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The Connectivity Challenge

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March 01, 2012
Distribution | Channels
Craig Barnby

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The December HEDNA conference session, “Push or Pull is really the wrong question,” was highly interactive, mildly contentious and even sarcastic at times, but it also demonstrated willingness to compromise from both suppliers and distributors on possible solutions to improve the increasingly challenging connectivity landscape.  I contend that the industry created these connectivity problems for itself in abandoning standards as it moved to a seamless connectivity model.   

Early distribution connectivity maintained current rates and availability status in the global distribution systems (GDS) for products stored in those systems, but in that model the GDSs gave suppliers limited capabilities to describe their product offerings. As the range of rates being offered through GDSs continued to increase, the maintenance overhead for hotel companies became overwhelming and inefficient.  The solution was a seamless connection to allow GDSs to source current rates and availability instantly and directly from the supplier’s CRS. Suppliers could also provide travel agents with more robust descriptions along with the available rates they returned, instead of placing the burden upon travel agents to locate the property-specific decryption of the encoded rate and room type returned in the previous model.  This was a huge advance, as evidenced by the dramatic growth in transactions from electronic distribution following the mid-‘90s rollout of seamless connectivity. 

Travel agents working in a GDS were the initial audience for seamless connectivity.  It was a significant improvement on the early GDS product displays and asynchronous confirmation responses.  As long as the information was “there,” the agency community accepted a certain amount of information inconsistency from supplier to supplier, and they were willing to do a little legwork to figure out the details. This led to a high degree of flexibility in how a supplier could structure its seamless responses to the GDSs, driven by the success of seamless displays and travel agents’ general acceptance of the new system.  Standards, structure and consistency gave way to best practices, free-form text and a continual lowering of the bar to encourage supplier participation in the “enhanced” connectivity revolution. 

The Internet changed everything regarding travel distribution.  Today, the vast majority of consumers uses the Internet to research and book their travel without a professional travel agent’s assistance. Content, product descriptions, cancellation policies and other details coming from the supplier CRS,  information that was once considered robust for a travel agent working in a GDS, is now thin, cryptic and confusing for the average travel consumer. 

The Internet has also fostered shopping volume that is drastically inefficient compared to that of a travel agent, who would typically execute a search in a targeted fashion.  Unfortunately, the efficiency of shopping from online distribution channels is not going to get any better, which makes the efficiency of distributor rate and availability caching solutions even more crucial to the hospitality industry.

The flexibility introduced through seamless connectivity accelerated the functional divergence of CRS in the hospitality industry.  Each hotel’s CRS serves the same basic purpose, but each company’s technology has evolved to serve that purpose in its own way without standards to which hotel companies needed to conform. Because information was being accessed in real time meant that it didn’t matter how the hotel arrived at the rate and availability solution they presented, as long as the information was returned.  Many hotel companies used this freedom to evolve their CRSs into highly dynamic engines that continuously evaluate a number of variables in order to determine what rates and availability should be returned for a given request.  The functional nuances, lack of consistent data structure, and increasingly subjective and volatile nature of rates and availability have made it very challenging for distribution partners to work efficiently with the hotel suppliers.

Rate and availability caching solutions are used to minimize the volume of real-time availability requests that a channel needs to make to the hotel CRSs, by storing responses from those CRSs and reusing that response to deflect any subsequent identical searches.  One challenge in caching rates and availability is that the value of the rate or availability for a specific stay is subject to change without notice.  Another challenge is the volume of data needed.  Because many of the hotel CRSs have incorporated revenue management programs the cached rates and availability can only be used in response to exactly the same search criteria that generated the initial cached response.
Distribution partners face many challenges when attempting to mirror the rates and availability that a hotel intends to make available, but some of the most significant stem from the dynamic nature and volatility of these values.  The image of rates and availability in the distribution partner’s extranet database must be kept in synch with data the hotel intends to make available.  Different CRSs use highly varied models, and it is challenging to normalize all into a single database that will provide an accurate representation of every hotel’s rates and availability.  In order to keep the data current, such volatility requires a constant interaction – the data must either be pushed from the hotel to the distributor or pulled by the distributor from the hotel.  For the push model today, much like rate and room codes had to be maintained in GDSs back in the early ‘90s, each product and room type must exist in the distributor’s database as well.

Many suppliers have independently developed interfaces to allow distribution partners to directly pull, or through which they will push, rates and availability.  Distributors also have written their own interface specifications to allow suppliers to push rates and availability.  There are also dozens of channel managers that facilitate connectivity between hotels and distributors.  Aside from a fairly widespread adoption of Open Travel Alliance XML tags, these interfaces lack consistency in the representation of data, have their own message structure and semantics, require custom development to normalize, and generally behave differently from one another – all of which complicates monitoring and increases operational overhead. 

When it comes to online consumers’ desire to research and compare, many sources have characterized their behavior as obsessive-compulsive.  Consumers increasingly visit more sites and repeat their searches more often before making a purchase decision.  Online distribution channels compete for attention by trying to provide the best possible shopping experience.  Given the complex nature of hotel rates and availability and the lack of standards, providing the consumer with a great shopping experience for hotel supply is an exercise in creativity and data interpretation/manipulation. This exercise often results in what appears to the consumer as different offerings through different distribution channels.  The goal should be to give consumers a standardized product representation and provide them with accurate, informative data that provides them reassurance in making a decision.  It seems reasonable to assume that inconsistent results validate consumers’ obsessive-compulsive behavior, which in turn increases that behavior.

The enhancements of the past have evolved to become obstacles to future innovation.  Nevertheless, the benefits of moving to a distribution interface standard would be significant over time and we should work toward that goal.

Craig Barnby is a director and hospitality solutions architect at Orbitz Worldwide in Chicago, Ill.  With over 18 years of experience in the hospitality industry, Craig’s industry experience includes a variety of product, training and operations roles at Hyatt, Sabre, WorldRes.com and Cendant.

©2012 Hospitality Upgrade
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