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.
[PAGEBREAK] 'Plumbing' for Multiple Services
"At Cendant Car Rental Group, we have designed our systems so that we can handle just about any version of the OTA spec," Turato says. "We can mix and match the messages, if we need to. We've designed our systems so that a Web services layer will validate the OTA XML schema."
Say, for example, a tour operator in Europe signs a contract to do business with Avis. After Avis sends the tour operator the message spec, that operator begins transmitting data using that standard.
"We can then run that message through a validation cycle on our Web services layer and compare that message to the official OTA specs," Turato explains.
If the message is, in fact, compliant, it proceeds to CCRG's application server layer.
"That's where we start decoding the message and firing off the right transactions on the mainframe," Turato says. "If the tour operator is requesting rate and availability data, the mainframe will send that data back to the application server layer, put the data into XML format in what's called an envelope, and then send it back to the tour operator."
And how long does this process take?
"A second or two," Turato responds.
Turato likens CCRG's OTA infrastructure, or direct connect, to plumbing. "Our marketing group and business development groups, in concert with us, come up with ideas on how to leverage that plumbing to deliver new services to our customers or partners," he says.
For Turato's team, one of the biggest challenges of the Book Avis project was ensuring data security.
"The OTA infrastructure was already in place and in production," he says. "But with the Book Avis project, we would be communicating with customers, rather than a tour operator or an airline. When you're dealing with multiple unknown people and letting them into your infrastructure, this raises some fairly daunting security issues."
When project development started in 2003, only two of the five Web services that Book Avis uses had fully defined OTA standards. But because of Turato's involvement in the OTA organization, he accurately predicted how those future standards would be defined, says Robert Kost, CEO of Portaga.
One of Portaga's biggest challenges was to grasp the intricacies of how the Web services worked, says Sam Meo, chief technology officer for Portaga. In a number of cases, documentation for the reservation process was thin.
"We needed to learn, by trial and error, how these transactions worked," Meo explains. "The support that John Turato's department gave us was very good."
Some technical bugs arose within the Outlook model, largely tied to multi-tasking and multi-threading. But Microsoft provided some assistance to overcome those obstacles, Meo explains.
It was crucial for the user interface to mirror the look- and-feel of Outlook.
"That meant we needed a calendar component that mimicked the Outlook calendar component," Meo says. "We had a whole set of concerns that had to do with ensuring the user interface didn't look disjointed from the Outlook application."
Earning Microsoft certification for Windows XP compliance was another major task. Eventually, CCRG began testing the program with Avis and Budget employees. Gradually, Book Avis was made available to groups outside the company. Portaga made little adjustments and improvements along the way, based on user feedback. "For example, the application was modified so it could accommodate both leisure rates and negotiated corporate rates," Kost says.
Though Book Avis launched to the public a little over a year ago, CCRG hasn't yet spotlighted the product in any major print or TV advertising campaign. Nonetheless, there are 3,000 users, many of whom discovered the product while navigating through Avis.com. Others tried it after receiving a promotional e-mail. CCRG says a major advertising push is in the offing.
Book Avis' biggest fans tend to be administrative assistants who book travel for a number of executives, company travel managers, and road-warrior consultants and sales executives who book their own travel.
"The people who use it use it a lot," Peebles says. "We've received some great open-ended testimonials. I know of one major company that requires its employees to use its own corporate booking tool, but their employees started using Book Avis anyway. Their corporate booking system only lets them reserve cars at airports. With Book Avis they can reserve cars locally and they like the software."
The current version of Book Avis is 1.46. CCRG has had four major releases and a couple minor ones over the past year. Whenever a new version is released, the upgrade downloads automatically on each user’s computer within Outlook. The update installs in mere seconds in the background. Software maintenance is simple, Peebles says.
"The name fields all work exactly the same way that the 'To:' field does in e-mail," Peebles notes. "So if you already know how to use Outlook, you already know how to use Book Avis."
[PAGEBREAK] Imagining New Applications
CCRG has also used Web services to develop a booking engine for America West's Web site. Customers have their choice of either Avis or Budget.
"Consumer response has been great," Peebles says. "We saw a 50% bump over other methods, such as a link. Consumers get the content quicker."
So what are some other potential Web services-based applications that CCRG is now exploring, or at least considering?
Peebles has a number of ideas brewing. In general, CCRG might use Web services to develop a deeper integration with the major online travel sites such as Orbitz, Travelocity and Expedia, he says. For example, right now the only Web sites that can issue Avis Wizard numbers and Budget RapidRez numbers are Avis.com and Budget.com, respectively. But why couldn't CCRG use Web services to develop an application that allows those online travel agencies to issue the numbers so that customers can use counter-bypass services?
Eventually, Peebles predicts, CCRG will also develop Web services applications beyond the scope of reservations.
Turato agrees. "Any application where you have disparate users needing the same type of data is a good candidate for Web services," he says. For example, the legal department often needs a copy of a rental agreement. There's great potential in a variety of imaging services. And once a service is developed, it can be used over and over again. There’s no need to completely recode the service for various applications.