Small businesses in most industries have technology platforms that connect their key operating systems – from email marketing platforms, to client databases, to sales dashboards – allowing entrepreneurs to easily monitor how their business is performing, and make informed and timely decisions to increase sales and income.
But this is not the case for most independent travel advisors and travel agency owners. Agents are forced to make bookings on dozens of proprietary supplier portals, and transferring that data to other platforms where they can easily monitor their business isn’t simple.
According to a 2018 Phocuswright survey, 77% of home-based leisure travel agents used supplier websites to book their clients’ travel. The second most-popular tool for this group was Apple Leisure Group’s (ALG) Vax VacationAccess booking engine (42%). The third most-popular tools are the website or booking system of a consortium (31%).
For storefront agencies, the percentages were 70% for supplier websites, 67% through a GDS, and 31% through Vax.
As a result, if you ask a typical travel advisor key questions to understanding their business – e.g., transaction volume over a specific period of time, the vacation styles they most frequently book, or the percentage of transactions from loyal and repeat clients – the answers don’t come easily.
“I have to go to a number of different places to pull that kind of information, and it can be frustrating comparing data from one place versus another,” said Loulu Lima, owner of Book Here, Give Here, a home-based agency in Austin, Texas.
“Agents tell us all the time, ‘I am sick and tired of booking this over here, and this over there,’” said Luke Gibson, director of ALG’s VAX VacationAccess. “What we have roughly is 125,000 small business owners who are working without the tools and resources for them to understand what they need to do to make their business run more efficiently.”
“Up until now, the industry has not delivered a good experience for the travel advisor,” admitted Ignacio Maza, Signature Travel Network’s executive vice president.
Consolidating booking engines
The issue is such a significant one, several industry leaders are investing in technology solutions. Signature just announced it is rolling out a single cruise booking engine for members, developed with third-party travel software partner, Odysseus Solutions.
Tapping into live inventory and pricing feeds, the booking platform will negate the need for Signature agents to sign into multiple cruise line agent portals, and all of that data will be available for easy analysis. Full launch will happen in time for the industry’s 2020 Wave Season.
Meanwhile, ALG has consolidated all of its tour operator brands into Vax. As a result, agents can more readily compare and market package tour options for their clients, and review booking trends more easily.
While Signature’s cruise booking engine will close the gap on one of their advisors’ biggest challenges, it will be a lot more difficult for Signature, and any other network or large agency, to do the same for tour operators.
Part of the problem is that so many of the smaller tour operators and DMCs do not have the web tools and resources that allow for the easy transfer of rates and inventory.
“Tours will definitely be more of a challenge,” agreed Signature’s Phil Cappelli, senior vice president, preferred partnerships.
ALG sees this as an opportunity, owning nine vacation tour brands. Combining Vax shopping and booking data with Xcelerator, an ALG travel agency management platform from Trisept Solutions, agents can analyze client-specific data with trends in the suppliers and destinations they are selling.
“We think the opportunity is huge for changing the travel agency business owner’s mindset from responding to client inquiries, to having a 30,000-foot perspective of their business that allows them to direct their sales and growth,” Gibson said.
Converting booking data into business intelligence
While consolidating bookings into fewer data warehouses is the first step, making that data readily available and in a form that independent advisors and agency owners can use is the next big challenge.
Rashesh Jethi, senior vice president of engineering, and head of innovation, for Airlines at Amadeus, believes the travel industry is moving closer to solutions for agents, in part due to more computing moving onto the internet.
Cloud applications, like ride-sharing and banking, are becoming integral to every consumer and business owner’s day, and more technology dollars are shifting to solving problems for entrepreneurs, like travel agents.
Amadeus, like Sabre Corp. and other massive travel data manager, are moving more and more of their core operations on to “the cloud,” which will facilitate easier integration of the various systems agents use, and thus make their client and business data easier to see and manage, Jethi said.
Today, companies like Sabre and Amadeus are allowing third parties, like Signature, to develop application programming interfaces (APIs) that allow separate computer systems to transfer data between each other seamlessly, so that the end user on either side can view that data and manipulate it the way they need to.
So, for example, if a hotel chain loads its room rates and booking codes in a manner that best suits their internal revenue management and accounting systems, the APIs transfer the data so that a third-party website presents it to the agent in a meaningful way for shopping, comparing, and booking.
“People still need access to our data, but they want to build their own front-end,” Jethi said.
This allows, for example, a travel agency to attach negotiated amenities to a hotel chain’s basic inventory and pricing, but only where they can see it at their end of the booking system, and capture that data for future reference – including custom marketing campaigns.
To speed up better custom marketing and business analytics, Signature is developing a proprietary master database that will provide member agents with the ability to take bookings from a wide range of suppliers, and link that data in one place with information from other sources, including Sabre’s ClientBase customer relationship management (CRM) platform.
While larger, well-capitalized companies like ALG can afford to invest in technology platforms for their members and clients, the prospects for smaller agencies who aren’t a part of those ecosystems aren’t as bright.
Matt Zito, managing partner with Florida-based Travel Startups Incubator, noted how entrepreneurs are a smaller market opportunity for tech firms looking for investment dollars. They also don’t generate the faster and larger returns on investment that new consumer travel websites and apps do.
“Money pours into the B2C travel space because you can scale more quickly with consumers, and you can make more money there,” Zito said. “B2B is a grind, developing the solution, meeting the particular specifications of different businesses.”
Jethi agreed with Zito. Providing even smaller travel agencies with business intelligence platforms “is a sizable market, but so many technology companies don’t even know the problem exists. New solutions so often come from someone who has experienced a problem when they are personally booking a trip,” he said. “So, the dollars flow more to consumer booking sites and applications.”