Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Agent POS International Innovation

My loyal blog readers will recall my frequent posts over the last few years regarding an independent travel agent point of sale (POS) application. An interesting discovery that has been a result of product analysis I am doing for a large Middle Eastern TMC is the fact there is clear trend with many European and Middle Eastern 3rd party software providers to combine various elements of the agent's workflow processes in a multi-facet platform that includes a booking engine, a Web based agent POS, a customer profile database (often referred to as a CRM system), a workflow engine, a mid office and accounting system. I believe that a reason this integrated platform is emerging outside the US has to do the with need for international agents to deal with more complexity at the point of sale and the requirement to generate an invoice from a mid-office accounting program due to the large number of accounts still on credit. The fact that so many travel agencies in different parts of the world still offer credit to corporate accounts and in some cases leisure clients is not a surprise to anyone who understands the global travel market. What is surprising is how 3rd party providers such as Dolphin Dynamics, Tech Tuners and ProCon Solutions have embraced a more holistic approach to the agency needs by providing a solution that supports both corporate and leisure sales.

In his article for PhoCusWright entitled Travel Agency Technology, my colleague Bob Offutt described this platform as the agency of the future:

Now let's compare this with a diagram from a presentation yesterday from TECH TUNERS a Dubai based 3rd party developer and distributor of Sabre's TRAMS accounting system:

In fact my my diagram from the 2003 PhoCusWright / Travel Tech Consulting report on Dynamic Packaging also describes a similar architecture.

The interesting aspect of this platform evolution is where it is happening and why. In the US the GDS still dominate the agent POS with the exception of mega-TMC initiatives or 3rd party products such as G2 Switchworks POS (now owned by Travelport). There is a clear distinction between corporate POS (e.g. TRX's Agent Desktop) and leisure POS (e.g. Revelex's PowerAgent.) Outside the US due to a need to integrate multiple sources, currencies and accounts on credit, traditional back office functions have shifted to the mid-office. The issues associated with this complex booking process exists for both the corporate and leisure agency. Of course the leisure agency also needs the ability to store net rates a solution that is also offered by many of these non-US third party vendors.

Clearly there is a global trend to provide a more function rich point of sale application for the travel agent. Is there an opportunity to bring this solution to the second and third tier TMCs and leisure agents in the US?

Recent research by my colleague Douglas Quimby of PhoCusWright highlighted the dominance of the GDS platform in the US in his study the "Travel Agency Distribution Landscape" PhoCusWright tracked agency usage of alternative POS technology.
This slide shows that with the exception of the very large TMCs the majority of agencies in the US still use native GDS as their POS.
Clearly an opportunity exists to capitalize on the growing need for a multi-source and integrated application that combines multiple agent processes in a Web based solution.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

American Express' Social Networking Initiative

At the NBTA conference American Express announced "plans to launch a business-to-business online networking community for the corporate travel industry." There are a couple of interesting aspects of this announcement. Social networking is finally being embraced (though only a limited short "hug") by the corporate travel community. I moderated two sessions at the conference on social networking and both were well attended. is being promoted as a way for corporate travel executives, suppliers and other providers to connect with each other in an online community. No one knows how successful this effort will be, but I applaud Amex for launching the initiative. A concern I have was actually part of my presentation during one of the NBTA sessions where I stated that communities naturally exist and cannot be created. Will the Amex Business Travel Connexion tap into existing communities? Will travel managers and suppliers find a forum hosted by the top TMC a proper avenue to connect? Time will tell if the Amex initiative will be successful in tapping existing communities. The other interesting aspect was that I received a call from Amex last week asking whether I would be blogging about the new service. At least Amex is recognizing the power of the Blogisphere.
I also had my first experience moderating a panel at NBTA during an earthquake. I have lived in California for 23 years, but I still have not become accustomed to earthquakes, even though I was at the World Series for the big Loma Prieta earthquake
in 1989. Unfortunately we lost about 70% of our audience who fled the session. This is shame as the panelists from Sabre Cubeless and Cisco were excellent. Next year NBTA is in San Diego affording us all another opportunity to experience the earth shake beneath our feet.

AA's battle with Kayak

There has been a lot of media buzz regarding the announcement that AA was pulling their inventory from meta-search engine Kayak. The news was first leaked by Tech Crunch on July 23rd. The article stated that AA was pulling their inventory from Kayak and considering doing the same for Orbitz, which Kayak uses to supplement direct connections with airlines. As originally conceived by SideStep, the meta-search application would satisfy two important market needs: (1) consumers like to compare fares from multiple sources through a single query (2) airlines could benefit from direct bypass of other more costly channels especially OTAs such as Expedia. SideStep was originally launched as a downloaded application that automatically appeared in a sidebar when the user visited sites such as Expedia and entered their flight request information. Recognizing the challenges with downloaded apps, SideStep a few years later moved to a completely Web-based comparative shopping platform. Other sites such as Mobissimo, Farechase and Kayak soon appeared. (note: Farechase was actually the first such meta-search engine and was acquired by Yahoo! back in 2004). At first the OTAs were very negative towards these new meta-search engines. The only exception was Orbitz where Kayak founder Steve Haftner was also one of the original founders of Orbitz and thus had particular pull with his former company. At the PhoCusWright Travdex conference in the spring of 2005 in Dallas, Bill Bliss at that time a senior marketing VP at Expedia, presented a session on why mega-search was a bad idea due to the lack of customer ownership (meta-search engines do not fulfill tickets, but instead send the user to a supplier or OTA site). This negative position soon changed as the OTAs recognized the value of these meta-search engines in generating leads. In fact as the market dynamics shifted and airlines were faced with skyrocketing price of fuel, most of the major airlines stopped compensating meta-search for referrals. At the same time the OTAs continued to provide compensation to these sites. An insider at one of the major meta-search companies told me that as much as 60% of the company's referral revenue was coming from OTAs. AA's decision to pull out of Kayak was based on this reality where more revenue was being shifted to OTAs rather than the site. The threat to withdraw from Orbitz is more serious and as of this writing has not been implemented. Unfortunately even the best airlines still miss the nature of the Web. Rather than limiting reference sites, AA and other major carriers should be syndicating their booking engine on as many sites as possible. The Web has an unlimited number of specialty sites and syndication has the opportunity to gain incremental revenue from a variety of sources. Comments by AA and other carriers that their dollars are better spend in SEM (Search Engine Marketing), are a bit silly as their brand is so ingrained in the mind of the American consumer that finding through Google is not a challenge. The idea whereby all consumer traffic could be generated through an airline's site conflicts with the very nature of the Web which is constantly expanding and fragmenting users based on their interest groups. The consumer wants comparative shopping and actions by AA with Kayak demonstrate a lack of sensitivity to the true nature of the Web.