Open Travel and Industry Mythology

This analysis appeared August 12, 2013 in Cornerstone Information System’s “Insight & Opinion” section.


You may have heard of something called “open travel” or “open booking,” that is about to change corporate travel procurement. It says that travelers will book whatever they want as long as they don’t exceed budgets and fulfill other vague management requirements, such as paying with a corporate credit card.

Travel Management Companies will have to find new roles (no one is quite sure what those might be) and corporate travel managers will see their responsibilities changed, or substantially diminished.

Proponents of this new travel management strategy, which include some substantial travel buyers and data managers, assure us that travelers are buying where the want anyway, so clearly it’s best to make the best of the inevitable.

What’s interesting is that this isn’t new.

Prior to the mid 1980s, when consolidating travel procurement with a few designated travel management companies became popular, it was the default purchasing system–set your budget and let the rest take care of itself.

I’m confident that proponents of “open travel” believe that technology has advanced so much over the last 30 years that the essential management problems that resulted in consolidated travel management are no longer issues.

If we simply wait long enough, smart phones will solve everything–they’ll even change human nature.

Can Less Be More?

There are few analytical reports describing open travel’s effectiveness–those that do exist are contradictory and most are poorly executed(i). As a business strategy, open travel advances several logical fallacies that we should try to avoid:

Hasty Generalization

It doesn’t necessarily follow that because some, even most, travel management programs perform poorly and that they are at odds with new technology, that all such programs must do the same.

It also doesn’t follow that travelers in general will make informed and rational purchasing decisions absent a centrally managed travel program because some travelers appear to do so, for some of their trips, at least some of the time.

Open travel’s proponents need to conclusively demonstrate that the business rules they suggest the industry adopt are not based upon the behavior of a small sample operating under exceptional conditions.

Faulty Dilemma

Because there are clear shortcomings with travel management practice, we are not necessarily left with a “strength through weakness” strategy that allows travelers to book whatever they want as the alternative. There are other choices.

The Big Picture

Centralized travel management exists because it is effective. Vendors extend favorable pricing and other services to purchasers because they believe the benefits exceed the cost.

Part of what vendors presume is that travel managers will influence selection and behavior. Travel programs that consistently deliver such results are those that succeed.

Why would vendors offer similar benefits where buyers stop trying to do these things Control is an essential component of preferred pricing, and open travel is signal for higher prices, not lower.

The mythology of the travel industry asserts that technology allows individuals to find as good or better discounts in the marketplace as are available through managed travel programs.

Again, that’s nothing new, the assertion has been made for as long as there have been centralized travel programs. In practice there are always exceptional situations, but consistently poor discounts are signs of a poor travel programs, not testimonials for open travel.

Technology makes traveler shopping somewhat easier, but it doesn’t make informed buyers or change human behavior. Again with exceptions, travelers do not usually share the management goals of their companies–part of a travel manager’s role is to provide structure for those goals.

A traveler’s agenda is more personal and can always be validated by countless rationalizations and “this time is different” conclusions. There is no lack of creativity in this area.

To expect individual and company goals to align so as to correctly and consistently influence individual traveler behavior is to assume that people will stop behaving like people because they have better smart phone applications and are free to use them.

Open travel is less efficient than centralized travel management, not more. It assumes pricing practices that don’t today exist, people acting in ways they don’t normally do, and, even if these point are granted, that it is the best use of a traveler’s time to research prices and keep sufficiently informed so as to make good decisions.

It’s a theory that assumes much and delivers little.
(i) Unless a study describes a sound methodology, an adequate sample size, and the precise questions it tried to answer, which is almost never the case, it falls into this category. Please see my paper on this topic.

Whose Customer?

This analysis appeared April 9, 2013 in Cornerstone Information System’s “Insight & Opinion” section.


Talking about “the travel industry” often invites criticism that it’s impossible to generalize–travel companies of any description are not identical and can’t be expected to behave as one. This ignores the experience of even casual observers, who see business decisions, successes, and failures widely replicated and frequently repeated throughout the travel industry over time.

There is a continuity within companies that operate in the same field, face similar market challenges, and who must compete with each other that causes them to align similar practices and strategies to an often surprising degree. What is referred to as “institutional memory, (the phenomenon where groups of people working together circulate and perpetuate the same ways of thinking over time), makes such alignments difficult to change.

One such area is ownership and management of the customer relationship. Travel vendors largely think they should be interacting with their customers directly and with as few intermediaries as practical.

This belief predates the coming of The Internet and electronic commerce–it’s varied over decades but never disappeared. In many ways it’s a stronger business force than on-line selling.

The fact that travel vendors generally don’t do an especially good job of interacting with their customers, or of listening to them, doesn’t cancel the desire to remove intermediaries.

If it Were Only True

If travel suppliers deal directly with customers, costs and inefficiencies should decline. More important, it should be possible to protect and preserve loyal customers.

It almost never works that way.

One major impediment is that, to provide effective customer service, you need to listen to your customers and understand what they say. Translating these simple requirements into appropriate actions proves particularly difficult for the travel industry.

With exceedingly rare exceptions, nobody in the travel industry delivers customer service and nobody can–where “customer service” is defined as delivering what the customer truly wants to buy when it is needed.

Airlines are a reasonable example. Do you know anyone who thinks the excessive and capricious baggage fees most carriers are anxious to charge are a good idea? I’ve asked that question before groups of hundreds; apart from a few people with a specific viewpoint to represent, I’ve yet to get an affirmative response. I’ve never even heard of such a response.

The “ATM machine in the sky” approach to airline pricing is a major profit contributor, but it wasn’t designed to please the consumer.

If travel purchasers received everything they wanted by removing intermediaries, they’ve had the past 18 years (since the availability of Internet-based tools) to eliminate travel management companies, on-line travel sellers, and corporate travel departments. There remain necessary services that suppliers can’t or won’t provide.

Listen Here!

Travel management companies usually fail the “customer service” test as well. Even the most sophisticated are good at order-taking, exceptional at listening to customers (much better than vendors), tepid at data analysis and product innovation that addresses real customer needs, and non-existent at informed communication–when was the last time you received a newsletter or e-mail bulletin from a TMC that wasn’t an immediate, no-consequence throw-away?

Customer relationships are the product of continued, frequently arduous investment. They are earned, not simply claimed. Intermediaries such as TMCs and OTAs are valuable travel management participants because they meet real needs, despite their own failings.

Efforts to change that without adding equivalent value are destined to the growing list of management theories that simply don’t apply to this industry.