Op Ed: Caroline Strachan On The Move To Attribute-Based Online Travel Shopping

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.

Caroline Strachan
Festive Road managing partner Caroline Strachan

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

Caroline Strachan

Author: Caroline Strachan

Caroline Strachan is managing partner at Festive Road. Her work experience can be summarized as 10 years the meetings and events supplier, 10 years the travel buyer (at Cisco, Yahoo and AstraZeneca) and more recently as VP global consulting at American Express Global Business Travel. Caroline has also held a number of industry leadership positions including ITM chairman and GBTA Europe president, and has received a number of awards in recognition of her services to the industry. Caroline is often called "the most credible business travel expert" in the industry, further supported by being published as one of three "industry influencers" in the Buying Business Travel 2016 Hotlist. Find more of Caroline's information on LinkedIn.


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Caroline StrachanCaroline StrachanGreg AbbottCara WhitehillPedro Ceron Recent comment authors
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Thomas Tulloch

Caroline, well written article and many good points in here. I agree that the decades-old OBTs are beginning to show their age and corporate travelers are growing increasingly frustrated with the booking experience. I believe that the significant investments announced last year in this category will allow “the new kids on the block” to transform the user experience, addressing many of the issues and shortcomings that the legacy platforms have yet to overcome. Newer technology platforms with faster agile development cycles will allow for improved booking features with an attractive speed to market advantage. The problem with decades-old platforms is… Read more »

Pedro Ceron

Hello Caroline. Good points all! Very much agree on the possibility of 2019 being a defining year for improvements in content presentation and user experience for corporate OBTs. Now that industry expectations are morphing into demand, the timing is right. Thank you!

Cara Whitehill
Cara Whitehill

Good stuff! I would add that we’re starting to see some corporate travel managers question whether they need an OBT in the first place. With the proliferation of data capture tools and API integrations directly with suppliers, the #1 item on the list (sourcing supplier content) becomes redundant in some cases — travelers can get the same (or better) rates directly from suppliers. Elite status travelers also may get better support directly from the suppliers (ie, automatic rebooking, upgrades, no wait times, etc). And with instant data integration for supplier-direct bookings, that data can be seamlessly synced with duty of… Read more »

Greg Abbott
Greg Abbott

Caroline, I agree with you that ABS is the next shift in shopping. Thank you for raising this! However, most of the examples you’ve listed are attribute-based filtering where a traveler can use faceted search to get results that are pre-filtered with just the content (room type – rate plan combinations) that meets the filter conditions. This has been around for some time. Real ABS at a hotel, for example, allows guests to start a shopping cart with basic run-of-house room and then add in each attribute (e.g., ocean view, king bed, balcony, wifi, breakfast, etc.) to the cart and… Read more »