Web Services Loom Ahead for Travel Firms

Technology eyed for online bookings

Today's, text-pager-toting teenagers are tomorrow's travel buyers, and the industry is building an IT infrastructure for that future.

Web services will become an important distribution channel for travel companies, according to several IT executives who attended last week's Travel Commerce Conference & Expo here. But it will be a while before browsers replace booking agents, they said.

"With a $5,000, five-island Hawaii trip, people just aren't closing it online," said Andre Haroche, CIO at Liberty Travel Inc. in Ramsey, N.J. "Will they do it 30 years from now? Yeah, they will. We're dabbling in [Web services] in the right places, so when it's mature, we'll go with it."

Conference attendees said that to survive, online travel sites that today primarily sell commodity travel services, such as economy airline seats, will increasingly sell higher-yield packaged deals.

That will require the creation of standards-based links between suppliers, so travel agents and consumers can tie together a flight, hotel, car rental and even snorkeling sessions while retaining business rules and customer information for each company.

The OpenTravel Alliance Inc. in Alexandria, Va., is working on XML standards specifically for the travel industry. But companies say they can't wait until the organization's standards are complete before creating online business relationships with customers and business partners.

Airlines, car rental companies, hotel chains and online travel vendors such as Expedia Inc. have already created inventory links. For example, Bellevue, Wash.-based Expedia provides yield management analysis tools to customer hotels over the Web.

In 1999, Budget Group Inc. in Lisle, Ill., started investing in direct links to partner airlines and corporate customers through Java-based middleware, said Marylou Johnson, the company's vice president of IT services.

For others, the demand isn't there yet. Tom Murphy, CIO at Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. in Miami, said that only about 1% of his company's sales come from its Web site.

Both Royal Caribbean and Liberty Travel are building infrastructures with IBM Global Services to create Web services in anticipation of the coming demand, but Royal Caribbean is basing its system on Java and Liberty is using .Net from Microsoft Corp.

Liberty Travel will relaunch its booking engine online next month, and the international travel agency is developing middleware that translates data stored in mainframe systems so agents can book flights more easily and efficiently.

Liberty Travel already hosts a private-label service through its Gogo Worldwide Vacations Inc. division, which hosts inventories of available bookings for other travel agencies such as Fort Worth, Texas-based Travelocity.com Inc.

But Haroche said he wants to get out of hosting and share the inventories over the Web. Hosting is difficult, he said, adding that he would rather create a standard interface so Liberty Travel's customers can access the different travel options themselves.

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Why Web Services?

Travel-based Web standards will help companies share data to improve:

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Security, by creating uniform identity and traveler profiles

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Customer relationship management

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Personalization

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A la carte packaged vacations from multiple suppliers

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Yield management

Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

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