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Travel info is just a call away -- maybe

By Alfred Borcover

Chicago Tribune

It's all about saving money. It has nothing to do with serving the traveling public better.

There isn't a person around who enjoys calling an airline or a tourist office for information, only to be confronted by an automated phone-answering system that has him or her punching buttons to eventually connect with a warm body and a real voice.

Like everyone else, Judy Randall, who runs Randall Travel Marketing in Mooresville, N.C., detests automated phone systems. Randall, who consults for city, county and state tourism entities, also speaks to travel groups about trends and gripes about those automated systems.

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"When I ask travel professionals how they feel about being connected to automated phone systems, they all say they don't like it one bit," Randall said. "When I ask if they use automated systems in their own operations, they all raise their hands."

The automated systems, which have been in place for years, save companies money because they don't have to hire people to staff the phones. Those systems will continue to be around, Randall said, until someone comes up with a better system and gives a firm a competitive advantage.

All the while, airlines and tourist offices direct callers to their Web sites -- further distancing travelers from a live information provider. Have you ever noticed, Randall asked, that many Web sites don't include a phone number? "They don't want you to call them," she said.

Foreign and state tourist offices tend not to barricade themselves from the public as much as airlines, despite their own budget woes.

One state travel office, for example, thought outside the box to better serve callers. Faced with a significant backlog in queries and a tight budget 12 years ago, the North Carolina Division of Tourism, Film &; Sports Development found an economical way to dispense state travel information.

"We partnered with Department of Corrections and struck a deal with the Women's Correctional Center in Raleigh to provide inmates to field tourism information calls," said Lynn Minges, executive director of the state's tourism agency.

"We've handled as many as 400,000 calls a year. The program has been extremely successful," Minges said. "The travel counselors are inmates, most serving long sentences. We prefer that because it takes a long time to train them. Some counselors will be in our program for as long as 10 years."

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