In spite of the rise in direct internet bookings, an increasing number of hotel rooms are being sold by travel agents, and the four leading global distribution systems are gearing up to meet this demand. Ross Bentley reports
Although the sale of hotel accommodation over the internet is a relatively new phenomenon, the electronic distribution of hotel product to travel agents has been happening since the 1970s through the global distribution systems (GDSs).
And while an increasing number of people are buying hotel rooms directly off the web, the sale of hotel product through agents is growing at an even greater rate. According to monitoring company TravelClick, 6.8% more roomnights were booked by travel agencies worldwide in the first six months of 2006 than in the same six months of 2005. Consumer internet hotel room bookings grew by only 5.6% during the same period.
The reason for this may be, because the airlines have drastically cut commission, travel agents are now concentrating more on selling hotel rooms, where commissions are still healthy. The trend is also good news for hotels. The same TravelClick research showed that the average rate for rooms booked by travel agencies was $149.13 (£79.50) for the first six months of 2006, compared with $109.33 (£58.28) for rooms booked through consumer internet channels.
The GDSs are aware that hotel bookings are a growth area and have responded with a number of new services. Here, we take a look at what the four major GDSs offer hotels.
"We are present in more markets than McDonald's," says Catherine Holmer, director of hospitality group marketing at Amadeus, referring to the fact that the GDS's product reaches 80,000 travel agencies in 215 countries.
According to Holmer, while 80% of airline inventory is still distributed through the various GDSs, only 15% of hotel product is sold through the systems. "This means there is a huge opportunity for the GDS that gets it right in the hotel sector," she says.
With this in mind, Holmer points to four key initiatives Amadeus is working on to improve its distribution of hotel content to agents.
The first is an ongoing effort to develop the hotel content on the system, providing "the right hotels in the right destinations", says Holmer. As part of this drive, Amadeus has introduced multimedia content on its system, so agents have images of many of the properties to help them with their buying decisions.
In February Amadeus also introduced a "best available rate" programme, where participating hotels guarantee to supply Amadeus with rates that are the same as, or lower than, those available through other distribution systems, branded websites or the hotel's own call centre. To date, Amadeus claims more than 70 hotel brands, including Hilton and Accor, representing more than 6,000 properties, have signed up.
In the near future Amadeus is planning to introduce commission-tracking software, so agents can track outstanding commission and claim it from the hotels - currently a big headache for agents. Also on the agenda is an improved web-based shopping-basket facility for agents buying hotel product based on Amazon's easy-to-use technology.
Amadeus also provides a number of software products for the hotel sector, including a web-based planning tool that allows hotels to upload rates and availability straight from their property management system and send the content to other distributors, such as websites like Opodo.
A revenue-management system was launched in January, which so far has been purchased by 300 hotels worldwide.
According to its director for supplier relations, Susanne Knobel, Sabre's unique selling point is that the 72,000-plus hotels on its GDS network are also able to access consumers and corporate purchasers as well as travel agents.
This is because the GDS - full name: Sabre Travel Network - is a subsidiary of Sabre Holdings, which also owns a number of key travel product distribution brands.
These include the likes of Travelocity and Lastminute.com, which are established online retailers used by the general public, and GetThere, a web-based corporate travel booking tool used by more than half of the Fortune 200 companies.
"We have a multi-channel distribution model but share the technology to ensure this happens cost-effectively," says Knobel.
Originally developed in 1960, Sabre was the first automated system to connect buyers and sellers of travel, and today the GDS sees the hotel sector as a growth area. In 2005 Sabre-connected travel agencies around the world booked 50 million hotel rooms, up from 20 million in 2003. European bookings were up 8.5% in 2005 year-on-year.
The latest initiative for hotel product was introduced this summer. Called Hotel UpSell, the tool prompts agents making a booking to offer an upgrade, whether it be to the next tier of accommodation, such as a de luxe room or suite, or an amenity add-on like dinner, parking or spa treatments.
More than 1,400 properties are already available through UpSell such as the likes of Radisson and Fairmount.
"It's about offering agents special offers and the best value-for-money product rather than simply focusing on the lowest rate," says Knobel.
Galileo claims it was responsible for the first electronic booking of a hotel room when, in 1978, a room at a Marriott hotel in the USA was reserved over its system.
Today, Galileo offers 68,000 hotels from 450 brands on its network.
"Our hotel product is just an extension of the air product now," says European director of hospitality Jane Lewis.
Lewis says having a large, varied inventory of hotels is vital to the success of any GDS, as the better the choice of product, the more agents are likely to sign up to that particular service.
Galileo has launched a number of initiatives in this area in recent times, including a best available rate programme and improvements to the system's connectivity so that it takes feeds straight from a hotel's reservation system. More than 75% of Galileo's hotel stock is now on this system, which provides agents with instant confirmation during booking.
Galileo's business model sees it earn commission in one of two ways. Depending on the arrangement, a standard fee is charged per booking, or commission of less than 1% is charged for each booking.
For 2007, Galileo is planning to rewrite its distribution platform to make it more open and user-friendly for agents. An automated service to facilitate the payment of commissions is also on the horizon.
Worldspan currently has 74,200 properties on its global system and is accessed by more than 20,000 agencies in 90-plus countries.
It offers global distribution services to traditional travel agents via a standardised desktop platform, Worldspan Go!SM, to e-commerce agencies via the Worldspan Wired suite of messaging tools, and to corporate customers via its Trip Manager XE corporate booking tool.
It also offers a number of advanced distribution options through its Worldspan Hotel Select programme, which provides multiple levels of integration into hotel reservation systems.
According to Worldspan's European vice-president, Graham Nichols, the GDS is aggressively pursuing additional UK content, such as the net rates and local content offered through wholesalers and consolidators.
"Hotel distribution is becoming more important to Worldspan's agency and corporate customers as the existing business models begin to change, as they have done with air," says Nichols.
"We are aware of the growth potential and are focused on providing products and content through new and enhanced leisure products and our corporate booking tool."