This fall, the EyeforTravel Distribution Summit in Chicago served as an opportunity for technological minds to discuss the next steps in travel innovation. Although many presentations were targeted to suppliers, there were several discourses for an agent to learn from, beginning with the trade show floor.
One of the major topics of conversation was how to add value in a competitive marketplace. Terry Jones, former Sabre CEO and now principle in consultancy Essential Ideas, wasn't surprised by this focus.
"You have to offer anything extra you can because travel consumers do a lot of research on the web for their travel plans and more will be buying just from the Internet in the future," he says.
"What's interesting to me is with other retail businesses it's become about three channels: phone, web and the physical store. But we have this dichotomy in the travel industry where most of the brick-and-mortar players are not online or not significantly on phone, and Travelocity and Expedia have just the web covered. We need to have one place to offer everything and have it be viewed in strong multimedia. The 25-year-old or 30-year-old uses e-mails and BlackBerrys daily, so they have certain visual expectations. It's time we prioritized that."
Christopher Chong, vice president of sales and business development for Canadian-based VRX Studios, was also effusive about showing customers as much visual detail as possible, focusing on hotels.
"People don't want a description anymore," he says. "They want pictures...but ones that are frequently updated. With the constant renovations they make in Las Vegas, agents have to make sure they trust the source of the photos they send their clients or else travelers may feel cheated when they get to the room and see something completely different."
Bryan Donohue, account development manager for Atlanta-based Premiere Global Services, took the opportunity to expound on travel alerts, a product he feels is only going to become a greater part of travel technology product offerings.
"What I'm hearing is that value-added is more important to the business than ever before," he says. "Because it's such a close race in terms of airline tickets and hotel bookings, it's the level of service that's the main reason a client will come back to an agent. You have to find better ways to alert customers to any changes in flights and any last-second opportunities you can give them in the way they want to be communicated with. If someone is attached to their BlackBerry, then show them you can fill it with relevant information," he said.
The Great Annual GDS Debate panel was a highlight for the first day of the summit, although Owen Wild, director of marketing for Amadeus North America, was the only traditional GDS representative of the major four. We sat down before the panel and he assured Home-Based Travel Agent that he felt up to the challenge of defending the GDS.
"My job is to just explain why GDSs are still so vital to the agent," he says. "We can help in the areas of automation even without airline tickets. You will see us continuing to bring the best of the e-commerce world out and add more functionality to agency desktop programs.
"It's also time to look at more user-friendly ways to integrate non-traditional content, including selling travel insurance or even luggage. Customers want links to do credit card fulfillment and have other rewards programs that we can be of greater assistance in and will be."
Wild went last in the panel/debate, holding his own against notables such as VP Sales for ITA Software Derek Lewitton, who intimated that there are burgeoning alternatives to the four GDSs and we haven't seen nearly what companies like his can do, partly because they've been "waiting on the economics." SVP Product Management for Pegasus Solutions Dennis Law was quick to point out that everyone has to do a better job of attracting the online consumer because the look-to-book ratio continues to get tougher. Of online shopping, he urged, "It's instantaneous and if you don't give them instantaneous gratification, they won't come back."
Essential Idea's Jones, who hosted the panel, felt the speakers weren't as free to talk as they would have liked, maybe because several deals were up in the air. "A lot of contracts have gotten settled recently surrounding the GDSs—this puts them in better shape than anyone thought they'd be. So as an agent, do you need to move to an alternative GDS? The incentives of the business are changing to where an agent has to understand the economics of it. In the end, nobody pulled the trigger and said I'm going to an alternative GDS. ITA is hiring engineers but I don't see the alternative GDS as their focus. I've also heard a rumbling from carriers that this is the wave of the future, but how far off that wave is, that's still left to be seen," he said.
A panel on evaluating search models was on tap for day two of the summit. Whether a supplier or a travel agency wants a better web presence, the ability to come up favorably in Internet searches could be the difference between big-time sales or remaining a small-time outfit. Michael Bennett, general manager USA for Cheapflights.com, said it's critical for companies to get as creative as they can for searching. "From our perspective, we actually pull fares into Cheapflights," he says. "We'll work with clients to pull it in via FTP or spider...we're one step further down the food chain than other search engines."
By contrast, Dena Yahya, general manager for OneTime.com, felt the emphasis was overblown and believes the focus on where you are on the search totem pole is no match for service. Yahva reiterated an old adage that still holds true: "Let your fares speak for themselves."