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.

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.