It is time that we build the Spotify of travel distribution, says Travelport VP Technology, System Architecture Stu Waldron
Decades ago, the only way to listen to music of your choosing on-demand was with a record player. Record companies chose the songs that were added to vinyl records that were pressed in a factory, to then only be played on a record player because no other devices were available to play music off of a record. At this point in time, large record companies had full control over which songs were added to a vinyl disc and since record players were not very convenient to transport, users could only listen to music wherever there was a record player present (and not on-the-go as we have the option to do today).
So where am I, a travel industry veteran, going with this distant memory of record players?
Like the music industry, travel has faced significant disruption with the digital world; unfortunately, our industry remains stuck in the past and has been slow to reach our greatest potential.
Similar to the early days of the record player, when users were restricted to a bulky device and overall lack of flexibility in being able to conveniently hear the songs they want – travellers were restricted in a lot of the same ways. A small number of large air and hotel suppliers decided which options travellers had at their disposal; and, the only way to book a flight at this point in time was through a travel agent using green screens to make reservations. This is because a reservation could only be updated or read through a specialised terminal, running on dedicated hardware with hardcoded rules on how a reservation could be used or updated. Just like a vinyl disc played on a record player, travellers and agents were solely dependent on these systems to book and manage trip reservations.
As music fans began to demand more entertainment at their disposal, the cassette player then emerged. Cassettes offered some flexibility as music could be played with devices like boomboxes, in cars with built-in cassette players, and on portable, hand-held cassette-players. However, we still needed to have a cassette player of some kind to listen to our favorite songs on-demand. Cassettes, and even CDs which came later, still largely influenced us to listen to an entire album of songs that were pre-programmed by record companies – but also introduced the opportunity to create a mix tape. For the first time ever, music fans could step outside of record companies’ control and add recordings of their choosing.
Making a mixtape of content
Going back to flight bookings, when the web browser emerged, reservations became a bit more flexible as well, in that we could access content from other smaller suppliers such as tours through an OTA or listings on Airbnb. Like the introduction of the mixtape, we now gained a bit more control with the ability to playback travel options outside of the standard songs that the big suppliers were putting out. However, the same restrictions of the cassette and CD player applied – reservations still could only run on dedicated hardware with hard-coded rules on how a reservation could be used or updated. So, while we added more flexibility with alternative options and more convenience with booking processes, we were still far from being able to build our own personalised playlist of options to modify or add to a reservation.
Eventually, MP3 and MP4 formats of music surfaced and completely disrupted the way we create, share and listen to music. The ability to digitally upload and transport songs via the web caused a whole new ecosystem and business model for the music industry. We can now personalise our own music choices from a number of sources, select individual songs and create our own playlists when previously, we were restricted to the songs big record companies put out. And, we are no longer restricted to cassette and CD players as devices. We can now stream and access our personalised music options from any device that connects to the Internet, from smartphones to laptops to virtually assisted smart home devices like Amazon Echo.
While companies like Apple, Pandora and Spotify are thriving in this new era for music, it is crucial to remember that many former players have failed. Record and CD stores that could no longer add value or retool their offerings in the MP3/MP4 era have fallen off. As the travel industry today sits at this same crossroads, businesses must decide if they are willing to do what it takes to thrive – or, follow in the footsteps of fallen record stores.
Holding on to the boombox
Moving forward with the music analogy, the travel industry today remains in the Boombox era. Our device capabilities have remixed a bit, with modern add-ons to an old school device that keeps us both tied to the past and looking to the future. Many travel businesses are essentially relying on a boombox capable of playing traditional CDs and cassettes, but with an input jack and Bluetooth option for access to digital content. And as suppliers strive to deliver more individual songs for travellers to customise their playlists, they are finding that personalisation gets lost through distribution channels outside of their own branded apps or websites.
As the travel industry strives to reach the MP3/MP4 era in its full capacity, we are seeing more new capabilities emerge. One current top-of-mind example is IATA’s new distribution capability (NDC), aimed to enable a deeper level of personalisation from air suppliers. The problem with NDC, however, is that it limits a traveller to one artist and one genre of music without being able to complete the full playlist they want. Another mover in this arena is the Open Travel Alliance with its OTA2.0 standard that defines personalised offers for all non-air suppliers.
For travel to reach its full potential, we have to leave the boombox era for good. It is time that we build the Pandora or Spotify of travel distribution and effectively drive the new business model of offers (and orders). The travel industry is more than ready for its own MP3/MP4 era, with personalised travel offers accessible through any distribution channel.
Personalising a digital playlist
With travel offers, an option for a seat coupled with the unique add-ons a traveller might want can be added by anyone; and, a reservation (or order) can be processed without any need for specialised software applications or hardware that was once required. Since all offers and orders are self-contained digitally in the cloud, there are no rules that would otherwise prevent travellers from updating or managing their bookings themselves.
By allowing any supplier large or small to publish their own personalised content, travellers can easily access the endless options that are available to truly customise a complete trip – with air, ground transportation, lodging, tours, restaurant reservations and other activities. This offers and orders model enables travellers to bundle brands of their choosing for a single trip just as a music fan might want to combine their favourite classical, country and pop artists within a single playlist.
Offers (and orders) are essentially the model to seek out the songs we want to hear, create our own unique playlists, then manage and listen to them when and wherever we’d like. Because of the infrastructure in place, GDSs like Travelport have the opportunity to retool and manage offers and orders as a service for airlines and non-air suppliers, while also eliminating the costs and complexities associated with new technology investment for agents.
Combining our digital retailing capability with service and data offerings further enables us to help airlines, hotels, ground transportation and other suppliers improve personalisation by tailoring their offers based on data analysis. We’re then able to go a step further by bundling offers from various suppliers (like individual songs on a playlist) so that agents can deliver the truly holistic, personalised experience travellers demand.
At Travelport, we’re working on the next generation systems that will put our unique ability to both aggregate offers from suppliers and support personalised orders with a major goal in mind: to provide travellers with simplicity and control over their trip.