Personalization Versus Surprise!

I attended the Innovation in Airline Distribution 2012 conference right here in my home city of Miami. The conference organizers did an admirable job of pulling together a nice balance of the provocative and the educational. I, of course, was part of the educational track.

As this conference focused on airline business, there was much attention paid to airline merchandising, optional services, and distribution. There was also plenty of discussion about personalizing offers to customers, listening to the customer, anticipating the needs of the customer, and ultimately giving the customer a relevant offer. I was quite impressed with the quality of the discussion.

It was, however, a bit surprising that most of the discussion seemed to be focused on what airlines were doing and wanted to do on their websites. When the discussion turned to getting their products to travel agencies the atmosphere turned, well, less enthusiastic. Why?

Well it is the airline website where the customer is generally known at the time of the initial request/search since more times than not, the customer begins the search process by "logging in." Bingo, the airline knows who you are and personalization is off to the races!

But for the remaining 600,000,000 or so tickets sold per year through travel agencies and OTAs powered by the GDS, the GDS only offer the airlines the opportunity to sell their products and services anonymously. Essentially, every airline ticket sold through the GDS distribution channel today is a surprise to the airline. The airlines have no transparency or visibility into who is asking for their product and what product actually got presented to the prospective airline customer. The airline simply gets "surprised" when the GDS sells a ticket. The airlines patiently wait for the GDS to send the airline an electronic message saying a sale has been made. In computer speak it would be something like 100101110110100010010100. And in EDIFACT it would be something like: 1DAVIDSON/JAMES MR DL2250Q07MAYATLJFK/0950 1221

Allow me to roughly translate: Hey Delta, Sabre here, we just sold a ticket to DAVIDSON/JAMES MR in Q class on your flight 2250 from Atlanta to Kennedy that leaves at 9:50 in the morning and arrives at 12:21. Surprise!

Okay, I am not sure they really add the word "surprise." But they might as well! But wait, there is a second surprise! The airline does not even know how much the GDS sold the ticket for until the reservation is actually ticketed. Surprise! How's that for personalization?

So it's no wonder all this talk about personalization, understanding the customer, and giving the customer a relevant offer seems to only apply to the airline websites. But what about all those consumers and business travelers who choose to book through travel agencies or corporate booking tools?

Sorry, Charlie. The GDS simply cannot (or will not) provide this type of traveler-authenticated workflow opportunity for any airline. The GDS wants to continue to play the role of Gatekeeper and control what airline offer is made to an anonymous potential customer. And if a sale is made, the GDS will simply surprise their airline customer with a notification of a generic ticket sale.

Now I like surprises as much as the next person, but let's keep them for birthdays and not as a business model.

This post is republished with permission from the Farelogix 'Ask The Question' blog.