Travel at its core is about experience. Television shows, Instagram feeds and travel blogs can get people excited about travel, but it never comes close to replacing the ability to be immersed in the experience. New – or maybe familiar – sights, sounds, smells, textures and tastes of “actually being there.” Travel is central to happiness for many. The who, the where and when will be different, the how changes, and the why evolves, but the main motivation to see the globe – or revisit a small part again – stays the same.
The collective fallout of COVID-19 has shown the world that travel is a necessity in the pursuit of happiness. The recovery of a global pandemic will be driven by the companies that can deliver the experience to those anxious to return to travel. Success is not going to the few that attempt to own the end-to-end experience, but to those who bring opportunities together in a meaningful way.
The OpenTravel Alliance has created and nurtured the technological backbone for the travel industry for more than 20 years. Originally formed by a collection of airlines, hotels and car rental suppliers, members both current and past have included rail companies, attractions, resorts and amusement parks, cloud service providers, integrators and solution providers. Oftentimes, competitors and occasional partners to these companies join together to nurture the interoperability data messaging standard for the travel industry – a mouthful that we will break down piece by piece to better understand how you can be positioned to thrive during COVID recovery.
Technology will never replace the travel experience, but without a doubt it does have the opportunity to enhance it. As the executive director of a nonprofit focused on increasing adoption of technology in the travel industry, it might be expected that I would say regardless of your problem, technology is the solution. Others may try, but that can’t be further from the truth. Technology has just as much opportunity to restrict choices and experiences as it does to enhance them. Tech providers may force unsuspecting clients into a limited scope of options – or onerous processes – that benefit integrators at the expense of tour operators and suppliers.
Once smartphones put Space Age technology in the palm of our hands, it set off a chain of disruption in the travel industry into overdrive. Suppliers were playing catchup on how to meet an uncharted constellation of expectations from travelers. Initially viewed – rightfully so – as an additional cost that cut into revenue, adopting technology is now an opportunity to capture new markets and deliver unique experiences that turn clients into repeat customers. Instead of looking at other suppliers as competitors to be challenged or participants to be ignored, it is more productive to look at the entire travel industry as an ecosystem where success is mutual and collaboration can be profitable.
The role of technology is to enhance the experience, reduce barriers and facilitate connections. When the industry continues to coalesce behind a unified standard with no burdensome licensing fees or terms that bind users to single solutions, it will thrive. The universal adoption of these standards allows new participants such as attractions and experiences to be quickly added to an itinerary that enables additional revenue opportunities for booking agents and tour operators. In turn, this provides custom experiences to meet the needs of travelers.
The OpenTravel Alliance was invited to participate in the IITA’s Technology Taskforce to provide the tour operator community insights into where technology is leading the travel industry. OpenTravel will benefit by tapping into the collective expertise of the members of IITA so that it can inform the evolution of the data messaging standards of the industry.
Tour Operators are in a unique position, as they are often at the forefront of the latest travel trends. Whether it is new audience segments or connecting to new markets, tour operators have a direct line to know what drives travelers’ buying decisions. OpenTravel is partnering with IITA and views tour operators as a sort of ”super user” with deep knowledge of what motivates travelers. Technology can ease burdens and reduce mundane tasks, but it also imposes a financial burden to operators with fees and expenses that cuts into profits. Companies get into a trap known as ”vendor lock-in,” when you are stuck with a provider that may have worked at the beginning but is now limiting your growth– but it is too expensive to switch. Larger operators, those that may have in-house development teams, have a tangled web of connection points to connect with various attractions. Your customers may want to add a stop on their trip, but it may be too time-consuming to add, and you’ll miss the season – you lose flexibility and revenue. The challenges are real and not limited to the travel space. However, the solutions are also real and being implemented today. Let’s head down a tour of how integrating open standards will put tour operators in suppliers back in control of their revenue.
People are not looking for a menu of every option, but a tailored list of the best options. Too many options hinder the buying decision and will reduce the likelihood that a purchase is made. This is true for the travelers just as much as it is for the companies that serve them. So how does one create a system that literally spans borders, language, culture, time zones, age, mobility needs and personal preference? Ironically, the way to allow for a variety of choices is to adopt a common standard, but make that standard open to anyone to adopt and adapt to suit their needs. If the ”mode”’ or design of the standard is built to be flexible, it can adapt so that suppliers can meet the future demands of travelers. OpenTravel messaging is built by subject matter experts throughout the travel industry. It is not just the suppliers, but the integrators. Operators and suppliers can contribute by seeking out integrators that leverage open standards. Individual companies can become members of OpenTravel to evolve current standards to meet their needs to increase revenue opportunities and join IITA and get involve in workgroups to advocate for technology features that drive business opportunities.
One of the many tragedies of September 11 was that first responders had difficulties communicating with each other, hampering rescue efforts. The information couldn’t get from those who had it to those who needed it. The radios were not interoperable between police, fire and EMTs.
Interoperability is now an expectation across the technology spectrum. When you call someone on their smartphone you don’t consider the handset provider or carrier service. It just works. You can send a call, text or email and it will run through a dozen technology companies and get where it needs to be, almost instantaneously. Want to change phone carriers because they offer better rates, but want to keep the number you have had for 10 years? No problem.
When building a tour package that includes flights, rail passes, hotel and attractions, the information should only need to be provided once in order to have it added to each segment. If a flight is delayed, that information should be able to quickly update travelers, tour operators and each downstream supplier. OpenTravel messaging allows the systems of hotels and air lines to be as interoperable as smartphones.
This is the part where we start to lose some people, but if we think of booking a hotel as a series of messages being sent back and forth, it begins to make more sense. If a tour operator is looking to book a hotel in San Francisco, it has, to say the least, some options. A search for “availability” should return hotel rooms you can actually book. Terms and conditions should be easy to find and hitting a ‘book’ button should start a process to enter payment info. Finally, you receive a confirmation and the hotel’s system removes that room from availability so it isn’t double-booked.
There are key differences between the business logic in hotels, car rental, train travel and flights. But when you tell a client you booked their travel, there is a single expectation that they are going to get where they need to be and have accommodations when they arrive. The easier it is to connect to suppliers, the easier it is increase sales. The closer the process is between various suppliers, the easier it is to reduce development costs, decrease time to market and increase sales opportunities. A proprietary system, on the other hand, runs the risk of having suppliers tied to a single solution – or limited to only the features they offer – in a practice known as vendor lock-in. Your business prospects are reliant on the response time of your tech provider and if they go under, so do you.
By the summer of 2020, the travel industry will know if the road to recovery is full of dead ends, or like a traffic jam that is slowly easing up. All signs point to pent up demand to travel both locally at first but roaring back as people gain confidence. Postponed reunions, weddings and family trips will be rescheduled and travel will return. There will be changes; policies, best practices and tendencies will all blend together. Those that adopt technologies that are flexible, scalable and interoperable will be positioned to survive the initial restart and thrive past recovery. More and more destinations will be of interest to the travels as ‘distancing’ nudges people off the beaten path. The post-COVID traveler will be more willing to take the road less traveled – and your ability to adjust and meet the changing needs -will make all the difference.
This article originally appeared in the Inbound Insider Magazine through a project of the International Inbound Travel Association Connectivity Taskforce a joint working group of the IITA and the OpenTravel Alliance. To request a copy please fill out the form here.
Connectivity Taskforce Charge and Objectives