Online travel companies like to boast about how technologically advanced they are to their customers. Dinah Hatch examines whether they are as developed with their communications behind the scenes.
E-mail, it seems, is the new snail mail. This is the message Travolution is getting from some of the biggest online travel companies.
It doesn’t seem long since the humble e-mail, which has revolutionised modern worklife, was being hailed as cutting edge and staff in every agency, from tiny independents to the multiples, were hastily trained in how to send and receive.
But progress waits for no man and you might have guessed that it would be the online and technology companies, with staff and business partners across the globe, that would lead the way in communications.
After all, calling a meeting in head office on a Friday afternoon is just not practical when, like Sabre or Opodo, you have staff spanning the globe, in different time zones all with diaries rammed with work commitments that mean they have little time to go jetting off for a company pow-wow.
So what do they do? Harness the Internet, of course. These guys aren’t just using technology to sell their content or software, they are using it to streamline their bottom line, to make sure staff – whether in Berlin or Buenos Aires – are all singing from the company hymn sheet, to offer bang-up-to-date training or share important data and presentations.
Take Lastminute.com. Commercial director Vic Darvey says no avenue of communication is left unexplored in a bid to facilitate employees getting the message across to other staff as effectively as possible.
“Our communications have to be extremely high-tech,” he says. “We are part of Sabre now, which has people everywhere, but as Lastminute we were in nine European locations with people also in Japan and Australia.
“For a long time we have had to communicate with a number of staff at the same time in many different localities so we are massively wired up.
“We use every means of communication because a lot of us are travelling much of the time – from the phone and conference-calling to Blackberrys, web conferencing, video conferencing and MSN Messenger [immediate response e-mailing], which works well between offices. The latter allows you to have a more free-flowing conversation – you know the other person is there.”
The company also conducts what Darvey calls ‘webinars’ over the Internet. These are usually presentations or training whereby one employee can invite others to a virtual session by getting them to log on to a website link.
The host can then talk through a document, perhaps a new website page or some research, which the people logged into the session can see on their own computers. The benefit is that those watching can share browsers in order to see what the presenter is talking about as the curser moves and points to relevant online sections.
Parent company Sabre uses similar technology called LearnLink to help travel agents.
“A lot of our training is now done using this,” a spokesman says. “It means travel agents do not have to put up with the frustrations of staff being out of the office attending GDS courses. Both large and small travel agents appreciate this.
“The trainer, who can be on a different continent from the people he or she is training, can take control of someone’s cursor and show them where they might be going wrong or highlight a particular problem and show them how to overcome it. The technology is browser-based so it’s all in real time with no time lag.”
Darvey predicts 2006 as the year Voice Over IP will become the next means of communication, between travel companies and clients particularly.
“The technology is becoming much more available now,” he says. “So if a customer wants to ask a simple question after looking at a holiday site, such as ‘does this villa have a pool?’, they can just use Voice Over IP [Wikipaedia description], instead of having to go off, unplug the Internet and use the phone. And its only 1p a minute. It just makes sense.”
Gail Sinden, head of communications at Opodo, which is based in nine countries but also has many far-flung call centres, says the company has just begun using a system known as COLT.
She explains: “This is combined audio and visual conference calling and is browser-based so it is all in real time. If I want to give a powerpoint presentation to staff or clients in France, Germany and Italy, everyone would just sit in front of their computer, access the system through a pin code and we’d be off.
“They can hear me talking and they can talk to me but also they can instant message me if they want to ask a question and don’t want to interrupt my presentation.
“I can point to something on my screen with my mouse and they can see it; they can follow what I say because they can see me doing it too.”
Sinden says e-mail has a lack of interactivity which a pan-European company such as Opodo needs if it is to spread the word among employees.
“We felt there was a need for this new system to let people get the most from our new products,” she adds. “It’s just a much better way of sharing information and making sure people understand what you are saying.”
HR director Sue Kavanagh says: “The length of the training programme is only about an hour and therefore to get everybody into one location for only an hour’s presentation is not logistically possible, we will therefore use the Webex approach.
“It is a new innovation for us in training terms. It’s also great for our clients who don’t want to release people to train as it means they can stay where they are.
“We instruct clients on our self-booking tools and they never have to meet the trainer. The trainer just tells them to do something and can see if they are doing it right or not because they have access to their desktop.”
German travel giant DER has also just introduced this branded technology into its own systems.
But despite the obvious desire to use advanced technology and the speed in which online operations are then adopting it, most companies agree that some areas of business are always best carried out in person.
Sinden says: “There will always be a place for face-to-face meetings and conferences – for example, when there is a sensitive message to impart or if the company is going through difficulties.
“You have to pick and choose your method of communication to suit the message.”
Bringing in the new
It’s all very well these high-tech travel companies bringing out the very latest in cutting-edge kit for their employees to use but how will new entrants to these companies cope?
Does Expedia or Opodo only consider potential employees if they already know their onions when it comes to the web or are they still willing to take on the don’t-know-much-but-keen to-learn brigade?
Gail Kenny Executive Search managing director Gail Kenny believes those with a broad knowledge of functionality will prosper.
She says: “Our online clients will want candidates with previous online experience, not necessarily a deep technical understanding, but will expect them to have a good overview of how the Internet works, its functionality, SE0 and SEM.
“They will be expected to have a strong grasp of current and future technologies. Again to succeed in this fast-moving, dynamic sector of the industry, you need to be creative, innovative and open to change.
“They really do want the best people and have high standards – they want rocket scientists in their businesses.”
But she adds that these companies are working on becoming self-reliant when it comes to recruitment – both in a bid to cut costs (in the form of commission to recruitment agencies) and also to create an effective filter as only those comfortable with online job-hunting and application will get through.