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Protecting Your Brand

DILEMMA:

We are a travel company selling travel to a U.S. vacation locale since 1971, and recognized as the official central reservations company for that vacation community.

We have represented ourselves as “Central Reservations” since inception. Do you think it is ethical for a local competitor to represent themselves as: “the premiere Central Reservations discount wholesaler”? Or, now they are taking their strategy to another state saying, “We are the ‘Central Reservations’ company offering discount wholesale pricing on everything you need to plan your vacation here.”

We are having trouble registering a service mark for this location’s central reservations, as the state will not recognize these words and grant us a service mark. We are seeking alternatives to have this company stop representing themselves as the central reservations for this vacation destination. Another company has had some success due to copyright infringement and scrapping of the area website. We are seeking a strategy to stop what we believe to be unethical business practices creating possible consumer confusion.

Thank you,
A Resort Association

RESPONSE:

Thanks for writing. I am not an attorney or an expert on the inner workings of the travel reservations business, but I did look at each of the websites you mention. As near as I can tell, the issue of whether or not the practice you describe is unethical hinges on the following: (1) Whether or not recognition of your organization as the “official central reservations company”for this vacation community is official or merely informal, and (2) Whether or not the term “central reservations” signifies something beyond an advertising slogan (i.e., “world famous”; “best in town”). If your organization’s recognition is official and the term “central reservations” signifies some type of formal arrangement, then clearly your competitor is engaged in deception. However, if the recognition you have achieved is more informal, then I think your competitor may be taking a low-road to competition, but you probably have less of an ethical (and perhaps, legal) case.

Short of taking legal action, your best way to fight back is the old fashioned way. No, not by hiring a couple of thugs, but to distinguish yourself in other ways in your marketing and performance. For example, you can emphasize the length of time you have been in business (as I see you have already done on your website), and/or provide testimonials from satisfied customers. You can also use this as a wake-up call to think of new ways to provide superior service and/or vacation experiences, lower costs, and/or treat your suppliers better.

Kenman Wong
Professor of Ethics, School of Business and Economics
Seattle Pacific University

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