Craig Fichtelberg, co-founder and president of Chicago-area AmTrav, weighs in on the current and future state of travel management companies and asks: Is open booking a panacea or a Band-Aid?
Amid all the hysteria about open booking and whether or not it's justified or media-concocted hoopla, everyone is missing the most important point. Open booking surfaced because TMCs have been asleep at the wheel for the last decade and not because a new wave of rebel Gen-Y travelers are defiant by nature and simply aren't willing to be compelled to use a particular booking channel. TMCs have completely abdicated responsibility for user experience, outsourcing it entirely to third parties. The result is both inferior booking tools and support levels that have left travelers unsatisfied, frustrated and yearning for a new alternative.
While consumer products get better, faster and slicker every year, TMCs__even those with impressive resources at their disposal__have largely chosen to not concern themselves with the core booking experience. It's like all the TMCs got together 10 years ago and agreed online booking technology would be off-limits; they won't try to out-innovate each other with respect to a traveler's experience online. So as online adoption continues to rise and TMCs continue to use the same few third-party booking tools, the TMC becomes more and more of a commodity. As their costs rise with third-party products, their customer service inevitably falls. Meanwhile, while the TMCs have slept, a giant has risen to capitalize on the opportunity.
But this giant is not a bigger and better travel company; instead it is an expensemanagement company that now bills itself as a "travel and expense" solution and that suddenly has a lot more control over the traveler's booking experience than the TMC. The TMCs have become virtual prisoners of this giant. As the expense company's domination of the industry gets more awesome and more enviable every year, TMCs are left to quietly pray that they won't one day be deemed expendable and cut out of the equation altogether.
What needs to be done to fix this mess? It goes back to the customer. TMCs need to listen to their customers to ascertain what the customer needs and come up with new and better ways to deliver value to address those needs. The days when you could pick up a phone and talk to a person have been lost in the travel industry, and customers are yearning again for that level of support. TMCs need to take more ownership of their technology. Since technology is such a big driver of customer satisfaction, TMCs need to compete with one another in that arena. The world is changing, and if TMCs want to cement their role in it, they must join the game and get to work trying to leapfrog and out-innovate each other, not watch from the sidelines as third-party technology companies go head to head. Over time, the added competitive pressure among TMCs will make the user experience much better for the traveler.
Open booking is not a great new idea but a solution being offered for a very real problem. Open booking exists because TMCs dropped the bar so low that an expense company could climb over it and then dictate the new benchmark for what travel should be. It's time for travel companies to take back control, stop living as prisoners and provide a travel solution that will make business travel easy again. Open booking is plugging a hole on the Titanic, when TMCs should be building a new ship.