Store Trek: The Next Generation : Shopping: Texas : From a former mega-bookstore chain owner comes a one-stop travel superstore in Austin.

Dembling is a free-lance writer based in Dallas

Entrepreneur Gary Hoover had a vision of you, J.Q. Consumer, in your car on Saturday morning, your disposable income burning a hole in your pocket.

And there was Home Depot suggesting, "Why don't you build a deck?" There was CompUSA, flashing its software. Bookstar was trying to tempt you with a long, leisurely browse, Toys R Us was wondering, "What about the kids?" and Petco was shaking gourmet kibble in your direction.

But nobody, anywhere, was calling out, "How about Paris? Seen Las Vegas yet? Have you ever thought of Tibet?"

"Our country makes dog food sexier than travel," Hoover says. And so in July, Hoover opened TravelFest, which, to his knowledge, is the nation's first travel superstore. The 6,000-square-foot store in Austin is the first of what Hoover hopes will grow to a national chain--and he's not one for idle hopes. Founder of the Bookstop/Bookstar chain Hoover opened the first Bookstop in Austin in 1982 with $350,000 seed money. By the time he sold the chain to Barnes & Noble for $41.5 million in 1989, it consisted of 23 stores stretching from Florida to California. Hoover also founded Reference Press, which publishes the Hoover's Handbooks business directories. He'll open a second, 10,000-square-foot TravelFest in downtown Austin this spring.

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The concept is one-stop travel shopping. TravelFest offers not only guidebooks, gadgets and luggage, but also software; a large selection of world, country and city maps; videos for sale and rent; games; literature; cookbooks; language books and tapes; newspapers from around the world; magazines, and a full-service travel agency. At TravelFest, you can book a package to Las Vegas, pick up an audio course in colloquial Albanian, and get the latest edition of Detroit magazine. It's the logical next step in an ever-growing travel industry and ever-shrinking world.

The flagship store, which Hoover says attracted 18,000 to 19,000 people its first week, sits in a brand-new shopping center, also home to a CompUSA and a Discovery Zone, one of a large chain of supersize indoor entertainment centers for kids. A 3-D TravelFest logo--a brightly colored postmodern Atlas--stands above the entrance, somewhat reminiscent of a Hard Rock Cafe. The store is packed with merchandise. On an airplane wing flap opposite the entrance, a sign touts travel packages. In the middle of the main room, airport luggage carts are laden with travel accessories, from backpacks to water purifiers, packets of aspirin to mini-disc players, currency converters to point 'n' shoot cameras.

Newspapers and magazines are concentrated in one area as you enter, books, software, video and audio tapes line the back wall. Doors lead to four "Geocoves"--rooms dedicated to Asia-Pacific-Africa, U.S.A.-Canada, Europe and Caribbean-Latin America. The Kidscove has books, games and toys, from geographic teaching toys to keep-'em-quiet road-trip games. The travel agency and research stations seemed the most bustling while I was there, and the Caribbean room had a couple of browsers too.

The wall in which the checkout counter is set is designed to look like a cruise ship. To the far left, under a faux airplane wing, is the aforementioned travel agency. A board behind the counter lists all airline departures from Austin, and signs detail the agency's special services: For $5, the agency will monitor ticket prices for you until the day of departure, checking the cost of a flight daily and notifying you if the price goes down. Buy an airline ticket worth $399 or more and get 10 "Travelbucks" to be applied to any purchase in the store. Tickets costing $799 or more get you $20 in Travelbucks.

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Since airlines recently have started slashing the commissions they pay to travel agents for bookings, many agencies have started charging consumers fees for previously free ticketing services. But Hoover says that TravelFest will not. Although the situation is in flux, one airline economy has been to cap commissions paid to travel agents on domestic round-trip tickets of over $500 and one-way tickets over $250. As these represent less than 5% of TravelFest's ticket sales, Hoover doesn't see a need to charge for ticketing, but suggests his business may benefit as other agencies do.

In front of the counter are stations where customers may research trips themselves, using industry guides such as the Official Airline Guides.

Here, on a recent Friday, law student Lynn Bey-Roode helped her parents plan a visit to Florida en route home to Zimbabwe. This was Bey-Roode's second visit to TravelFest. The first time, she let a TravelFest employee plan her visit to San Antonio.

"She knew everything," Bey-Roode said. "I think she used to live there." This time, an employee was helping Bey-Roode research the trip herself. Several Florida guidebooks sat on the desk; she and her parents pored over a lodging directory.

In planning the store, Hoover did a lot of asking around and people told him, among other things, "I want a store where I don't have to bother anybody," he says. "You want service when you need it."

And so you can solicit help from the staff or you can sit down at touch-screen computers in each concourse and find out if a book is in stock and where it's located. If it's not on the shelves (more than 30,000 are, according to Hoover), you can touch the screen and request that it be ordered. The computers also describe packages offered by the agency. Travel videos play continuously in each concourse.

Furniture salesman Tim Stround wasn't thrilled with the travel agency's service when he tried them--"it took them about two weeks to get back to me," he says--but he has been to the store half a dozen times to browse the books. Because he's planning a trip to Mexico and studying Spanish, he has bought several language books and audio language courses at TravelFest.

Eventually, Hoover hopes to offer language classes in the store's Learning Center, which now is used for lectures--such as a program on Big Bend National Park by a representative from the adventure tour company, Texas River Expeditions; a demonstration of Rand McNally's "TripMaker" software, and presentations on foreign language immersion courses from language teacher Rose Potter. He also envisions such events as a "London Night," where people who have been to London can gather and talk.

Hoover encourages customer interaction: Posted on bulletin boards throughout the store are not only photos, newspaper and magazine clippings about various destinations posted by the staff, but also index cards with comments from customers about places they have visited.

The new store will have everything the original store does, only more and bigger, Hoover says. There will be a learning center that seats 40 instead of 20, a travel agency with eight sit-down desks instead of four, a larger kids' area.

Hoover has no immediate plans to take the concept out of Texas. He chose Austin for the first Bookstop and TravelFest because, "It's got a high education level, a young, receptive population," he says. "It's a great place to innovate." (Austin is the state capital and home to 50,000 students at the University of Texas.) "A year from now I'd like to be able to go into a mega metropolitan area," Hoover says, but that, too, will be in Texas, most likely Dallas or Houston. Next, if all goes well, Hoover will take TravelFest to Florida, then, he says, California. The trick will be finding enough suitable locations to simultaneously open several stores in each metropolitan area.

Hoover has deflected many franchise requests, preferring to keep the chain-to-be company owned.

He still has dreams and plans for the place, and a concept for nabbing your discretionary dollars.

"Our enemy is not the travel agency or the travel bookstore," he says. "It's Home Depot."

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GUIDEBOOK

Browsing at

TravelFest

TravelFest, 9503 Research Blvd., Austin, Tex. 78759-6538. The store is in Gateway Square, a shopping center at Texas 183 and Loop 360. Call (512) 418-1515 or (800) 343-3378. Open 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily, closed Christmas Day.

So far, there is no in-store cafe, catalogue or mailing list, but TravelFest accepts mail and telephone orders for merchandise in stock.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

GUIDEBOOK: Browsing at TravelFest

TravelFest, 9503 Research Blvd., Austin, Tex. 78759-6538. The store is in Gateway Square, a shopping center at Texas 183 and Loop 360. Call (512) 418-1515 or (800) 343-3378. Open 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily, closed Christmas Day.

So far, there is no in-store cafe, catalogue or mailing list, but TravelFest accepts mail and telephone orders for merchandise in stock.

--S.D.

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