The Speed of Light


The world is advancing at such a pace and with travel making up such an important part of business, travel management companies are having to stay abreast of the latest developments, as well as offer products that reflect the changing world. Melissa Douman takes a look at the industry’s perspective on just how important these technological innovations are.

For anyone in business, face-to-face time with a potential or existing client is the ideal way in which to either build a new relationship or strengthen an existing one and grow one’s business. But, business models and operations have long expanded past the boundaries of our local communities, crossing continents and oceans, as the world continues its evolvement as a global hub of productivity.

The bottom line is, if you’re a corporate with serious business aspirations, you need to be looking further afield and to play on a global scale, if you’re in the type of industry that lends itself to expansion. That’s, of course, only if you want to grow your business beyond your immediate geographical boundaries. With all of this in mind, smart and efficient travel has become incredibly important and a vital cog in the ever-turning wheel of ‘business without boundaries’. But, before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s remember something – the world has only just come out of a global economic ‘meltdown’ and talk of a ‘double dip’ is no longer just rumour.

And, if that hasn’t scared you away yet, the cost of international travel just might, when weighed up against your monthly grocery or salary bill. So, what to do, if you still harbour that ambition of growing your business internationally? Get smart, is the answer, and it’s here that travel management companies are having to do likewise, as they seek to keep the business traveller alive and on the road, or in the air. Yes, they’ll sell themselves as the rescuers of any company’s travel woes, but these operators can manage a travel budget, with the most detailed reporting, and they do have the ability to transform a modest budget – be it for big or small groups, and individual travellers alike.

However, for the modern-day TMC to remain effective, depends a fair amount on what access it has to the latest travel technology. That’s the sort of technology that gives the TMC access to the rest of the world, which, in turn, allows them to track bookings (airline, hotel, car rental, travel insurance), make changes to itineraries, manage risk, track the client should anything go wrong, as well as manage travel spend and consolidate all, using an effective system.

Enter the IT companies and developers of Global Distribution Systems (GDS), such as Travelport or Amadeus GTD Southern Africa. These are the supposed ‘gurus’ of software development and applications, who stay ahead of the game and make the lives of TMCs and travel agents that much easier. As a result, the business traveller or corporate is the ultimate winner.

“We have leading-edge technology that allows us to connect customers around the globe”, says Nicolas le Roux, Marketing and PR Manager at Travelport. The company has a presence in 27 countries on the Africa continent – a significant footprint.

“We also provide highly effective distribution propositions for our supplier customers (airlines, hotels and car rental), to display their inventory in real time, making the travel agent/TMC efficient and highly competitive”, he says.

But, it’s not always as simple as that. For most TMCs, connectivity in first world countries is not an issue, but when dealing with Africa, it’s a different story. “The use of technology in travel is without a doubt only as effective as the reliability of the connectivity”, says Marc De Jager, Global Alliance Manager for Travel With Flair. “In most of Africa, the connectivity streams are up and down”, which, of course, poses a significant problem for agents trying to communicate with clients.

To overcome these obstacles, says De Jager, “it is so important that we find other methods, and this can include multiple types. So, if the fibre optic or copper cable communication is down, then we have 3G, dial-up through other service providers, as well as UHF connectivity. Fortunately, in most first world countries, this does not pose a huge problem, and therefore, we are only reliant on two major forms, that being fibre optic and 3G”.

It’s not just the TMC or agent that needs connectivity. In order for all of this to be achieved, the software developer and supplier both need to be connected, too. “Every market is different and what’s important to connectivity is local presence and local support”, says Allison Zack, Senior Manager Operations and Solutions at Amadeus GTD Southern Africa.

So, Amadeus are working hard at building those partnerships. They are currently doing business in eight African countries – namely, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, Botswana, Swaziland, and Namibia – and they will be connecting to Angola in the new year. Africa, though, is a difficult market and what’s important, according to De Jager, is to not get too far ahead of oneself. For him, the key to technological success is simplicity. He says that simple systems that provide travellers with as much relevant information, in the easiest, most logical way possible, are the most effective. “We don’t overload them with unnecessary data”, he says.

Le Roux picks up on the simplicity issue, whilst pointing to what he believes agents or TMCs want to receive. “Our GDS (Worldspan, Apollo and Galileo) provide travel agents with the booking functionality of inventory for many different suppliers, and it’s very content rich. As a result of new technology, developers will be able to access extensive content in a faster and more time efficient manner, by coding to one single solution, instead of multiple APIs”, says Le Roux.

Ultimately, though, it all comes down to the bottom line, and TMCs and agents need to play an active role in helping their clients save some pennies. For any company, being able to measure the return on any investment, especially travel expenditure, is invaluable and almost non-negotiable.

TMC’s understand this well and, as a response, De Jager adds that “with the economies of the world dancing on egg shells, our clients are always looking for the best ways to save money and increase their bottom line profit”.

Part of TWF’s services, which go beyond straightforward reporting “is to do an in-depth analysis of where they are channelling their spend, and who is doing what in their business, with regards travel.  This, in turn, allows us to assist with getting the best deals with our suppliers and ensure that we find ways to assist our clients in saving money”, says De Jager. As developers of the technology, Travelport has plenty to offer. Clients can benefit from a highly competitive and accurate shopping functionality, for travel agents who want to quickly search for the best available fares, subject to the specified criteria. For the corporate or leisure customer, Travelport provides corporate booking tools and an online booking engine, facilitated via the travel agent.

As is probably obvious, it’s a competitive space, and it’s not an easy exercise for a TMC or travel agency to maintain market share, in a technological environment that is changing all the time. “There are always new technological advances popping up and we make sure that we are kept abreast of it through our partners and suppliers”, says De Jager. “We do a lot of research into what technology is out there and what is up-and-coming, or ‘around the corner’. We also listen to what our clients say”.

“We believe in investing in technology, whether it is developing new technology, enhancing current systems or purchasing off the shelf products”, says De Jager. “However, the return on that investment is always highly favourable. Our growth in our client base and year-on-year financial growth bears testament to that”.

Web-based products are not the only products forcing TMCs and travel agents to up their game. The mobile space is also highly competitive and an area where some travel companies are seeing plenty of opportunity. Wings Travel Management, for example, have developed, among many other products, something called ‘goText’, which “communicates important and relevant information instantly to a traveller’s mobile device, allowing users to have travel details on hand when required. Travellers are also provided with critical information regarding news that impacts their travel, as events unfold”.

Another simple concept, but also another example of how modern technology is working in favour of the traveller. “We have seen how important mobile technology has become and we have developed the first mobile booking solution on the Africa continent”, says Le Roux. “That will enable the travel trade to offer their clients mobile access to Travelport’s full GDS content via their mobile phones and handheld devices”.

According to Le Roux, with over 98% of South Africans in possession of a mobile phone, of which 26% are now smartphones, there is a natural progression to provide a secure and stable solution that will support the growing demand of this market. This technology, which allows travellers to book and pay for flight, car and hotel bookings around the clock, using their smartphones, will automatically generate bookings into the travel agent’s normal workflow procedures, to enable full reporting. The secure payment gateway functionality also ensures that bookings are instantly processed.

“In collaboration with a third party, we have developed a revolutionary system that makes use of the GPS and compass in mobile devices, such as iPads and smartphones”, says Le Roux. “This development is referred to as GeoGuides. Simply ‘point and click’ your phone at any landmark in the real world to retrieve information about it. GeoGuides provides users with information like current location, how to get to a specific address, what they can do there and other relevant local information. It also uses augmented reality to identify landmarks though the camera of the device being used. The system can list and search any location that has been ‘geocoded’, including, but not limited to hotels, restaurants, cinemas, tourist attractions, markets – and can event direct the user on how to get there. We are in the development phase of including a Facebook application that will enable the traveller to book, research and share travel options with friends on this popular social networking platform”.

So, plenty going on at Travelport and most in the industry seem to have a similar stance. You just need to be in the space. For De Jager, “these are truly exciting times. Being able to bring the booking process directly to the traveller gives them the power to make informed decisions and is seen as huge value-adds to their business.”  “I’m also excited that the Civil Aviation Authority has now approved, in principle, the use of Wi-Fi in the sky through G-Connect. This will allow travellers to change bookings, make new reservations and even book theatre tickets online, while they are on their way to their destination.”

The message is clear. This space is moving so quickly, that if you don’t get your feet wet, you are going to be left behind. And, if you’re a corporate that wants to remain at the cutting-edge, whilst keeping a close eye on your travel budget, it just makes sense to partner with a reputable TMC or travel agent, who is at the forefront of the technological revolution. Go on. Do your homework. It’ll be worth it. 

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