Simon Powell – Online battle has only just begun

The theme of this edition of Travolution also coincides with Comtec’s 10th year in business. Although I formed Comtec when the web started to take shape, the company wasn’t created to exploit opportunities within the online travel market.

At the time, I could see we could be kept very busy helping clients tackle the staggering inefficiencies surrounding retail travel distribution.

It would be fantastic to reflect upon how we started. However, in truth, like most companies that have been around 10 years or more, Comtec’s e-commerce business has evolved during this time. We have strived to exploit the opportunities presented by online travel – which has been fundamentally changed by its development.

The Late Dark Age (1996-1998): in the mid 90s, most travel agents were focused on how technology could help them win the battle taking place on the high street. Their primary technology concern was how to turn viewdata from an ordering system into a selling system and Comtec helped them with this.

However, there were already companies –, for example – with whom we were looking ahead towards a new era of online distribution. By integrating Comtec’s holiday cache into the websites of these travel e-commerce pace setters the relatively slow evolution of electronic distribution was about to experience a rapid web-based revolution.

The Conquest of Britain (1999-2001): the realisation of the potential of e-commerce to reduce distribution costs and open up new markets hit home. Suddenly, there was a scramble by agents to build a website. Comtec was inundated by clients wanting white-label sites in the hope of picking up new business quickly.

Suddenly, we had more than 300 e-commerce clients. However, September 11 2001 was about to have major repercussions on how the online travel market would evolve.

The Renaissance (2002-2005): many travel companies did not survive, or had budgets cut following September 11. The landscape had changed and only the fittest survived.

However, it’s also true to say the initial online race proved an anti-climax for some. In many cases, our clients had advanced their e-commerce presence faster than they’d fine-tuned their online propositions and marketing strategies. Therefore, it’s fair to say our clients experienced very mixed levels of success.

By now, as just about every travel company had a website, it became clear the long-term winners would be those who could provide a more compelling visitor experience and proposition. Now, optimised booking journeys, upselling travel extras and dynamic packaging were the main topics of discussion.

For Comtec, clients such as Thomas Cook, First Choice and TUI were flexing their e-commerce muscles, establishing themselves as heavyweight online contenders in the UK.

In parallel, most of our clients were effectively driving targeted traffic to their websites through e-marketing activities and many more travel suppliers were providing XML links to create far broader online product content.

Modern Times (since 2005): where are we now? It feels like during the past 10 years we’ve reached the “end of the beginning” as opposed the “beginning of the end” in the battle to  understand the opportunities arising in the online travel sector.

Its emergence has without doubt been the principal driver of change within the travel industry, and within Comtec, during the 10 years that we’ve both been around. I’m expecting it to be the source of further change before we both reach our 15th birthday.

As we look to the future, it seems certain numerous new travel intermediaries, competitors and new markets are just around the corner. And in case you haven’t noticed – they’re already online.

Simon Powell is chief executive of Comtec (Europe)

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