On the surface, all tour operators are doing the same thing – buying or operating various holiday components, and packaging and reselling them. On that basis, commercially available computer systems should be able to cater for all the industry standard requirements out there, right? Choose a supplier, install and configure the software, load up the product and off you go. But in reality it’s never that easy.
Having worked both with tour operators and travel technology providers, I haven’t ever witnessed a 100% fit between a tour operator and a computer system. But why is this? Millions of people happily use software like Excel and Word, so why doesn’t the same apply to travel systems?
The travel industry is very complex, and the product that is being sold can involve working with many different types of supplier, in different countries, regulated in different ways. It can be challenging for a system to cater for the myriad variations in practice even within a single tour operator.
Although there are some common core requirements that many tour operators have, the reason that specialist tour operators exist is for their knowledge and expertise in operating product that is different to the mainstream. With these specialisms often come additional system requirements – handling academic guides, room sharing between bookings, complex ski pass rules for example.
A bit of a generalisation, but in my experience smaller specialist tour operators often have quite set business processes that have been place for many years. This could be a reflection of low staff turnover, or perhaps the organic way processes have developed from staff being relatively ‘hands on’ with the product. Potential new systems are often measured for their fit against existing business processes, rather than their ability to get the underlying task done.
Low Investment Culture
The travel industry is known for being low margin, and that has meant that there is not a huge amount of investment made in travel technology. Many systems providers develop a core offering and then sell it, but have limited ongoing R&D budgets. This means that systems are further developed according to individual client specifications and are at risk of becoming less generic and cross-client-applicable as a result.
For these reasons, the choice of system usually comes down to choosing the best-fit option. Bigger companies often choose to invest heavily in the development of a system by providing extensive specification briefs to tailor the system to their needs. But for the smaller operator this would be financially prohibitive, so it is necessary to navigate a different route to getting the business up and running on the new system.
So what are the options?
There are different ways to work around system gaps. To an extent the possible approaches depend on what the gap is, and how much time, money and appetite for change is available. I have rated some common approaches below.
Business process changes
Process change requires the least material investment, although it can be time intensive. Implementing a new system is a good opportunity to review processes, and if you can operate in line with how the system is designed to work, this will usually mean you have the fewest issues in the future compared to the other options. However, substantially changing processes s at the same time as the system can be tricky to manage. Overall, in my experience the more open to change people are about business processes, the more likely the success of the system implementation.
It is usual to request some changes to the tour operator software from the system provider themselves as a result of a gap analysis. This is effective in terms of the system itself being changed to work in the right way for your business, but the timing is difficult. It is a relatively costly option, so it tends to be the business critical elements that are handled in this way.As a result the changes need to be specified and developed before you start actually using the system – making it difficult to be confident that you are specifying the right changes in the best way.
This is where the fun starts. Many systems offer APIs, database views and other interfaces that you can use to build supporting systems, or connect to other off-the-shelf systems. This can range from relatively well defined projects like connecting to a CRM, to developing a website or creating your own side systems for things like client documentation, reporting or other back office processes. The benefit is you can develop additional software to fit your business exactly, the challenge is accessing the specialist skills required and managing the projects effectively.
Unfortunately, using off-system workarounds is an option that is all-too-common. It is the most accessible option, as any member of staff can work around a system gap using things like Excel or Word, often double entering data and spending plenty of time doing so. The entry cost of using workarounds is low, and they can be a functional short-term stop gap, but it is important to evaluate the wider costs of using them such as increased handling time, the consequences of reduced accuracy, and impacts such as lost sales and opportunity costs.
Data extracts are useful if your gaps are to do with how information is displayed, interpreted or used, rather than how data is stored or entered. All the information is entered and stored within the core system, but you extract the data you need from the system and manipulate it outside of the system. Using a database tool like SQL or accessing the database through Excel can be a launch point to do things like charts and graphs, calculations, mail merge documents, email campaigns etc. It needs someone with intermediate to advanced IT skills to set the database queries and connections up in the first instance.
Data tools and interfaces
Reporting is one of the areas where gaps are often found. Although most tour operators have broadly similar reporting requirements, the detail of what information is contained in reports and how it is calculated can be unique to each business. A solution can be to connect your system to a reporting tool like Business Objects, Cognos, Qlikview etc and allow end users to build reports using those enriched interfaces. You could even use Microsoft Access to build simple interfaces to support reporting and even admin and operational functions. The cost of licensing these products varies widely.
When you come to purchase a travel system for your specialist tour operator, you will probably decide to combine some of these options to fill any gaps you identify. Its important to find the right solution for your business and budget. And of course if you would like help deciding which route to take, or assistance reviewing and updating business processes, researching and writing development specifications, creating data extracts and reports, analysing and leading in-house development or looking into 3rd party tools, please do not hesitate to get in touch – firstname.lastname@example.org.