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Continuing to fill the content gaps for corporate customers, some online booking providers recently announced new booking connections that do not use global distribution systems.
Concur last week said it added European car rental company Sixt AG as a full Concur Connect partner to provide customers with full access to inventory and rates, folio and e-receipts and reporting. Rearden Commerce in late May provided customers with the ability to book Amtrak tickets through train distribution technology provider Wandrian at negotiated rates and according to corporate policies, and soon will pass through the data to its expense tool. TRX in June provided to its Resx customers the ability to book all Air Canada products and services, such as meals, prepaid baggage and preferred seating.
Rather than a broad resurgence of direct connectionactivity, the new developments are in response to continued customer demands for specific content, the vendor trio said.
"Our customers are not saying, 'Go do a direct connect;' they are saying, 'We want this content, this information ... you figure out the best way to do that,' " said Rearden travel product director Todd Kaiser.
European, Rail Expansion
Sabre-owned GetThere has also set up non-GDS links to respond to customer needs. The company a year ago announced a direct connection with SNCF French Rail, and has links to thetrainline in the United Kingdom and through Travelfusion for access to providers including Canada's Via Rail, which allows "users to shop and book Canadian rail options through the air shop by price and low fare air paths. This provides full multi-modal and enhanced policy and preferencing capabilities due to the shopping path design," according to a spokesman.
For Concur, the addition of Sixt was important, according to Concur executive vice president of worldwide marketing Mike Hilton, "because it is one of the leading car rental agencies in Europe--a strategic focus for us. An increasing number of multinational clients are looking to standardize on Concur globally and particularly in Europe. We have many already deployed globally, and they continue to ask us to flesh out the content side of Concur Connect where they feel the GDS doesn't have full coverage. Rail is a great example of where we've put a lot of investment."
Demand from customers, particularly those on the East Coast, prompted Rearden Commerce to work with Wandrian on the Amtrak connection, according to Rearden worldwide sales vice president Tony D'Astolfo. "We weren't first, but what we were looking for, hoping for, waiting for was standards to emerge that would make it easier" and provide unique benefits to customers. "It was client demand, the same thing that will drive us into Europe--we've got clients asking us for European rail."
Last fall, Amadeus integrated with Wandrian to provide customers of its Selling Platform the ability to book Amtrak. Wandrian "is almost like a GDS for rail, so they do a lot of the heavy lifting," D'Astolfo said. Historically, rail integration has involved both business and technical relationships with each rail vendor. "It was a lot of work, resources and time ... and wasn't really efficient," he said. With Wandrian, Rearden is working to introduce European rail integration by year-end.
Clients Push Air Canada Connect
Customer demand for easier access to the dominant carrier in Canada was the driving force for TRX to establish the direct connection to Air Canada content, according to TRX product marketing senior director Stephen Carroll.
As part of the integration, TRX "remodeled the air shopping availability display" to accommodate "multiple fares for a given flight. This adaptation has established a framework for integrating additional supplier content," Carroll said.
Beyond bookings, TRX said it now takes a "broad view of direct connections" to include any access to content that "extends the utility of our offerings" to expense management, meetings management and even back-office systems, as well as to third-parties that provide travel booking.
Rearden also continuously seeks ways to "leverage the GDS" with richer content. For example, it supplements GDS data with callouts to several other databases such as "ITA Software for faring, Northstar for hotel, Leonardo for pictures," D'Astolfo said.
In its first version of the Amtrak direct connection, rail options are displayed separate from air, but Rearden's Kaiser said that "multimodal, integrating rail and air together, will happen next year." On the back-end of its solutions, Rearden plans to introduce framework this quarter that would allow Amtrak data, or data from any other similar connections, to prepopulate its ExpenseWire solution for clients using the product suite.
Customers also continue to push for access to Southwest Airlines. "We don't like it; we don't think it's efficient," D'Astolfo said of Southwest's Swabiz corporate travel portal. "We've had conversations with Southwest and said we'd love to do more, show more. We're still having conversations. I don't know that we've gotten very far."
According to Concur's Hilton: "If there's a next frontier for us, it's probably continuing to get deeper on hotel coverage in Europe." Concur has global hotel chains, "but we don't feel that anyone is doing a great job with deep coverage of European hotels. That's an area where you may see more announcements from us in the future."
A year after it launched Concur Connect in July 2007, the company announced integrations with several rail providers in Europe, Avis Budget Group, Interjet, Swabiz and Volaris. Concur previously announced direct connections with hotel and car vendors. Of the direct connections with the Mexican carriers, Hilton said, Mexico "is one of the markets of focus in our American Express partnership" and is "becoming more important."
Generating the most excitement from clients, Hilton said, is the ability to extend corporate air bookings to add car and hotel reservations. In some instances, customers are actually using the mobile device and direct connection to directly access a vendor's inventory, he noted. "That's right in the wheelhouse of a lot of direct connect content," but still in accordance with travel policies and negotiated rates, he added.
Vendors said they will continue to fill the gaps in content gradually, rather than announce any surge.
"It's a lot of hard work behind the scenes and relationship management," Hilton noted. "It often takes a lot of cultivating to get these relationships to fruition, as was certainly the case with Sixt. Where we see opportunities--where there's a gap between how customers are getting content today or where we can add unique new value, such as with e-receipts, we're going to pursue it."
According to Rearden's D'Astolfo, "We still get suppliers coming to us and saying 'We'd like to set up a direct connect because we'd like to avoid the GDS fee.' " However, that doesn't solve customer problems. Direct connects should "get us content beyond information that we otherwise wouldn't have access to."
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