So, what happens when you get six technologists together in a London restaurant, ply them with pizza and liquid refreshment and ask them to come up with the next big idea for travel?
Well, Travolution found out this month as sponsor of an inaugural meeting of what the instigator, Comtec’s Jon Pickles, hopes will be a series of get-togethers of some of the leading lights in travel technology (see list of panellists, page 29).
At the end, no white smoke billowed out above the Mayfair Pizza Co restaurant to suggest a consensus about the next big thing. But plenty was said about what is stifling innovation, and TourCMS’s Alex Bainbridge pushed such a radically different vision to suggest agreement may take many more of these informal conclaves.
Charles Duncombe of Holidaysplease set out the challenge from a consumer-facing point of view: “It seems to me that technology development has been very much supply-led rather than customer-led. This is not a difficult industry to be in. There is a huge amount of data, and the data points are fairly fixed. A hotel is a hotel and a room is a room.
“All we need as a retailer is access to that data, which you guys have got in your silos. There needs to be some common data warehouse. Lots of companies have built their own systems and it is customer-facing retailers like us trying to present that data to customers that really matters.”
Chris March, of Travel Technology Systems, said: “The reason that does not exist is because the likes of Thomas Cook and Tui have spent a lot of money documenting these resorts. You are not going to get this unless the hoteliers start doing it.
“If you have 10 companies selling the same hotel, the only real differential they have is the service they provide in resort. No one wants to use the same data.”
Olly Wenn, of Zolv, said: “I see the same thing every single time. An enormous amount of additional budget gets put to one side to make the new system do what the old one did.
“There is a huge amount of unnecessary complexity to eek the odd extra quid out of the booking, but the cost of that is much greater than the additional revenue it actually makes.”
Duncombe added: “You build stuff that should not need to be built again. There are no common standards. That should be 80% of the job, the other 20% we do ourselves to make it look fancy. What happens is everybody writes the 80% again.”
Pickles agreed, saying this was not what technology firms want to focus on, but they do what the client pays them to do and often this is adapting standards like OTA (Open Travel Alliance).
March added: “We have to accept that we have disparate systems and we have to deliver these to the world.
“The truth is standards have not evolved fast enough. You end up with a completely different interpretation of the same piece of data. No technologist would have ever written it in the way they [the client] interpret it. If the standard could be written so all companies talk in the same way it probably would have been. The problem is there is too much differential in the underlying product.”
Chris Nourse, of Comtec, believed the problem lay in a basic lack of computing power compared with the likes of Google.
“If we all had the computing power Google has, it would be the panacea, but we don’t,” he said. “For a project I’m working on, how you get somewhere is immaterial. It’s about where you want to go and what sort of holiday you want. The only assumption is you are outbound from the UK.”
It was on this point that Bainbridge diverged from the group view, claiming a focus on outbound was like coming up with new ways to sell candlesticks whereas inbound was where the electricity salesmen are.
“Ten years ago there were two UK profit margins: the travel agent’s and the tour operator’s. That’s not sustainable,” he said.
“Five years ago you would say travel agents, forget them, let’s deal with the tour operator. Immediately you have one UK profit margin out of the equation. Talk to any meta-search site, their vision is to get you to the right supplier. It’s happened in flights, the likes of Trivago has done it in hotels.”
Bainbridge’s claim that the UK market to Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and possibly France had already “flipped” [to outbound] was met with general disbelief. Such an extreme view on disintermediation unsurprisingly caused consternation given the make-up of the group.
For the UK outbound travel industry the next big thing, it seems, may need to be technology that proves Bainbridge wrong, and that comes down to being better retailers.
Comtec’s Pickles said: “It all comes down to speed. You have to look at the next generation. They want things here and now. No one is going to be willing to wait.
“It will start with a search on Google or in an app or in Facebook and they will take social recommendations and look at TripAdvisor. All this is coming at pace and we cannot stop it.
“We have come to the conclusion there is a lot of complexity out there; none of us disagrees with that. There’s a lot of hard stuff that still has to be done – we all do that day to day – but we would love to break out and do some of this exciting stuff.”