Whether you buy car tires, toothpaste, a pair of jeans, or an airline ticket, retailers seek a competitive advantage and brand loyalty. While much has changed in the corporate travel business over the past 40 years, basic business strategy perseveres.
Deregulation of the airline industry in 1978 paved the way for our modern day Global Distribution System (GDS), providing significant marketing and distribution power to airline suppliers in a pre-internet consumer world. This early day marketplace ultimately became the most efficient way for travel agents to book air, car, and hotel reservations in a centralized manner. But as we neared the turn of the century, the World Wide Web started to catch up and suppliers recognized that the distribution power enabled by the GDS may not offset the customer experience, customization, and brand stickiness that was lacking from the GDS which had begun to commoditize supplier branding efforts.
By the early 2000’s, the GDS’s fought to obligate airlines to provide its “full content” to its systems, further mitigating the airlines’ ability to differentiate. By 2006, the number of internet reservations exceeded GDS reservations and many of the new technology entrants that focused on the leisure customer were taking business away from traditional Travel Management Companies (TMC’s) due to ease of use and consumer familiarity with their platforms.
With a greater emphasis on customer experience and the ability to avoid GDS fees, airlines fought to reserve “web only” fares and created additional value added products and services for customers willing to book direct. Customers found that in some cases, fares could be found cheaper on supplier websites than through their TMC. As a result, TMC’s were faced with a major problem as the GDS was their exclusive source for content.
The solution to the growing issue around content distribution and customer acquisition was to build ubiquitous systems that enabled content aggregation and data normalization from disparate booking sources. By building technology that could marry GDS and other content sources such as supplier websites and aggregators, TMC’s could offer the best of all worlds and by providing all booked air, car, and hotel content into a single itinerary the “Super PNR” could be realized. Massive technology investment by all of the major TMC’s sought to solve the Super PNR problem and development commenced for the next 5 years. All failed. Why? In a nutshell, the technology to assemble, connect, parse, normalize, and service what amounted to hundreds if not thousands of fare, name, and brand combinations proved too difficult and ultimately too costly to pursue. And while the battle over content didn’t end, GDS and airlines broadly adopted vague “full content” deals which quelled fears (but didn’t necessarily solve the problem) as the industry made its way through 9/11.
As the travel industry recovered from its worst set back since the Great Recession of 2008, content and supplier distribution strategy was once again a hot topic. Technology companies sprang up to “connect” web content to the GDS, itinerary management software offered a bundled view of disparately booked trip components, and low cost carriers declined GDS participation or only dipped its toe with limited fare class offerings. Limiting GDS participation to encourage consumers to supplier or aggregator websites became a business strategy that helped to mitigate distribution costs and create brand loyalty that extended beyond the corporate trip and into leisure and ancillary spending opportunities not available in the GDS. Nevertheless, a full content source remained elusive until 2012 when New Distribution Capability (NDC) was introduced as the definitive communication protocol to enable the same rich content offerings found on supplier websites, all in one place. We don’t use the same nomenclature anymore but the goal is the same: The Super PNR.
The More Things Change….
11 years later as the industry rebounds from its greatest crisis ever with COVID-19, we stand on the precipice of sea change as the GDS’s, airlines, and TMC’s try to align to this new protocol that as of this writing only a few suppliers have truly embraced and some who have already flatly rejected the notion that their technology platforms will be ready for prime time usage come Q223 as is being advertised by the major participants.
As the industry focuses on the acute need to fill staffing voids, the biggest issue heading into 2023 will be access to travel content. The acronyms dealing with this challenge have changed over the years but the basic problem persists and will only magnify as consumer booking options continue to expand. Content fragmentation, GDS disintermediation, full content, NDC, closed end solutions, and more will all be concepts that once again make their way into supplier RFP’s and solution proposals for new technology stacks. If I have access to NDC content through the GDS, why can’t I see it on my corporate booking tool? Do I have to pay extra to call an agent for this content? Why am I seeing fares on the supplier website that are not available to me through my TMC? What if I need to modify my travel plans? While confusing to be sure, the issue is no longer one of failed technology; rather, the answers to these challenges boil down quickly into business questions dealing with customer loyalty, distribution, and economies.
If past is prologue, it may be argued that the solutions put forth by the industry since airline de-regulation have been over-complicated, far reaching, and unattainable. Disparate content aggregation and distribution through “direct connect” technologies, use of inconsistent GDS passive segment notations, connections to complicated marketplaces, bridging user data to TMC reporting systems via loyalty or payment solution connections, and the lure of closed end systems that make the booking experience “so compelling” that content issues can just be ignored have fallen far short of expectations. Ultimately, none have really worked as evidenced by a common theme among corporate clients that travel data in the industry is not very good – uneven, inconsistent, duplicative, not normalized, and generally hard to manage.
Make no mistake: the concept of the Super PNR is not the proverbial shiny object that attracts at first only to dim upon close inspection. It is the single source of truth for business travel that solves everything – distribution, supplier leverage, expense automation, duty of care, and sustainability. The Super PNR pretty much solves every problem when it comes to content accessibility and program management.
And it will be the big story in 2023.