So for the first time yesterday, I'm momentarily tempted to use an in-world service I'm supposed to be reporting on for direct personal gain, because I still need to buy two tickets to Florida for the Christmas holidays, and this tall slinky redhead in the silk blue cheongsam and a steel collar around her neck, she could probably get me a bargain.
As it happens, the deals Cattrina Careless can offer now are for two other sunny destinations, one that I'm from, the other I've already been to. "Hawaii is always a popular destination so when GTI published that one," she says, "we had to include it. For the truly adventerous, Greece is a great place to visit and quite cheap with this week's special." You'd have to book and fly immediately she adds, "but if you have the opportunity you can save hundreds of dollars."
"GTI" is Global Travel International, an established and reputed web-based travel agency. Cattrina and her husband PajVar Kerensky are certified independant travel agents working with GTI, so I ask her if they know that their web business now has an online world branch, here on the lakeshore of Bella.
Cattrina Careless nods. "Although I'm not sure they really understood what I was trying to explain," she says, laughing.
Their main goal for creating an office in-world is to fulfill the fervent need of Residents who want to meet in real life, for group get-togethers like the recent SLCC-- or for more personal, intimate meetings. Though they offer full travel packages with hotel and car to exotic destinations, most inquiries from potential clients have only asked about flights, she tells me. "[T]hey know where they want to go and are sure they don't need to make arrangements for accomodations," Cattrina says, grinning. "But one of the things I always recommend when moving [a relationship] offline is that you have your own transport and your own accomodation. There should be some personal safety involved whenever you do meet offline." Recently someone asked her how it'd cost to fly from the UK to meet someone in the States. "They were just considering the idea of visiting and wondered how much it would cost. It happens more than you might realize." (But then, I realize that quite well.) In a later interview, Kerensky mentions that he and Careless met and eventually married this way themselves, going from another online world to air travel between their homes on the US West Coast and Australia, respectively.
Their agency has black marble floors and high walls of smoked glass. A large couch is nearby, for folks who want to watch a Hawaii surf video, to get in the mood. On the wall are the current travel package offers, which are embedded with a web link that launches your browser, and takes you directly to a secured web page where you can complete the transaction.
"We do not take real life information in any way [here]," says Cattrina. "Global Travel takes any RL information, we simply help you select and personalize the trip you wish to take... we give you the details either in e-mail or here in-game of exact flight numbers, dates, hotels, etc. and a 1-800 number that you can call to finialize booking with Global Travel. Or if you prefer not to call, a direct web link to a page we have created for your travel choices." To earn their commission, they phone in the details of the deal to the agency, or supply their agent number to pass on to the GTI representative the client ends up talking to.
For a demo, I ask her about a New Orleans trip I've been wanting to take, even moreso after Katrina.
"OK," says Ms. Careless, "so what would you be looking at? Five star? Budget? Do you have a preference? In the French Quarter perhaps? The Saint Louis Hotel is the best in the French Quarter. I have a nice picture of the hotel rooms." She uploads and displays the digital snapshot of an ornate room.
"Nice," I decide, "though a little froufrou for me."
"Ahh, but that is the nature of this hotel, perhaps I can find one a little closer to your tastes. More modern? The Hotel Provincial is probably closer to your preferences... can't promise it isn't waterlogged right now, though." She uploads another room photo to show me.
I ask her if she's considered doing transactions through Linden Dollars, acting as a kind of virtual world Paypal, since they can just convert the payment into cash after the sale's completed.
"Yes and no. The primary concern of many people (and an honest concern it is too!) is the chance of having to give out real life information. We don't want to put them in that position, thus the direct interaction with a well-known travel company. If we took payment in Linden Dollars we would require personal information to make the final booking, like [real] name, etc. Not going to do that." She smiles sweetly. "One of the attractions of Second Life for many people is the anonimity that SL provides. Even when they are going to meet someone in real life they dont want some stranger to know who they are-- a valid concern."
In any case, their new agency has yet to complete a sale. "We have had a lot of interest, but as yet no one booking travel," she acknowledges. "But such is the nature of the travel agency business. Many people like to browse."
I wonder if the lack of sales has anything to do with the comparative strangeness of the setting, the surreal prospect of chatting with a femme fatale avatar so you can spend hundreds of dollars for a service that usually involves being strapped into a steel hull and sent airborne thousands of feet, flying at speeds approaching Mach One. Or maybe it's just the bulbous pink sculpture near the travel agency that's been nagging at my periphery throughout our conversation.
In any case, I finally have to ask.
"You're a submissive wearing a steel collar with your master's name on it and there's a 50 foot animated penis tower right outside. Is that distracting to clients wanting to do business?"
Cattrina Careless laughs. "Unfortunately there is little we can do about the penis. We own most of Bella, however [the penis tower owner] owns what's left. And as you know we can do anything we want on our property.
"As for my collar," she adds, "you are actually the first person that has even mentioned it. So I don't believe it has worried anyone." Ms. Careless smiles. "We try to be professional in all our dealing with our customers and that's ultimately what counts."