Impact of Cloud Computing on Travel Industry

Introduction

The last decade has seen major changes in the travel distribution landscape. First, it was the Internet that started a revolution and forever changed how the travel industry operates. This online boom followed by subsequent economic slowdown has created new dynamics in travel distribution. The proliferation of smart phones and social media has resulted in further creating both chaos as well as new opportunities. While opening up new avenues for growth, these developments have also created new operational challenges.

Challenges faced by travel distribution industry

Dynamic Demand

One key nature of the travel industry is that the demand for travel is highly seasonal and cyclic. This creates a challenge for any operations manager in terms of capacity planning and right sizing of the IT support infrastructure. Planning for peak size can result in underutilization and lead to higher marginal cost. On the other hand, not planning for peak load runs the risk of lost transaction opportunities, unsatisfied customers and finally business losses. This is one of the primary reasons why most travel distribution players end up having higher IT infrastructure cost and lower operating margins.

Increased Search Volume

Increased number of travel portals along with a changing pattern of travel booking behavior of the travelers, has resulted in a huge surge in ‘look to book’ ratio. This increased number of availability request per booking now runs into thousands from a mere single digit number few years back, putting an enormous pressure on existing IT infrastructure. According to Pegasus Solutions, global processor of hotel transactions through the GDS and ADS channels, the look-to-book ratio soared to around +60% over 2009 levels and is expected to rise further. Today’s common look-to-book ratio is almost at a 2,500 -3,000 to 1, -primarily due to growth of online reservation and the changing consumer behavior who is now looking ‘value for money’ deals. For this, travel shoppers use multiple avenues such as search engines, referral sites, websites, mobile applications, and social media.

Business Disruptions

Just prior to the recession, online travel booking soared to all time highs attracting further investments in IT infrastructure in demand anticipation. However, discretionary travel was one of the first spends that was cut down during the slowdown. This caused a severe strain on financials and travel companies had to rethink their models yet again.

Increase in number of sales channels

Popularity of smart phones has persuaded travel players to embrace mobility as a medium to manage bookings and provide other experiences to increase customer stickiness. At the same time, social media sites have also become very popular and travel portals are trying to utilize this trend by integrating different social media components with their sites. Of course, more number of channels also increases complexities in product management.

Cloud computing from a travel distribution perspective

The Cloud helps enterprises to have a dynamically scalable abstracted computing infrastructure that is available on-demand and on a pay-per-use basis. This model not only saves the IT teams from investing heavily on infrastructure, but also shields them from the intricacies involved in infrastructure setup and management. Presently, apart from providing the on-demand IT infrastructure, cloud service providers typically provide interfaces for other related IT management services. To understand the application of Cloud computing to the travel industry, availability searching or shopping is probably the best example; it is by and large the biggest resource consumer in a typical travel process. In today’s circumstances, travel enterprises who run their entire travel application on a single infrastructure platform put unnecessary stress on operational budgets. One of the probable solutions to this problem is to decouple the availability search functionality from the traditional CRS system transfer it on an infrastructure that can support flexible demand. At the onset, it seems to be a complex and upheaval task, as it creates operational challenges such as latency. However, these challenges can be handled through a cloud based solution which offers higher scalability by using modern architecture patterns. On the other hand, mobility is witnessing an unprecedented growth in demand – this is another area where a cloud strategy can bring in competitive advantages for travel organizations. The key challenges that travel enterprises are facing today regarding mobile and social media channels are manifold, viz.,

With the advancements of mobile devices such as iPhone, iPad, Android, Symbian, and Blackberry, travel enterprises need to invest in leveraging these to further their distribution and fulfillment channels.
Mobility, being a rapidly evolving technology, is difficult to predict in terms of short term as well as long term demand. Due to this, travel enterprises are facing a challenge in scoping the required infrastructure for supporting mobility channel.
Travel enterprises need to create a business model to measure increase in revenue and profit against the costs incurred on mobility & social media investments.

Cloud based flexible and on-demand infrastructure enables a travel enterprise to offer mobility and social media channels without incurring any fixed cost. Using a cloud infrastructure, a travel enterprise can start in a small way and grow into these evolving markets with a lower risk and financial strain.

Key concerns in adopting cloud based system

Availability of a Service

Organizations worry about whether utility computing services will have adequate availability, and this makes them wary of Cloud Computing. But in reality, cloud infrastructure providers such as Amazon and Google have much lower outage compared to any internal IT system.

Data lock-in

The primary way to access the cloud platforms is through proprietary APIs. Thus, enterprises feel that they cannot easily extract their data and programs from one site to run on another. But in reality, all major service providers have an obligation in their contract to return the data to the enterprise. These service providers also have data access APIs that can be used to extract data in standard formats.

Data Confidentiality and Statutory Requirements

Many enterprises believe that their data will not be secure in the cloud, since current cloud offerings are essentially public networks. However in reality most of these cloud service providers have better data protection and security mechanism than most IT organizations. They achieve this through the usage of audit trail, encrypted storage, and network middle-boxes. Service providers also comply with various statutory and audit requirements related to enterprise and personal data security and usage.

Integration with external systems

Since travel distribution systems interact with multiple external applications, travel enterprises always have a concern about integrating the cloud based system with other external systems. However, all major cloud service providers have web service interfaces that can be utilized to integrate the cloud based system with other external systems.

Solution for the ‘long tail’

As we know, the travel industry comprises of many small to mid-sized companies. A large majority of which are very entrepreneurial and niche in terms of the products and services they offer. Companies in this ‘long tail’ have little or limited IT knowledge or support and rely on numerous third parties for IT. Such companies always find it difficult to balance their IT spending between IT upgrades and innovating on their solutions, and this tends to become a barrier for business growth. Even today, many small time travel enterprises do not even have an IT system, because they cannot afford to setup an IT operation in-house. Economics of Cloud environment can change this basic premise and make it both affordable and beneficial for travel enterprises of any size who can use this service to derive a competitive advantage. Such an environment brings tremendous advantages to such companies because it also helps them to manage their cash flow better. At the other end of the horizon, start-ups are finding it easier to build and offer products like CRSs, tour operating systems, distribution systems or basic inventory systems on a SaaS model, which is a stronger value proposition and provides a competitive edge to their offerings.

Business outcomes of using cloud based systems

From the above discussion we can conclude that travel enterprise can achieve business growth by leveraging the power of cloud computing:

A cloud-based solution reduces the total cost of IT ownership for the travel enterprises and offers performance, reliability, security, and flexible scalability advantages
Travel enterprises are able to increase customer base due to higher availability, low congestion, and additional sales channels
Competitive advantage to the small and mid-sized enterprise in the form of lower fixed or upfront capital cost
Improved operational efficiency due to low marginal cost
Ability to manage risks better by reducing fixed investment on any new initiative

About the Author

As the Director – Business Development & Marketing in Calsoftlabs, Somenath is responsible for growing Calsoftlabs’ ISV business in North Ameica Region. Somenath has extensive experience in Outsourced Product Development space and helped Tier 1 ISVs & Startups in setting up Offshore Product Engineering labs and Program Management Offices. He has been involved in managing multiple key strategic programs in the area of Healthcare, Mobile Communication, Digital Imaging and Product Engineering. Somenath, a Certified Scrum Master, has special interest in areas like strategic management, e-marketing, Agile Development Methodologies, Software Testing, and Enterprise Mobility.

Benefits of Self Planned Travel

The advent of the internet has really speed up and made self-planned travel more pervasive and easier. These days, travel destination, airlines, hotels, car-rental companies and others advertise their product more aggressively and allow the individual travellers to self-plan their own travels. It is an exciting new way to travel that appeals to more and more people.

The most obvious benefit here is the flexibility in the self-planned travel holidays. With this form of travel, you can customize the self-planned travel right down to the last minute details. Things and sights that travel agents avoid can now be included in the programme, allowing travellers to be more targeted in their travel objectives. Travellers can take up more unconventional destinations and activities and include these into their plans. The weirdest combinations are now possible. You can plan a wine tasting tour together with a skiing tour now. Many people interested in this form of self-planned travels, see this flexibility as a great asset.

Secondly, with the internet, choices become more varied for the self-planned traveller. Through the internet, travellers actually can have more options for flights, hotel, transport, activities and so forth. Very often, these companies are willing to offer personalize service to secure the business of these form of travellers.

The varied choices in travel products and services also mean that there is a high chance of getting the lowest price for the products or service. For example, airlines charge different rates to fly to the same destinations. For the budget conscious self-plan traveller, this lower price range is an important factor. And very often, the travel companies know this price competition is around and are willing to lower their prices or offer special discounts to travellers, resulting in travellers getting higher class products at lower cost.

Very often, self-planned travel involve a fair bit of self-drive vacationing. This offers the travellers a great way to alter or change their travel plans at will. If a town appears interesting and full of excitement, travellers might just extend their stay. If someone mention that just a couple of hundred miles down the road is an exciting place of interest, the travellers might just change their original plan and head for this new place of interest. This form of positive change makes the entire self-planned travel programme more meaningful.

Next,the group size of the self-planned travel can now be up to the travelling group. There is no more such thing as a minimum size group to travel. Small groups are also very possible for people to travel in.

Another key benefit is the improved cultural exchange between the self-planned travellers and the locals. In group tours, extended mingling with the locals are often difficult as time is limited. People are always rushing from destination to destination. But in a self-planned travel programme, travellers can afford to spend more time interacting with the local population, thus gaining more insight into the community. Self-planned travels are often repeated because strong ties are established in previous trips.

Travelling in this form of self-planned travel is indeed gaining popularity as the benefits are substantial, especially with the flexibility, ease of planning and also the cultural exchange. But before anyone head into any self-planned travel, it is important to consider some detail planning first.

Travel Pre And Post Internet

Travel Pre Internet:

I’ve been travelling for over 40 years – by thumb in my early days, by boots in the Scouts, a Lambretta came next and then my first old banger followed by newer old bangers to the beaches of the Costa Brava.

My thumb, boots, bikes and bangers took me all over Europe and the UK before finding that a charter flight to Spain on an old ‘Connie’ could get me to the beaches and bars a lot quicker and allow more time to enjoy the local travel opportunities by horse and cart and the occasional bus and train.

‘Go West and Prosper’ seemed to be a good idea so instead of taking an 8 hour flight I took an 8 day transatlantic crossing from Tilbury to Montreal on the Stephan Batory of Polish Ocean Lines ensuring that jet lag did not trouble my travel plans. Some years later I crossed the pond again on a ship but this time it was 5 times bigger and I travelled in style on the QE2 and dined in the Queen’s Grill somewhat removed from my earlier experience. I highly recommend ocean voyages but cannot see myself on one of the modern cruise ships going from port to port with constant line-ups to get on and off to buy t-shirts. However, I have done 10 Windjammers and a Star Clipper cruise in the Caribbean which were all memorable (let’s hope Windjammer Barefoot Cruises recover from their woes). But I digress.

I had read that Canada is a spectacular country, from sea to shining sea, and my entrance into the St. Lawrence River to Montreal and then heading west in an old Econoline van from the Great Lakes, across the Prairies to the Rocky Mountains before ending up whale watching off of the Pacific Coast of Vancouver Island was a trip of wonder to a bloke from London. Today the scenery is still spectacular and the best way to go is still by road so rent or buy a car, motorhome or motorbike, take the train or tour bus but remember the maps, a fly rod, good boots and take your time.

My favorite part of Canada / USA for adventure travel has to be Northern BC / Alaska, to hike the Chilkoot Trail in the steps of the goldseekers of 1898. The Northwest Territories to canoe the Nahannie River and the Yukon to drive from Dawson City to Chicken, Alaska. If you like the outdoors and can put up with a few bugs, cast a fly and scale a few hills or drive on endless dirt roads sharing the space with moose, caribou, elk, bears and eagles, then these are the places to put on your list. The pleasures and experiences in driving to Inuvik on the Dempster Highway or to Prudhoe Bay on the Dalton Highway or even the Canol Road can only be felt by doing them. I would have mentioned the Alaska Highway but now it is an easy drive unlike the aforementioned.

Today the costs of driving these distances may mean that sharing the journey with others is required, but RVing or simply vanning and camping is a great way to see beyond the horizon. Some enroute adventures now need to be booked in advance whereas when I hiked Denali and the Chilkoot Pass it was just a case of turning up, registering with the local ranger office and heading on out. A little more forward planning is needed for today’s traveller and cost considerations of lengthy flights or drives have to somehow be countered with more careful planning. In the days of reasonable gas prices I would not even consider the driving or flying costs and have driven to Key West from the northwest coast, down the west coast to the Baja and to the west coast from New York. I once even flew my 1946 Fleet taildragger from the Pacific to the Atlantic and back using around 5 gallons an hour of avgas. Before the oil and credit crisis I drove from Rio de Janeiro to Lima, down to Tierra del Fuego and back to Rio covering over 15,000 miles of spectacular scenery and with no consideration about the cost of gas. South America should be on your itinerary too! Some other memorable drives that may now require a mortgage with the gas companies include London to The Nordkapp, Norway, Skippers Canyon in New Zealand and the loneliness of the far north of Australia and the amazing coast of Western Australia stopping by at Monkey Mia and Wave Rock.

We tend to forget that the real cost of travelling is often less today than over the 40 years of my travels. In 1977 my round-trip airfare from Canada to Australia cost over $1700 in 1977 dollars so today it is far cheaper to fly, even with the airlines gouging for fuel, extra baggage, no service and no pleasure. The ‘Big Mac’ method of price comparison as developed by The Economist newspaper gives us a good gauge for most expenditures of today compared to yesterday but my $1500 cost to get a private pilots licence in the 1970′s seems cheap by comparison to today, but obviously not when using this Big Mac principle. Other travel costs are also far cheaper today but this should not mean that travellers should disregard the many methods of saving costs that can then be put to extended or improved travel experiences

Travel Post-Internet:

In my 40 years of travel I have had to use travel agents to make even the simplest of reservations and buy tickets, not even thinking to ask them if they had “been there, done that?” It was just a case of there being no other options to buying travel. Now we have unlimited choices and can seek out better travel agents, better prices, better selections and information about anywhere in the world for our travels – without even leaving home.

The Internet now gives travellers ideas and options of Where to go, When to go, Why to go, What to do, Who to book with and How to save money and offset costs. We can search and find experts for every travel option. If we are comfortable with the Internet we no longer have to go to a travel agent to make reservations and buy tickets except to book with some of the larger travel companies that still produce glossy brochures and offer all inclusive packages or tours that only sell through the agency system. The Internet also allows those of us who are smart enough to know when to seek out a top travel agent with knowledge, experience and expertise (KEE skills) of destinations and activities about where to find them. There is no longer any need to only use our local agents when we can find one somewhere else in the world. When we do not need ‘the knowledge’ and can do it ourselves we simply surf the web so that we can book directly with tour and travel operators wherever we have decided to go.

Some travel agents operate their own tours, some are both wholesale and retail, some limit consumer selection by only selling their ‘preferred’ suppliers and some have professional consultants with years of experience invested in gaining knowledge, experience and expertise and are worth their weight in gold to the savvy traveller. Beware though, as some are also called destination specialists and some of these designations merely require the agent to take a rudimentary test offered by tourism offices, destination marketing groups or even tour operators and in my opinion can harm the reputation of the travel industry. A specialist is not necessarily an expert.

Travel is probably the most used commercial aspect of the Internet and if retail agents want to harness this exciting medium to offer ‘the knowledge’ and their ‘kee’ skills to a global audience, not just their local community, they must embrace the changes that are happening. Travellers now have the ability to seek answers to the 5 W’s of travel and the important ‘How to’ save money and offset costs by having information just a click away.

And then it occurred to me that even internet travel prices often include a commission element even when sold directly to the consumer. If we book directly with operators we should not have to pay full retail prices as we are doing for ourselves what a retail agent would normally do for us. A dilemma for the operator is that to show a both a retail and a cost price option could deter many agents from selling the services as travellers could use an agent for free advice and book directly with the operator to get a ‘net of commission’ price. Obviously this two tier pricing is not often available but travellers who do not need advice should also not be penalized by retail pricing. A new way had to be found and I think I have found it!

The need for fairer fare prices is why I developed the Top Travel Voucher program at The Top Travel Club and I even found a dot com for it. All travel selections on the site are at ‘net of commission’ prices for members who handle there own travel arrangements directly with the operators linked on the club website using our voucher program.

I am inviting travel operators from around the world to join this program, from B&B’s, Motels, Hotels, Luxury Lodges, Eco Resorts, Beach Resorts and Tour and Adventure Operators who want to promote their products and services to travellers who are comfortable with direct bookings and reservations.

I am also inviting Travel Agents with knowledge, experience and expertise of destinations and activities to showcase their skills to a global audience of travellers and to the members of this new travel club. I am leery of ‘specialist agents’ and only want experts to showcase their services.

This opportunity is available to the travel trade at no cost except for them to offer net, wholesale or outlet prices to club members and visitors to the website using top travel vouchers. I believe this program offers fairer fare prices to direct-booking travellers. The operator would normally be paying commission anyway but now travellers get the savings because they make their own arrangements.

The Top Travel Club opened in mid-April 2008 offering thousands of top travel vouchers for travel in over 70 countries with around 150 travel operators onboard. Every week we add more travel operators with more choices for members. Currently you can get savings on accommodations, adventure travel, boat charters, culinary tours, hike, bike and dive tours, auto and RV rentals fishing lodges and guides, safaris, vacation rentals, single travel, women only and dude ranches. Members get the vouchers free of charge by paying an annual membership fee and non-members can buy the vouchers on the internet at Top Travel Sites at deeply discounted prices to the face-value. The future growth will include restaurants, travel clothing, travel insurance and the opportunity to access air ticket consolidators who want to deal directly with consumers.

The way I have travelled and the way I see travel is that consumers should have unlimited access to every travel opportunity with the ability to do their own due diligence or to find a professional who can offer quality advice and services at fair prices, and to find all of this without needing endless hours of searching.