort (www.radisson.com) nearly tripled last year and those at the Hyatt Sarasota (www.hyatt.com) more than doubled, their managers say. This year, the Silver Resort Properties family (www.silverresorts.com) on the Manatee County beaches has seen online traffic climb by 30 to 40 percent.

What about motels and vacation-rental condos that aren't online? Hmm.are there any? "Even our smallest properties have some kind of Web presence," says Virginia Haley, executive director of the 350-member Sarasota County Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB). It may be just a single-frame Web site showing a sandy beach and coconut palm above a business name, phone number and e-mail address, but that two- or three-unit business is online.

The number of people using the Internet for travel needs is no longer just a trend, but a sweeping, industry-wide transformation that a tiny "boutique" hotel or B&B cannot fight. The Travel Industry Association of America reports that between 1997 and 2002, Americans using the Internet for travel research and planning rose from 12 million to 64 million. The percentage of those online travel planners who said they do all or most of their trip planning online increased from 29 percent to 42 percent. While 77 percent of them bought airline tickets, 57 percent of them purchased accommodations. With 3.5 to 4 million visitors to Sarasota and Manatee counties each year, the stakes are high.

A lodging property must not only be online but be adept at turning its many uses of the Internet into profit. There's a lot to learn, hoteliers say.

"It's an extraordinarily important part of our business," says Katherine Klauber Moulton, chairwoman-elect of the Florida Hotel and Motel Association and president of the Colony Beach & Tennis Resort (www.colonybeach.com) on Longboat Key. As an independent resort, "we have to be ahead of the curve on how we use the Internet and how we devise marketing strategies."

The Colony, a Gulf-front compound of 208 suites and 26 specialty accommodations as well as 21 tennis courts, seems to be doing a good job of that in at least one respect. It excels at getting recognized by search engines. Type in "Colony Beach" on Google, and the resort Web site often is the No. 1 search result. Moulton says this is because the marketing staff creates each of its web pages with key words embedded in text and frequently updates information. (A Google spokesman says the higher-ranking the search result, the more links the entity has.)

Moulton's marketing staff sends regular e-mail "blasts" to a list of 30,000 previous guests and prospective visitors who have "clicked in" to the Web site. Also e-mailed are 12,000 members of the Gulf Coast Connoisseurs Club, a loyalty program that Moulton and her two restaurateur brothers developed.

An e-mail blast is a great savings, Moulton says, because it costs only the time of a staff member writing the e-mail compared to the expenditure of, say, $14,000 for an ad in Travel + Leisure (CQ) magazine. Also, it's more productive because it's carefully targeted; readers of a Colony e-mail already have expressed interest in the resort.

Google, MSN Search and Yahoo are the most effective search engines for Siam Garden, Davis says. He initially earmarked $10,000, or one-third of the marketing budget, for Internet advertising and fees but will increase that because of weaker results from other media.

That doesn't mean Siam Garden is booking guests electronically. Davis and many other owners of small properties say they want to close the deal by telephone. "We like the personal touch, but the Internet is the key to establishing contact," Davis says.

Some resorts can't add online booking fast enough. Gayle Luper, owner of the Gulf-front Bungalow BeachResort on Bradenton Beach, was so impressed with FLA/USA projections about online bookings that she added a reservations service to her Web site late last year. She looked for one that charged an agreed-upon sum rather than a commission and chose Net Bookings at a promotional rate of $10 per month.

The online travel arena tends to appeal to bargain-hunting travelers who like to investigate a destination at their computers, then comparison-shop. A huge amount of information is aimed at these online shoppers on the Web sites of each of the counties' CVBs, the destination-marketing organizations financed by a room tax levied on the cost of lodging. As Internet use has climbed, CVBs have become more sophisticated and research-oriented. Marketing director Susan Estler says the Bradenton Area CVB (www.floridaislandbeaches.org) knows it has as many as 60,000 and as few as 18,000 visitors per month to its Web site; they spend an average of 15 minutes looking at the area's offerings.

The Web site lists all accommodations, but is uninvolved with bookings. "We're a marketing organization," BACVB executive director Larry White says. "We're not a hotel sales organization."

The Sarasota CVB (www.sarasotafl.org) has a Web site that lists all members (who pay $390 yearly) and offers links to the 33 properties (about 10 percent of the membership) that offer online booking. Executive director Haley cannot foresee requiring members to have online booking because the expense of it would hurt "the little guys."

The Sarasota Web site has experienced a huge burst of use, Haley says. The 700,000 "hits" of September 2002 more than doubled to 1.5 million in September 2003. It's because of vacationers scrolling down and around these Web sites and their links, seeking the right property at the lowest possible price, that the Internet-generated share of business is high at small properties compared to large hotels. The Hyatt's Internet-supported percentage of business for the first 10 months of 2003 was 13 percent; the Radisson's fluctuated monthly between 11 and 15 percent; and Moulton estimated the Colony's at 10 percent.

If those figures sound low, they're not. Often half or more of a big property's occupancy is captured by a convention or group meetings-a sector of the hotel business traditionally handled by sales managers and convention planners speaking by phone and executing paperwork by fax.

That way of doing business is changing, too. The Hyatt group is a leader in using a software program that allows most of the booking process to be accomplished online, says Steve Mehas, general manager of the 294-room Hyatt Sarasota, set on Sarasota Bay.

About 95 percent of the booking steps-including choices of meeting room space, layouts and seating-is completed before a "prompt" in the software program triggers an alert to a Hyatt group sales representative, who ties up loose ends by telephone.

The 222-room Radisson Lido Beach, which opened a new conference center in May 2002, counts business travelers as 30 percent of its guests and vacationers as the rest.

Director of marketing George Minnitti says, "Luckily we don't have to do a lot of wholesale business like Orlando," where many hotels discount rooms to online services, charging only $39 and $49 for them.The Radisson has no rate agreement with any discount Web site, he says, and gave one online service a cold shoulder because it wanted at least a 50-percent, off-the-rack rate, plus a commission. However, Radisson rooms are offered on Expedia and Travelocity, as well as its own hotel group Web site.

So how does he recommend getting the lowest rate? "The best thing for the leisure traveler is to call the hotel directly," Minnitti says. 

Jill Maunder is a freelance writer and public relations consultant who lives in St. Petersburg. She can be reached at JMaunderComm@aol.com 

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Travel Trends 

Number of Americans using Internet for travel research and planning:

1997 12-million

2002 64-million 

Percentage of those online travel planners who say they do all or most of their trip planning online:

2001 29 percent

2002 42 percent 

Cahtleen, This could be a chart..

The most frequently purchased travel products online:

77 percent purchase airline tickets

57 percent purchase accommodations

37 percent purchase rental cars

25 percent buy tickets for cultural events

21 percent ("up significantly from last year's 13 percent") buy travel packages 

Among online bookers:

More than 30 percent reported spending $2,500 or more in the past year on travel booked online. 

Source: Travel Industry Association of America (TIA)

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