The Next Generation's GDS?

The travel industry as a whole hasn’t seen much in the way of revitalizing new technology since GDS came on the scene in the 1970s. Thirty years is quite a while to wait for new technology, but when the right product comes along, it can make all the difference.

At least, that’s what Jeff Willner, creator of Kensington Tours and KensingtonFIT, hopes. Willner used to work with some computer guy named Bill Gates, and managed to avoid the dot-com collapse of the late-’90s. Since he was born and raised in Africa (the son of missionary parents), after selling his computer company, he opened some camps and lodges on the continent and began working in the travel industry. One problem he discovered, however, was that agents using a GDS couldn’t sell properties that weren’t on a GDS network.

And so the blending of travel and technology began taking shape, and launched last year as a 21st century answer to a 20th century system of booking travel. Rather than a platform, the system operates from a website that any agent can access from any computer. Local offices handle the details of local hotels, local tour guides, local bus and car companies, etc. “This is the new black book,” Willner says proudly of his service, noting that the partnerships with so many smaller businesses means not only a more intimate travel experience, but a less expensive one, as well.

The difference between Kensington and a GDS, Willner says, is that the company developing the software started out in tours, rather than computing. As such, they understand what agents need in order to book trips. Furthermore, they understand that the next generation of agents is sometimes unwilling to work with a GDS platform. “We have to recruit younger counselors, but we have to give them better tools, and reward them.”

Those rewards come in the forms of adjustable margins, which agents can increase or decrease as they see fit. Kensington already guarantees the agents a 10 percent commission on the entire tour (including excursions), but with the added margins, agents can earn 20 percent or more on the trip. In addition, with local companies able to negotiate better rates, the customers can still get a better price on a package than they might with a larger, more international operator, even with the extra margin factored in. (The price for a private tour can be 30 percent less than a bus tour, Willner notes.)

The website, meanwhile, is simple to use and customize. Agents can upload their own agency logo so that all itineraries look like they come from the agency rather than Kensington. Agents can choose from established tours, and then customize them, adding or removing hotels, excursions or even entire days as needed. As the tour is customized, the total price is updated in real time, something that would take days with a GDS. (Nice touch for international travelers: The price of each aspect is converted by the computer to the traveler’s currency, and Kensington will honor the agreed-upon price even if the exchange rate changes.) Itineraries are saved, and can be rebooked if someone else wants to go on the same trip. Ultimately, Willner says, is a service rather than a product, and one that can revolutionize the travel industry for the new century.