Owning a travel agency is no easy task, but add to that the time-consuming undertaking of creating and maintaining a web site, and your to-do list grows exponentially.
Do you need to be an expert in both the travel industry and web design? No, but you do need to create a set plan of action outlining your audience goals and the time and resources you can dedicate to the process before you jump into building or redesigning your site.
Do you begin your research with the search engines? In this case, the answer is no. Ask a friend or colleague? Take a course? Check Craigslist? The options are endless, but before you ask, "What do web design companies have to offer me?," you should ask yourself, "What do I have to offer my audience?" To help you with this process, here are three steps for successfully setting up your web site.
Pick a URL and Register It
When beginning your web design project, there are a few things you will need to do, regardless of the option you go with.
- 1. Register a domain for at least five years. This helps to show search engines that you plan to be around for awhile.
- 2. Register a ".com" over a ".net"—or register both to protect yourself from competitors purchasing the .net version.
- 3. Avoid using dashes in the URL; keep your web site name memorable.
- 4. Choose a hosting company that has been rated by the Better Business Bureau.
- 5. Chose an ICANN-accredited registrar.
- 6. Plan ahead. Choose a hosting company that supports the technology you will be using (ASP, PHP, etc.). You don't want to switch hosting companies later if you don't have to.
Identify Your Audience and Plan the Site
How will people get to your site? How familiar are they with you? What do they need to see to differentiate your services from the competition?
Creating audience profiles and outlining what the sales cycle process is will help communicate to the various vendors what elements you will need on your site now and in the future. You will know the path your audience will take when they come to your site; this helps with search engine optimization. Also, you will be able to choose a platform that best fits your needs and grows with you as your site develops.
Don't make assumptions. Create a clear path that outlines your audience's steps in their decision-making process. If you simply need a four-page site to sell your audience, you can go with an out-of-the-box solution. But if you need 3-D tours, you should hire a web design firm.
- 1. User research: create three audience profiles, develop personal, demographic, webography habits, favorite sites, etc.
- 2. Information architecture: What site path do they need to take to see the value in your services?
- 3. Interaction of design: Do they need a tour of a resort, or will static images be enough?
- 4. User needs: How does your user approach the task of selecting a destination, and what will they need to see once they are on your site? Don't assume all the cool Web 2.0 elements are of value to your audience.
Clearly identifying your audience and what steps they need to make the decision to book with you up front will give you an idea of what experience your site needs to provide them with. This will help you to outline what your needs are in choosing a vendor and what compromises you can or cannot make with the design, with respect to your budget.
Choose a Company
When it comes to building your site there are a variety of options.
Internet Domain Registrar and Web Hosting Companies
- 1. You do not have to go to multiple companies for domain registration, e-commerce solutions, design and hosting.
- 2. Lower upfront cost.
- 3. Sites can be built with little or no design skills and can be up in as little as a day.
- 4. You do not have to have a dedicated web developer.
- 5. It's easy to make frequent updates.
- 6. They're ideal if you are not looking for a lot Flash or other dynamic features.
and their cons:
- 1. Sites are templated; you have the potential to have a very similar site to others in your industry.
- 2. Potential lack of industry knowledge or research in the design.
- 3. Sites can get a little less professional looking as you "play" with the templates.
- 4. You must find out: Can you use an outside vendor to optimize the site? Can their platform be built on?
- 5. Customer support: How responsive are they and what are the hours they are available to help you? Where are they located?
- 6. Do they charge extra for support?
- 7. How reliable are they? What is their site up time?
Cost: Starting at as little as $399 per year.
Professional Web Site Design Firm
Which firm you choose depends on your skill, comfort level and budget. I like to work with a local company, but you may be willing to work remotely with a company over the phone for a lower cost.
- 1. A good design firm will leverage its team's expertise and experience to build a professional web site.
- 2. You have experts to rely on if something goes down or is not working properly.
- 3. These companies usually have a good understanding of W3C (the main World Wide Web international standards organization) standards and usability requirements.
and their cons:
- 1. Usually higher upfront costs.
- 2. May require you to host with them.
- 3. You must involve them in order to make changes (or need to know how to use a program like Dreamweaver to edit the site).
- 4. Usually there are additional charges to maintain your site after the initial design.
Cost: Expect to pay between $65 and $250 an hour, depending on their skill and location.
A small firm may charge as little as $2,000 for a site; others, well above $7,000, depending on your requirements. Have them build out several options for you—maybe there are elements you can add in phases to defer upfront costs.
Content Management Systems
The world of web design has now come to a point of understanding—sometimes small businesses need to be able to change their content on the fly. It is not practical to pay a designer for a half hour's worth of work to post one or two images to your site. CMSs are becoming more affordable due to demand, and many vendors are catering to the small business owner's needs.
- 1. Similar to some of the Internet registrar companies, CMS vendors offer templates as well as professional design services.
- 2. Sites can be built with little or no design skills and can be updated in real-time.
- 3. You do not have to have a dedicated web developer.
- 4. Many offer chat support to help you in real-time.
and their cons:
- 1. May be harder to optimize for down the road due to long URL strings.
- 2. How search engine friendly is the design? Does it duplicate content?
- 3. Can you use an outside vendor to optimize your site? Can the platform be built on? Will it integrate with Web 2.0 features?
Cost: Expect to pay $1,500 and up for the CMS, without design services. Many companies have a one-time charge of $499 for the initial design.
When it comes to planning your web site, you need to be realistic. Decide how much time you have, how big your budget is and what elements you really need to engage and maintain your audience. Compromises may need to be made for the type of platform you use, but you should not sacrifice your user experience. If you plan to drive traffic via search, then an out-of-the-box solution may not be right for you. However, if you have a strong sense of design and a good amount of time to dedicate to updating your site, a CMS can give you a lot of control.
No matter who you talk to or how much research you do, always remember a few old adages: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is; and you get what you pay for. Developing and selecting a vendor for your web site isn't easy, but clearly identifying your goals before building a site will ensure that you make a smart investment.