From The FieldCorporate online booking tools have their detractors. Everyone has an opinion on how to make them better. That includes Festive Road managing partner Caroline Strachan. In this guest piece, she explains the challenges faced by the makers of corporate tools, how some products overcome them and why she sees 2019 as a year of big change in the space.

I’ve been observing the online booking tool market and sense a long-overdue shift. For years the OBTs have faced underinvestment versus consumer travel sites. No doubt there are many reasons why, and I’d guess that a starting point is the lack of millions in commissions the consumer tools rake in. You can’t mingle with travel managers for long before the conversation turns to how frustrated they are with “clunky tools” and lack of progress.

Mainly driven by external forces, change is afoot. There probably is much work underway behind closed doors, and I predict we’ll see a string of improvements announced in the year ahead. Here’s why.

In the main, an OBT has three purposes:

1. Source supplier content, i.e., seats to travel in, beds to sleep in, cars to drive, etc.
2. Provide a shopping and booking interface for the traveler/booker
3. Provide corporate controls regarding policy parameters, rate access, etc.

The OBTs are facing change in all three areas.

Airlines and hotels are reviewing distribution strategies. Content is published in many different ways. Traditional aggregation won’t be enough moving forward so OBTs must rethink their content access strategies.

Booking interfaces are stuck in the 1990s. At the most basic level, schedule or price has driven the shopping experience in corporate OBTs. Now, though, consumers are used to shopping experiences where they can, for example, search for a sofa by size, color or fabric. Consumers can filter shopping for pajamas by short or long sleeves, age of the person using them, color and even by unicorn design (a prerequisite in my home).

Policy settings and application will need to changeLowest logical fares will go away and OBTs will need to filter options based on corporate needs. They already can remove all “basic” fares. They’ll also need to display only those that include add-ons like inflight Wi-fi, checked bags and so on.

OBTs need to invest in all three areas and move to attribute-based shopping models.

To quote Finnair chief commercial officer Juha Järvinen, onstage recently at the GBTA Europe conference, “We need to be able to offer our full product suite for the consumer to choose from.” The OBT that can enable this “shopfront” becomes most appealing to the supplier. Look at what Skyscanner enables for Finnair to give you an idea.

In pursuing a true marketplace view, there are bright sparks of hope. Here are some* examples:

• Short’s Travel has an online booking tool allowing the user to attribute-shop hotels. If having a gym is the most important factor to you personally, you get to check a box and immediately your results are updated.

• New Zealand-headquartered Serko brought its Zeno booking tool to the Northern Hemisphere. In doing so, it moved to multi-source content (e.g., adding Air Canada NDC content via the ATPCO/Sita NDC exchange) and you can also apply policy based on air shopping attributes.

• TripActions, the shiny new kid on the block, is heavily focused on a booking interface receiving much positive feedback from early adopters.

• Routehappy by ATPCO claims to power the next generation of flight shopping. I’m a little bit in love with how much further it can add to the booking experience. Look at what it’s done for Expedia, for instance, with so much more to come.

In summary I believe 2019 will be a fascinating year for the OBTs. They should be ramping up their sales teams as I think we’ll see a higher volume of corporates go out to bid, looking for that next-generation shopping interface. Might this also be the year that buyers are prepared to look at different commercial models for those OBTs that drive a better user experience? Or maybe the OBT market will become so competitive that traditional fees will disappear? As a buyer, when considering supplier change, you have to constantly consider the increased customer/cost benefit versus pain/cost of change. I think we may well have reached the tipping point necessary to endure the pain of change.

* No doubt others have these functionalities too. These company examples are not Festive Road clients.

• Caroline Strachan On The Real Traveler Of The Future
• Evolving Content Needs Highlight Differences Among Self-Booking Tools
• Louise Miller On Considerations For Online Booking Tool Selection
• Much-Maligned Corporate Booking Tools Attract Competition
• GBTA Study: Business Travelers Less Satisfied With Online Booking Tools Than Supplier Sites

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