If travel players want to capture and hold profitable customers, however, they need to offer more than Internet bells and whistles. They must be able to flexibly handle and package a wide variety of travel options — flights, hotels, cars, tours, tickets, and side trips, from the obscure to the commonplace — offered by hundreds of different companies and inventory aggregators throughout the travel industry. Thus, online travel agents must develop the tour-operator ability to package complete and tempting offerings, either on their own or through partnerships with other companies.
Operators must be able to package and price these components in real time, have the technology in place to instantly steer customers toward a personalized solution within any sales channel, and accurately match travel plans to each customer’s willingness to pay. To do so will require a booking engine capable of highly dynamic product configuration, pricing, procurement, and inventory management processes that can react immediately to customer requests and to prices that change hourly.
To manage these vast inventory databases and squeeze the most profit out of them involves a high-wire act of balancing supply and demand. After all, there’s little point in building fancy, dynamic booking engines without sufficient attractive and varied inventory to tempt each customer segment. Although this is a problem for every travel intermediary, online travel agents suffer the most. Their asset-light business model depends in part on the avoidance of inventory risk; they prefer to foist the potential losses from unsold inventory on travel suppliers such as airlines and hotel chains. Because those suppliers, quite reasonably, will happily trade certainty for higher margins, they typically offload large chunks of their offerings at a deep discount to travel agents and tour operators, which then sell these trips and reservations in blocks. In the long run, as every category of intermediary becomes more proficient at a much more dynamic, minute-to-minute booking game, online travel agencies will be left with fewer and less competitive offerings, especially at times of high demand.
Consequently, it is essential for online agencies, and indeed all intermediaries, to be willing to enter into inherently risky inventory commitments. Doing so profitably involves putting sophisticated processes in place that will let them make better decisions about which offerings to purchase from travel suppliers, as well as the potential value of these offerings. The proper combination of long-range demand forecasting, real-time pricing and yield management, and agile, dynamic sourcing can give travel companies the right inventory at the right price points at the right time, boosting both revenues and margins. Presently, the corner travel agent is still the most adept at sizing up regular customers — where they want to go; how much they’re willing to pay; and how much time it’s worthwhile to spend with them, given their likely value. And the travel agent knows where to find the inventory to satisfy customers. In the future, large-scale, more click-based operators — whether online agencies, tour operators, airlines, or hotel chains — will have to turn to much improved technology to perform those functions profitably. And when that occurs, travelers will be rewarded with any number of companies that can find them personalized, flexible, competitively priced travel options. Those companies that perform the best will no doubt enjoy the greatest consumer loyalty.
Now if only they could do something about the leg room.
Volkmar Koch (email@example.com), a principal with Booz Allen Hamilton in Frankfurt, works with clients on strategy in the travel and tourism and aviation sectors.
Jürgen Ringbeck (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior vice president with Booz Allen based in Düsseldorf. He leads the firm’s work in global commercial transportation.
Stefan Stroh (email@example.com) is a vice president with Booz Allen in Frankfurt. He leads the firm’s work in global transportation technology.
Also contributing to this article was Booz Allen Principal Stephan Amling.