Despite the web being a significant distribution channel, many firms are only now integrating their front and back-end systems. Ross Bentley reports
At luxury holiday provider Prestige Holidays, IT project manager Cheri Dixon is co-ordinating a massive overhaul of her company’s online operation.
Working with travel technology specialist Metafour, the Prestige website, which is currently stand-alone, is being integrated with the company’s reservation system. On completion, clients will be able to book online and check real-time availability from numerous product sources, such as the Galileo GDS, Viewdata, its own inventory database and online partners.
“At the moment clients fill out an enquiry form on the website if they are interested in a certain destination or property, and our sales staff get back to them as soon as possible via e-mail or over the phone,” explains Dixon.
“We’re hoping to have seamless integration with the back end soon into the new year. This will give clients the flexibility to choose how they travel to our hotels and book online.
“I’ve taken a lot of flak for leaving it this long but we wanted to make sure that we got it right,” she adds.
But it would seem that far from being a laggard in deciding to bite the bullet and invest in front-end/back-office integration, Prestige’s situation is typical of many travel companies throughout the UK that are pondering the same issue.
“It’s the time and moment we are in,” says Ed Whiting, e-commerce director at travel software supplier Comtec.
He says over the past five years a whole raft of new product has become available – low-cost carriers, bedbanks, transfers, car parking – and that travel companies now want to automate the booking of these elements.
However, up until now many have taken the initial approach of advertising the product on their website but obliging clients to phone or e-mail with enquiries.
Whiting likens this situation to a shop owner who wants to bring in extra stock but hasn’t got room in his store. In order to seize the opportunity and sell this stock he sets up a market stall outside his shop where his wares can be displayed.
“The priority has been to get the product out there, and then start thinking about the long-term logistics of the operation,” says Whiting.
This piecemeal approach has also allowed travel companies to judge client responses and see whether their online operation will take off before committing funds to a new system or paying integration experts.
“Things are settling down and a lot of travel companies are ready to take their online offering in a more strategic direction,” adds Whiting.
But the sooner they do this the better according to Roberto Da Re, president at travel system provider Dolphin Dynamics.
He says: “A lot of travel companies are finding themselves in reactive mode.
“They have gone for the flashy website as a short-term solution but have not integrated it with important back-end systems, such as a booking engine or GDS.
“They are now finding that they are missing out on the real efficiencies and that their information is all over the place.”
Da Re feels the trend towards Web 2.0 functionality is partly to blame for this fixation with website front ends. He believes in recent years many travel companies have focused on bolting on social networking applications or customer review type elements to their website in order to keep up with their rivals and to compete in the land grab for potential customers. This has been done at the expense of developing an integrated end-to-end online operation – a longer-term project that many have put on hold for short-term wins.
“There is an argument for putting something up quickly – but the advantages are always short-lived,” he adds.
And although Da Re concedes that the initial cost of integrating a website tends to be more expensive than adding simple front-end applications and investing in website design, he argues companies soon see a payback. According to Da Re companies with an integrated system will see their margins increase by at least 2%-3%.
These savings, he says, come from employing less people to carry out manual processes behind the website – i.e. answering enquiries about availability – and a reduction in costly errors that inevitably arise from an operation where client details are duplicated by hand.
When quizzed on the cost of integration, many suppliers are reluctant to be drawn on exact costs stating that each individual project will have a different level of complexity. At Metafour, business development director Rob Udwin goes as far as to say that a typical operator who previously employed two staff members on a £15,000-£20,000 salary to manually process online requests will see a return on its money in a year.
Travel technology consultant Paul Richer adds that there are now a number of off-the-shelf and end-to-end solutions that “should be affordable for the majority of travel companies”.
Da Re says travel companies eyeing front/back-end integration have the choice to buy an end-to-end solution, often sold in modules, or to integrate separate systems. Either way, he advises the best way to approach integration is by starting at the back and building a software platform behind the website. At the centre of this is a single customer database that holds the master records of client details. This means, regardless of via which channel the database is interrogated, be it by call centre staff, in-store employees or web users, clients’ details and booking information are consistent, and need only be entered once.
But for Ed Spears, a director at IT company Anite, this approach may not suit every travel company. “It depends where you are in the industry,” he says.
For example, he says, if you are a small company with a legacy back-end system, you may decide that you can manage the volume of enquiries you receive via your website by hand, and that the cost of full integration is just not worth it. It may be that you are a specialist operator where clients prefer to talk their holiday through with a staff member and make their booking over the phone.
At travel technology consultancy Equinus, partner Mike Cogan picks up this point. He says while websites such as Expedia and Lastminute.com have raised the bar (and web users’ expectations) in terms of the level of integration of real-time availability of product on travel websites, smaller operators shouldn’t knock
themselves out trying to ensure their site follows suit.
Cogan says smaller travel companies have other priorities such as ensuring their website is easily navigated and that their search functionality doesn’t take users down a blind alley. “These are the areas where users get fed up,” he says.
Smaller operators can also consider integrating simple applications into their website to improve their service without going down the road of full-blown front/back-end integration. Cogan suggests postcode search software is a good investment so that clients don’t have to write their full name and address every time they fill in a form. Instant messaging software, mini- ATOL checkers, and website analytics software are other good value (and in the case of Google Analytics, free) applications that can enhance a user’s online experience.
Cogan says travel companies that plan to integrate at some stage should look at booking engines to see if they offer APIs to the most common product sources, such as the GDSs, and leading bedbanks and hotel room wholesalers.
“Where a booking engine doesn’t offer an API then bespoke coding is required and that is when it starts to become expensive,” warns Cogan, who advises companies looking for a technology partner to integrate their website to ask to speak to other clients as proof that they can carry out the job to a high standard.
By the same token Lewis Lenssen, managing director at digital marketing company Netizen Digital says companies hiring a website design company should check not just the look and feel of previous work but also the company’s ability to facilitate integration of that website.
“Clients rarely ask about integration when talking to website designers, but it’s an important consideration if later you plan to plumb into a reservation system,” says Lenssen.
Back at Anite, Spears suggests there is a mid-level of integration that travel companies should aim for that involves linking a website with a content management system, a customer relationship management system and a reservation system.
The main advantage of having a CMS system integrated into your website is that this can act as a central repository for images and descriptions of products, and of prices. Again, consistency and non-duplication of information is an advantage of this set-up as is the ability to react quickly to special offers and last-minute deals.
Says Spears: “If a supplier comes to you with a special offer, you have to turn it into your own product in your own system. If you only need to enter the information once, you can get it on to fliers, on the website, and out to call-centres within hours rather than days.
“The need to react quickly to price fluctuations is one factor that will increasingly drive the need for integration.”
Whiting at Comtec agrees. He says an integrated back-end platform will become increasingly important for companies that want to make their product available to affiliate programmes and comparison websites such as Travel Supermarket.
“A solid platform is vital if you want to move quickly in the online space today,” he says.
Case study: Exclusive Escapes
The trend towards dynamic packaging is also driving operators to consider integrating product sources behind their website, according to Andrew Lee, managing director of upmarket operator Exclusive Escapes.
As part of a project to revamp its website, Exclusive is working with travel technology company Metafour to integrate a range of bookable flights with its existing hotel inventory, so clients have more choice on when they travel and with which carrier.
“We are not integrating more bedstock as the exclusivity of our properties is what differentiates us,” says Lee. “But clients are demanding more flexibility in the flights that are available.”
When the project completes in spring 2008, this information will be available to Exclusive’s call-centre staff as well on the company website. Currently clients e-mail enquiries from the website but on the new-look site they will be able to book all product online.
Lee says with around 10,000 bookings a year the company has been able to handle this level of business manually and that it is “always keen to talk to guests”. But he can’t deny the demand for online booking and dynamic packaging.
Lee says: “Our website contains detailed information on our product and up until now has gone as far as we needed to go. But now is the time to move to the next level.
“That’s the magic and the curse of the Internet: it never stands still.”