Shoring up travel data practices in response to COVID, and preparing for the next major disruption to travel. 

“What Went Wrong? What comes next?”

The first isn’t anyone’s favorite question. The second is essential.

In light of COVID’s disruption of the Travel Industry, these are questions that we need to answer. With Mitch moderating, Mat, Cara, and Brian gave their answers as well as explained where the gaps were … and how to plug those gaps for next time. For a full recording of the event, listen here.

Data is the key to unlock the answers for both questions above. This article is about how data makes the difference as well as some of the challenges that we’ve had to date. And of course, how the future looks and how we manage ourselves out of this.

What Went Right?

The biggest “bright spot” for travel during the outbreak of this situation was how we all came together to get our people home safely and efficiently. Businesses had people all over the world, and when the time came, those people all got home – many within a deadline of 24 or 48 hours. When the stakes were high, the whole travel industry was physically able to work together to help our customers. Most businesses were able to get their clients home without any major complications which speaks volumes to the infrastructure that we have in place right now.

What Went Wrong?

  • Aggregating Data: Some of our challenges started to occur once we started trying to aggregate all of our data from our own systems, from the TMCs, and from the suppliers in order to form a bigger picture regarding what exactly was happening. We had so many people in the PNRs leaving notations and making changes. Not all of it was syncing up. It became a Duty of Care issue.
  • Cancellations: There were problems around cancellations and getting that data disseminated. Sometimes you had a latency effect where you had a reservation that had been cancelled still showing up on lists tracking where travelers were. Obviously, this is going to cause a lot of confusion because while we are trying to get our people home, it turns out some were already home.
  • Sharing information with each other was also an issue when it came to the industry trying to understand the big picture of what was going on, especially in the early stages. We found ourselves relying on our own data. For example, when it comes to trips to China, what our clients are doing does not necessarily represent the overall pattern. It’s only when we bring our collective data together that we can see the big picture and realize that this is a crisis. Had we had the big picture earlier, we might have been able to issue warnings on what we would have known to be higher risk trips.
  • Sharing Data Publicly: Similarly, it may have made a difference to know that travel in February was down by a certain amount, or that it plummeted in March. Had we shared the aggregate data, the country might have had better insights into what was going on.
  • Combating Leakage: There was a higher than normal amount of leakage during this whole situation, and a lot of it stemmed from travelers taking actions by themselves that were therefore not recorded in their trip. This presents both an opportunity for better data collection, and an opportunity to talk about policy.
  • Ignoring Policies: In the crisis situation that we had, policies tended to “go out the door” as travelers began cancelling and re-booking their own hotels and flights. For example, once it was announced that a certain border was closing, a traveler might panic and re-book themselves without mentioning it to their TMC. Many people just wanted to get home however they could. Some went straight to the airport and booked a flight there.

Some of these issues are more public policy and industry issues, and some can be changed from the bottom up. Major steps that would have both quick and large impacts include refund management and rate audits. Other changes are quite systematic and would take more cooperation between different travel entities to address and ultimately fix.

How Do We Untangle The Current Situation?

Unfortunately, the answer is that we are facing a lot of manual work right now. For example, the whole process of annotating reservations, the process that needs to place back into those reservation systems along with the PNRs is not a highly automated process right now. There will be a lot of manual effort involved in getting all of our data and processes “back to normal”.  This is the foundation to tracking refunds due, collecting them and tracking credits or unused tickets.

There are facets of the solution that are automated, or can be pretty simply. For example, tickets from cancelled trips can be loaded into various ticket tracking programs and referenced. One of the areas that is least automated in travel process is applying those potential exchanges. Putting these tools in place now will reduce the workload and set the stage for smoother operations when travel starts coming back.

Travel Technology Going Forward

As an industry, we must start conversations regarding how technology can help the sharing of data while protecting confidentiality and privacy. The sooner the industry can adapt to new technologies and allow for that Single Source of Truth to be accessed by everyone, the sooner we will have a far more robust crises management capability.

Data sources are completely fragmented across the travel industry. Right now, you get data from the GDS, from credit cards, from central bills. All of these systems are different, and the data very rarely matches.

Twenty years ago, the GDS was the answer. Today, there are so many forms of content that are available that don’t go through the GDS that the GDS alone is not able to serve that purpose any longer. We need something else to step in and take that place. Imagine how frustrating it would be if you got a different answer every time you tried to look up your bank account on a different device. We need to have a unified place for data just like the banks. The travel industry will get there, but the process will take a while.

New technologies from blockchain to machine learning have a lot of potentials. But no matter which technology comes out on top, we need to be able to distill the data to a Single Source of Truth.

On an individual level, companies, we see three critical areas that MCs and other suppliers will look to technology and data management to find greater efficiency.

  • Automating the ticketing, refund and unused ticket processes to increase efficiency and capture revenue.
  • Capturing and integrating leakage data will be another major area of focus due to the risks and costs that off channel bookings created
  • New sources of data, like near real-time health risk assessments will be needed to help managed a new set of policy concerns and approval processes.

What is going to be the new normal?

First and foremost, data use will be much more strategic than it has been. So the Single Source of Truth mentioned above will become paramount. The acquisition of data from multiple sources, aggregating it, and matching it (as opposed to seeing it from different silos) is going to be very important.

Another change we predict is that travel policies will likely become much stricter going forward. Companies are going to enforce policy much more closely as this crisis sits at the forefront of all of our minds.

Conversely, we may also see a push toward flexibility on the part of the traveler. These two points do not have to be at odds. Booking channels and booking policies are not the same thing. While policies may be more stringent, the options open to a traveler may open up dramatically. Remember all those travelers booking their own flights home and causing so much leakage? We need to be able to capture that leaked data while still allowing the traveler the flexibility to act on their instincts.

Ultimately, data management needs to happen more naturally in the industry. Anonymized data needs to be shared across a broader group of shareholders. Flexibility is also key. Travelers want to do things in ways that make them as efficient and productive as possible, and having data keep up is really the bottom line.