The Business Reality of Open Booking

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


Open Booking, noun: A travel industry term concocted to describe the process whereby problems that don’t exist are solved using techniques that don’t work, so as to produce savings that can’t be defined.

I’m not specifically against Open Travel or Open Booking, but if it’s such a good idea a straightforward case should be made in favor of it, using real data and sound business arguments. The fact that this doesn’t happen is very telling.

Open Booking rests upon a theoretical foundation that is distant from the real world and requires us to suspend belief in how travel distribution works if we are to adopt it. A few business concerns and examples may bring Open Booking’s contradictions into focus.

Travel Management Companies

The “M” in TMC represents Management. TMCs provide value because they appropriately manage the travel process on behalf of their customers; when they fail that value disappears.

Open Booking’s proponents speak of the evolving role for TMCs looking like a subscription-based service where agents provide support regardless of where and how reservations are made. How this might be an improvement over a TMC’s involvement in the current online booking process is left somewhat mysterious.

In the real world, TMC experience and expertise can shorten the path to correct decisions and avoid the wreckage from bad ones. While it’s not impossible to clean-up problems after the fact, it is typically more difficult and expensive–as anyone with experience at a subscription-based 24-hour travel support service could tell you.

To suggest that TMCs should support corporate travel in this mode by default is to say that their services have little or no value–which is clearly not the case.

Whatever its flaws, travel management operates the way it does because it works. Desiring to correct those flaws is not a testimonial for Open Booking.

Duty of Care

Corporate travel managers should have concerns beyond the basic cost of travel services, one being duty of care. Broadly speaking, in the real world this is a generally accepted principle which says that individuals must take reasonable care when performing actions that could foreseeably cause harm.

It applies in business as in other areas of life. Concerning travel, the possible implications are obvious, as there are numerous services informed and prudent people should not use, places they should not go, and things they should not do.

Allowing or even requiring travelers to bypass a source of expertise that is well-known, established, and otherwise available to them might not cause a duty of care problem, but the potential is real and shouldn’t be dismissed in the quest for imaginary travel cost savings.

Managed or Not?

Open Booking supporters often affirm that it is not the same as unmanaged travel–a distinction without a difference. When you stop managing in the real world you allow events under your control to be handled in whatever ways the people involved feel is appropriate.

That is the essence of Open Booking. The fact that you might be able to collect data, count the cost of the result, and disagree with choices made doesn’t compensate for the lack of control.

Since 2002 public companies in the United States have operated under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX), which is a complex set of financial regulations that are intended to correct the financial and management errors that caused the financial scandals of that period. Among many other things, it requires the management of public companies to take specific responsibility for financial reports and for their own actions.

It also imposes requirements as to internal financial controls, conflicts of interest, and the level of understanding management and auditors must have over internal processes and procedures.

Travel is a significant part of most public company finances–often among the largest expenditures. While the specific implications of SOX vary substantially by company, why would it be in the interest of any manager facing such obligations to forsake management-based controls over expenditures that might be counted in the millions in exchange for unproven lower costs and a somewhat lesser level of employee complaints?

SOX is very difficult to reconcile with Open Booking–counting what has been spent or even establishing budgets for travel is not sufficient, as SOX requires control and meaningful representations that proper procedures have been followed.

The Business Reality

Open Booking as it is currently represented is a bad idea for travel agents who have no realistic role in its operation. It’s equally bad for corporate travel managers who are asked to abandon the tools that are central to doing their jobs.

 

Corporate Mobile Travel Strategy

This analysis appeared June 14, 2013 in Cornerstone Information System’s “Insight & Opinion” section.


By now you’ve been thoroughly exposed to the idea that mobile applications (affectionately termed “apps”) are an essential part of travel technology. There’s no denying that mobile applications are popular, but understanding why and to what extent is more difficult.

Equally challenging is interpreting the specific implications for your business.

Business Case

Perhaps you’re as tired as I am of being told you “need” a mobile travel strategy, and it would be interesting to first understand what you could accomplish.

Proponents usually start building their case with surveys and research which suggest businesses without mobile capabilities risk being “overwhelmed” by competitors, as the number of people initiating travel transactions on mobile devices expands to eclipse all other methods.

This argument runs aground somewhat because almost all this research isn’t very good. Briefly, almost all popular industry researchers don’t disclose their financial backers and biases, or their research methods, and their products aren’t scientifically designed or operated.

We’re left to conclude that, from among the hundreds of millions of smartphones and tablets, consumers simply must be looking for travel products, even if specific numbers can’t be verified.

Competition among the literally millions of app developers is intense–for room on the device and consumer attention if nothing else. Of the dozens of apps on your device, how many do you really use?

Five or six is an oft-quoted number.

I’m not arguing against mobility or applications, just pointing out that the barriers to successful entry are significant, and assuming these are unimportant because the market must be huge doesn’t make it so, or drive travelers to use a mobile app simply because you offer it.

In the simplest terms, people probably use mobile applications for some of the following reasons:

  • Having a computer with you everywhere you go is certainly handy.
  • Most people didn’t do that much with their PCs anyway–the transition to mobile is fairly straightforward.
  • The apps can look and behave better than on a PC, because building tools in a web browser was never a really great idea.
  • Most travel vendors have made communicating with them so difficult and unpleasant that the simplest, handiest form of electronic access looks very attractive.

As you start thinking about a mobile strategy, consider carefully the real reasons you believe travelers will support it.

The Best Tool Is the One That Works

Corporate travel buyers are often presented a surprisingly sparse list of mobile application choices. Much of what is on offer doesn’t do much or work very well.

Consumers have always had a high tolerance for flawed travel technology–a frequent reaction being that, if it works at all, it works wonderfully. The basis for a successful mobile strategy might be to insist on delivering real value and performance to the customer.

Determine what the service and business needs of your travelers are, then look for products that can approximate those requirements with an acceptable level of change to your operation.

For example, if you’ve determined that travelers should be able to request, change, and reconcile their trips from a mobile device, be certain that the tools you select allow that to happen with very few failures, limited training, modest traveler effort, and acceptable recourse when things go wrong.

These sound like “everybody does that” goals, but in practice they are difficult. Don’t be coaxed into accepting marginal products simply because they’re mobile.

It appropriate to set more modest goals that support your overall service strategy and that you can successfully reach.

The Best Tool Is No Tool

The travel industry is often anxious to build solutions to problems that shouldn’t be solved. No tool, mobile or otherwise, can change the fact that most “technology problems” are really unresolved management problems.

Often your business goals are better supported by altering procedures and requirements to make problems go away, as opposed to looking for the latest apps that might solve them.

The distance between mobile applications and other computer-based tools isn’t very great, and no computer ever compensated for poor procedures and policies, unrealistic expectations, traveler misbehavior, or a failure to manage.

Mobility is best viewed not as the centerpiece, but rather as an intelligent and convenient enabler for your comprehensive product, service, and travel strategy.

 

IATA’s New Distribution Capability (NDC)

This analysis appeared July 15, 2013 in Cornerstone Information System’s “Insight & Opinion” section.


In an industry as diverse as travel distribution, there is rarely a shortage of controversial ideas. Recently, critical voices have been raised against IATA’s “New Distribution Capability” (NDC) initiative, variously asserting that its development was closed to most outside input, that it is unfair to travel agents, technology providers, and other stakeholders. It is claimed that the NDC harms consumer interests, and that its implementation requires unacceptable privacy compromises and financial expenditures from distributors and consumers alike.

Curiously, I’ve yet to hear the simplest and most concise justification for opposing the NDC from anyone:

It’s a fundamentally bad idea that probably won’t work.

As these posts must necessarily be brief, I’ll only touch on a few of the NDC’s strategic and business flaws–operational and technological shortcomings must await another discussion.

What Is the NDC?

According to IATA1 the NDC is a business and technological initiative best understood as a process that allows “indirect channels” to enable the same capabilities that exist on airline websites, while preserving an airline’s control of the product. It also proposes to enable product innovation, differentiation, and personalization by directly accessing expanded information as to a traveler’s purchasing profile and history.

The NDC’s “initial scope is the shopping process.” As an example of how this might work, supporters maintain that the NDC will modernize air travel distribution and benefitconsumers by giving them an experience similar to Amazon.

Perhaps, but the NDC mistakenly confuses multiple goals in a package that delivers capabilities few people want. It’s technical features represent one way, certainly not the only or necessarily the best, to enhance shopping data. Other intended benefits are more dubious.

Amazon is a poor service delivery model–air travel distribution has little to do with selling books or consumer products.

The personalized shopping experience, whether through Amazon or an airline, is largely a chimera without real-world application. Frequent Amazon shoppers are aware of the annoying and usually irrelevant suggestions the site continually offers–transferring this unhelpful dialogue to benefit air travel strains the imagination.

One Bad Idea Begets Another

IATA is criticized for failing to adequately consult with distributors and consumers as the NDC was developed–perhaps justly so, although interpretations disagree as to how meaningful the prior industry dialogue was. It’s worth noting that however worthwhile these discussions might have been, IATA isn’t obliged to hold them in any particular way, or to do so at all.

There is also a serious question as to who might participate. There are no industry-wide trade associations with adequate technology capabilities, credibility, and resources to represent even segments of distributors or consumers. Individual companies may have meaningful input, but are not in a position to speak for anyone else, or even their own customers.

Industry discussions to develop and refine technology policy are exceedingly rare–much more so that IATA’s critics would have us believe. Those who feel excluded would do well to upgrade the forums, expertise, and messages they might use to make meaningful future contributions.

Who Benefits?

Shouldn’t airlines know more about the consumer prior to booking so they can “personalize” the product offering, as the NDC promises?

If that were so, it should be easy to describe what that “personalization” would look like–but it isn’t. Beyond the vague “more like Amazon” promise, “personalization” sounds like a more technologically advanced bundling of the many obscure fees and charges no one likes or wants.

If the result isn’t higher consumer costs, what is it?

Many airlines have had access to personal data that were supposed to enable better offerings for decades (through frequent flyer programs, for example). The fact that these enhancements have been meager causes consumers to rightly question whether the new expense and privacy compromises the NDC imposes are justified.

The New Distribution Capability proposes to solve problems most consumers don’t see as problems and deliver ill-defined benefits they haven’t asked for and probably won’t appreciate–at an undetermined cost they are unlikely to embrace. Wholly apart from the clumsy way it has been developed and presented, this is not a formula for a successful project.

IATA was ill-advised to start down this path and its airline participants are likely to see more customer grievances, direct and indirect program costs, and few of the NDC’s promised benefits.

  1. International Air Transportation Association (IATA), NDC Update, November 2012, page 8.

Rethinking Data

This analysis appeared April 30, 2013 in Cornerstone Information System’s “Insight & Opinion” section


Data and their application have been a travel industry fixation since ADS was discovered over 30 years ago. When it became practical to collect the specifics of what travel customers were buying, suddenly it was an essential management task, effective competition hinged on being the best data manipulator, and travel managers were left to wonder what they should do with the piles of reports TMCs were cheerfully offering.

Most people are still wondering. Making better decisions that are enabled by travel data is a goal industry experts, acknowledge, respect, desire to achieve, and find surprisingly elusive.

A correct and productive data strategy for the travel industry is not difficult to identify, but its successful implementation requires discarding several cherished ideas.

Big Data…Big Deal

Some years ago, the CEO of a major national TMC (herein nameless) was fond of telling industry groups that it once “came to me in a flash of light that I was really in the information business.”

As I worked for a major competitor, I was also fond of telling the same story–with full attribution to its author. I added that perhaps his next corporate account proposal would be successful if he offered just reports…and no tickets.

Travel is not an information business; it is a service business and many of the most indefensible and irrational travel products were conceived when people lost sight of that fact. Where data support the delivery of effective and affordable customer service, analysis has a role.

Analysis for its own sake has few uses and is something for which most travel managers have a difficult time writing a check.

The current hot topic in reporting circles is “big data,” (ten years ago it was “data warehousing”). Apart from the fact that big data means lots of data from multiple sources, most people are challenged to explain its business rationale.

Under most conditions, “big data” is a term without meaning in the travel industry. Effective managers in all sectors of the industry need realistic business analysis goals, without regard to the size or complexity of a data set. Collecting the most data sounds highly scientific to most people and from that they incorrectly infer that the exercise must be valuable and that ill-defined real-world applications are justified.

Big data might have a role in such predictions as what travelers will buy, but even there the variables are so complex as to confound all but the most determined and expert analysts.

Where’s Your Talent?

Decision support tools for the travel industry have proven difficult to build and maintain, and the few companies that produce truly good ones are highly underrated for the value they deliver. A successful decision support tool enables better, more informed business decisions that cannot necessarily be anticipated when the system and the databases that sustain it are conceived.

As essential to such a system’s success as the skill with which it was designed is the insight it enables for its human operator. Systems people are prone to highlight data, reports, and analysis while overlooking the fact that a skillful, insightful, talented operator is what moves decision support into action.

The system’s role is to make that talent productive.

Without recognizing the role and composition of decision support, travel data analysts are likely to dive down any number of rabbit holes looking for new projects. One good example is the current fascination with data analysis projects that have subjective outcomes.

Systems that contrive to use data for calculating such things as traveler dissatisfaction with policy are ill-conceived in my view. A “dissatisfaction” report cannot escape the subjective and occasionally irrational nature of what it attempt to measure, a problem which is compounded by dozens of other variables that combine to make the result about as meaningless as arguing that green is better than blue.

Successful corporate travel data analysis is built upon clear business goals, and supported by decision support tools that empower insight and better conclusions in their human users.

They recognize the elegance found in simplicity and employ the shortest, most efficient way to deliver their results, and the travel managers using them do well to require specific answers from them to their real-world problems.