A New Outlook on Reservations

As newly elected chairman of the OpenTravel Alliance, John Turato leads a group developing open standards to allow seamless data exchange across all segments of the travel industry. As vice president of technology for Cendant Car Rental Group (CCRG), Turato works closely with his company's marketing team to create innovative applications using these same standards — applications that might give Avis and Budget a competitive edge.

Formed in May 1999, the OpenTravel Alliance comprises IT specialists from all corners of the travel industry — car rental companies, hotel chains, airlines, and the technology companies that serve these segments. Committees, literally made up of competitors, collaborate to define open-based specifications for electronic message sets and data exchange. The result? Travel partners can exchange electronic messages more easily and cheaply, unleashing the potential for completely new products based on Web services.

What are Web services? The term, which first surfaced about five years ago, encompasses a set of related standards. These standards permit two computer applications to communicate and exchange data over the Internet. By basing Web services on open-standard technologies, travel industry partners can avoid interoperability problems.

Web services can transmit data over many Internet protocols, but most use HTTP — Hypertext Transfer Protocol. Be forewarned — Web services technology is rife with acronyms. The main standard is XML — Extensible Markup Language. XML-based standards include SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol), WSDL (Web Services Description Language) and UDDI (Universal Description, Discover and Integration).

If all this alphabet soup and arcane IT-speak make you think that Web services have no place in your world, think again. Some travel industry leaders predict that Web services will eventually transform the way airlines, hotels and car rental companies accept reservations. Some have even suggested that Web services-based systems — dubbed direct-connects — will in the next decade usurp the entrenched global distribution systems (GDSes). That’s a claim that has drawn the ire of more than a few GDS executives. One thing is certain, however. Cendant Car Rental Group has already proved that the combination of Web services and OTA standards creates the potential for innovative products that can give customers more options and better service.

Booking a Car in Microsoft Outlook
In August of 2004, Avis introduced Book Avis, which allows customers to book an Avis rental car within Microsoft Outlook. The project arose during an informal meeting between CCRG's Executive Vice President of Marketing Scott Deaver and Vice President of Online and Electronic Marketing John Peebles.

"Book Avis literally started with my boss, Scott Deaver, asking, "OK, what is going to be the new hot thing?"

That question spurred Peebles to ponder why the company couldn't leverage the power of Microsoft Outlook. Working with Turato, Peebles has acquired a general grasp of the capabilities of Web services. As a result, he can imagine new applications that are within reach.

"Avis has a huge amount of corporate business, and Outlook is by far the No. 1 scheduling tool," Peebles explains. "People already have that program open and are using it. There are a lot of paradigms already established."

Many road-warrior executives live and die by their Outlook calendar and address book. Their computer keeps track of that information and it's accessible with the click of a mouse. So, Peebles proposed, what if Avis customers could book a car in Outlook and the reservation information was automatically integrated into their Outlook calendar? And what if they could easily forward their reservation information to anyone in their Outlook address book?

Since this was a completely new way to book a car, Peebles opted against spending resources on customer focus groups and studies.

"I have a background in market research, and I know that it's really hard to get good customer feedback on products that don't exist yet," Peebles says. "Consumers don’t know how to respond. On the other hand, what does give you valid research is sticking something in front of them, asking them to push some buttons, and having them tell you whether they like it."

Because the project was initially experimental, the last thing Peebles and Deaver wanted to do was to place too many demands on the company's own IT staff. So they hired Portaga Inc., a Web services specialist based in White Plains, N.Y., to develop the project's user interface.

This wasn't, however, a proprietary application. Turato gave Portaga the XML spec for the project. CCRG's Web services operations are part of Turato's technology architecture department.

CONTINUED:  A New Outlook on Reservations
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