The company that operates yellowpages.travel and bills it as "officially the Better Business Bureau of the international travel industry" ran afoul of none other than the Better Business Bureau for using a trademarked name without permission.
The company, Idea Labz in Santa Monica, Calif., has bought a number of dot-travel names -- sandiegocalifornia.travel, miamiflorida.travel, yellowbook.travel and pricerunner.travel -- all of which take the user to the same basic interface, with a search applet that promises to "search the travel sites at the same time" but does not.
Idea Labz took advantage of a change in policy at Tralliance Corp., the registry for the dot-travel top-level domain, late last year. On Dec. 21, all dot-travel domain names became first come, first served and were made available to any travel company.
Henry Harteveldt, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research, said the Web sites illustrate that the dot-travel concept, "which had been on life-support, is now in the coffin." The concept began with "good but misguided intentions," he said. The original idea, put forth by Ron Andruff, a pro hockey player turned travel marketer, was that companies with .travel sites would be "authenticated."
For example, Miami.travel and SanDiego.travel would be reserved for the convention and visitors bureaus of those cities, and indeed the Miami and San Diego CVBs bought those URLs. But the concept did not gain traction. Many companies had invested millions of dollars to promote their dot-com sites -- the Expedia-dot-com TV ads are a prime example -- and felt compelled to buy dot-travel URLs only to prevent someone else from taking them.
Heidi Siefkes, Tralliance marketing director, said last year's policy changes "did not make the authentication process less stringent." Before the change, she said, the URL needed to reflect the company's legal name. Now a company can buy other dot-travel addresses so long as the Web site "has relevant content," Siefkes said. But "relevant content" appears to be loosely defined.
Sandiegocalifornia.travel searches Expedia, Orbitz, Kayak, Hotwire, Hotels.com, Priceline, SideStep and other sites for flights, hotels, cars and cruises. None of the information on the site is specific to San Diego. The content is identical to that on miami-florida.travel and Idea Labz' other sites.
Harteveldt said destination marketing organizations stood to gain the most from the concept, if it had stayed true to the original intent.
A savvy consumer searching for the "official" San Diego or Miami Web site would probably be able to discern that the Idea Labz sites do not fill the bill. What then is the dot-travel domain worth, and what did the Miami and San Diego CVBs purchase if other site owners are not "authentic"?
Idea Labz' sites have gotten attention in other ways. Yellowpages.travel issued a press release announcing a free service called the "YellowPages Certification Process," whereby a business could request a sort of seal of approval at YellowPages.travel/GetCertified. The program would conduct a "thorough background check" on travel businesses through the Better Business Bureau, the Travel Industry Association, local and federal police authorities and "various other entities" to check whether negative complaints have been filed against the business.
"YellowPages Corporation, operator of popular business directories and telephone books for nearly 100 years, today announced that www.YELLOWPAGES.travel is officially the Better Business Bureau of the international travel industry," the release stated.
Victoria Doran, vice president of capacity and chief counsel, brand, for the Council of Better Business Bureaus Inc., told TTU that the company did not work with the Better Business Bureau to develop the program.
"We are in the process of writing to demand they cease use of Better Business Bureau -- our registered trademark -- in this manner," she wrote in an e-mail response.
Oddly enough, neither the term "Yellow Pages" nor the "walking fingers" logo has ever been trademarked. Yellowpages.com, however, is a subsidiary of AT&T, whose spokeswoman said, "Our legal team is handling this matter."
Yellowbook.com, however, is service-marked and was surprised to learn of the existence of Yellowbook.travel. Another Idea Labz site, pricerunner.travel, came to the attention of ValueClick, which owns PriceRunner.com.
"Pricerunner.travel is not endorsed by any of the PriceRunner entities and properties under ValueClick, Inc., which include without limitation, PriceRunner.com USA, PriceRunner AB ("PriceRunner Entities")," the company said in a statement.
"In addition, none of the PriceRunner Entities have any affiliation, relationship nor connection with Pricerunner.travel. It appears that PriceRunner.travel may be trying to leverage the recognized brand that the PriceRunner Entities' comparison shopping sites have developed in the marketplace since 1999."
Siefkes said the issue of trademark violations is not the responsibility of domain registries such as Tralliance. Those disputes are handled by the World Intellectual Property Organization, she said.
Bobby Kalili, a co-founder of Idea Labz, said YellowPages.travel had been in communication with PriceRunner.com and Yellowbook.com but would not disclose the nature of the discussions.
Meanwhile, NamesBeyond, the official registrar for the .aero top-level domain, said airports have until Nov. 30 to register their IATA three-letter airport codes in the .aero domain name. NamesBeyond said it will release the codes to the public after that date. Harteveldt said that such a move could put airports' reputations at risk if the URLs fall into the hands of individuals or companies "devoid of ethics or integrity."
In the end, attempts to create new top-level domains have devolved into "the hostage-taking of brands," he said.