Asia/Pacific Still Poses Online Booking Challenges - Business Travel News

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Asia/Pacific Still Poses Online Booking Challenges

September 19, 2011 - 04:55 PM ET

By Michael B. Baker

Travel buyers aiming to improve online booking tool compliance in the Asia/Pacific region continue to face fragmented supply and cultural barriers, according to panelists speaking in August during the Global Business Travel Association's conference in Denver.

While online travel overall is growing in the region—PhoCusWright estimates 30 percent to 40 percent growth this year, reaching a total of about $51.6 billion—corporate online booking specifically remains low. Expedia estimated that at most a quarter of business travel in the region is booked online, and noted that it is much more common for domestic flights than international flights.

Travel buyers who want to start or expand online booking in Asia/Pacific ought to look at each country individually rather than the region as a whole, according to Concur senior director of segment marketing Christopher Juneau. "If you are focusing on domestic or international, your approach may be slightly different on a country-by-country basis," he said.

In Singapore, for example, where virtually all travel is international, the content unavailable in global distribution systems is growing as low-cost carriers expand. Those carriers often provide the only scheduled availability for certain routes. While corporate cards are prevalent in Singapore, the country recently has introduced one-time PIN numbers required for online bookings, said Carlson Wagonlit Travel vice president of global sales for Asia/Pacific Mike Bezer.

The bigger challenge, however, lies in the cultural attitude toward online booking policies, he said.

"In Singapore, there are very few mandates, and it still is the culture of travel arrangers and personal assistants," Bezer said. "The main struggle to getting adoption is the culture of 'I don't to this myself, I have someone do it for me.' "

As such, online adoption targets hover around 10 percent for the region, Juneau said, well below goals set in many other parts of the world.

In China, however, online adoption generally is around 60 percent, at least for domestic flights. Within the country, there currently is only one GDS, Travel Sky, through which all tickets must flow, and it is not possible to offer international bookings through online booking tools, Bezer said. Booking other components of travel also is difficult. Hotel content, particularly in secondary and tertiary cities, is quite fragmented.

Dean Fowles, principal of global sourcing for services, travel and expense management for multinational mining group Rio Tinto, said he is looking at a tool that will book flights, but travelers still would have to book hotels through Sabre GetThere or an agent.

"There is potential if you have a lot of domestic airline transactions," Fowles said. "If you are still looking for something else to be a part of that tool, like hotel or rental car, it’s not going to happen."

CWT's Bezer noted that online travel tool Ctrip has begun to delve into the corporate space. Ctrip combines online booking for domestic flights with a massive call center that handles international flights and hotel reservations.

"If you have a lot of domestic travel, they are a partner you should consider," he said.

Online adoption generally is low in India as well, Juneau said. Most corporate travel in the country is domestic, and it is dominated by two LCCs, Indigo and Spice Jet, that do not list content in GDSs. Hotel content outside of the top tiers generally is not in GDSs, either.

Another challenge, opposite of what is observed in many markets, is the high cost of online booking tools in India, with offline booking significantly cheaper, Bezer said. "Sometimes the ROI does not justify it," he said.

In Japan and Australia, online adoption rates for domestic bookings are high, about 60 percent, though adoption for international bookings has been difficult in both countries, Juneau said. In Australia, international net fares are not all loaded in GDSs, and in Japan, loading and displaying those fares was prohibited altogether up until this past April.

As buyers form online booking strategies for the region, they also should be mindful of the growth of mobile technology, particularly in such countries as Singapore with low compliance, according to the panel.

"If you walk around the streets in these countries, everyone is on iPads or mobile phones," Bezer said. "In many cases, mobility is going to leapfrog what we understand as online booking tools."

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