In 2006, when ARN last wrote about global distribution systems, they were only the domain of large car rental companies. At the time, there were four GDSs: Sabre, Amadeus, Worldspan, and Galileo (which had absorbed Apollo, another GDS). Their legacy software and technology made it not financially feasible for mid-tier and smaller car rental companies to connect to them. Programming was carried out in a complex computer language called EDIFACT, and skilled programmers were expensive. So was the required hardware.
Today, the landscape consists of Sabre, Amadeus, and Travelport, owner of Worldspan and Galileo. All three have implemented many changes in the last several years. Software upgrades, open source compliance, graphical user interfaces (GUIs), a consistent car classification system, seamless environments, e-vouchers and prepaid rates make connecting easier, sellers more knowledgeable and travel suppliers richer.
These changes are also beginning to open the door for mid-tier—and smaller—car rental companies to connect to a GDS.
There is now a fourth company on the map offering GDS-type connectivity. CarTrawler specializes in aggregating the data of car rental supplier companies while eliminating the usual GDS fees for the car rental company. This allows smaller, niche-oriented car rental companies to connect more cost effectively and increase both premium and incremental sales.
“The cost of technology is dropping and consumers are becoming more sophisticated when it comes to researching and booking travel,” says Valyn Perini, executive director of OpenTravel Alliance, a trade group developing a common standard for the exchange of information within the travel industry. “The GDSs are working hard to stay competitive with new distribution companies entering the online marketplace, and to provide value not only to consumers but also to their rental car company partners,” she says.
A User-Friendly Operating System
The biggest development in the past three years for Sabre, says Todd Richmond, VP of Enterprise Architecture for Sabre Holdings, is the upgrading of its operating system under which Sabre applications are run.
The applications that comprise the GDS operate across a widely distributed computing environment that includes Linux, Windows, and IBM’s operating system called TPF (transaction processing facility), which is used in select, high-transaction-volume industries such as banks and airlines. The operating system offers worldwide scale and bullet-proof reliability but a somewhat archaic development environment, says Richmond.
IBM’s new version, z/TPF, addresses the perceived shortcoming in the development environment area. The new version shares the same development environment that Linux enjoys and allows for programming with the same user-friendly universal tool sets and resource pools such as XML and Java.
“We’re going from the programming development environment of the 1970s to that of the 2000s,” Richmond says.
Along with this move to a more user-friendly development environment, Sabre applications can now be written to leverage XML, while continuing to support EDIFACT. Sabre has also invested in a service-oriented architecture (SOA), which is a way of developing applications that use common, standards-based service interfaces for interactions between service providers and service consumers.
Sabre has changed its connectivity method as well. In the past, car rental companies had to use a Sabre-dedicated private data line. Today, connectivity can be achieved through a browser-based environment over the Internet or with any PC.
This may help smaller car rental companies connect to Sabre.
“We are constantly looking at barriers to entry to see if there are ways that make sense to offer Sabre distribution to smaller car companies,” says Bob Lewis, director of car distribution. “Because of the advances we made in the last year, the cost of securing a data line from a car company to us is not the issue that it once was.”
More Choices, Greater Detail
On the end-user side, Sabre has made enhancements to the ways in which information is presented, providing more detail with regard to location, type of vehicle, add-ons, special equipment and disclosure of the rental’s total price.
Airport information is now more granular, says Lewis. That entails detail about airport shuttle options, such as whether the customer should look for the airport bus rather than the car rental shuttle, as well as services available to premier renters.
Sabre has expanded vehicle type codes to shop and book a greater variety of types of vehicles, including alternative-powered vehicles such as hybrids and flex-fuel vehicles and even future power offerings such as electric vehicles and hydrogen-powered cars. The company has also differentiated between 4WD and AWD cars.
Sabre is developing functionality to support a corporation’s green initiative, describing each car’s fuel economy and greenhouse gas emissions.
For years, Sabre has offered GeoShop, a function that allows travelers to find a car rental location based on a geographical reference, particularly a non-airport location such as a city, hotel, or suburb. In the last year, GeoShop has been expanded so travelers can now not only shop for pick-up points close to the reference point, but also for a drop-off location. This is driven by how Europeans travel in conjunction with rail service, in which it is common to pick up a rental in one city and drop off in another. This is increasing in the U.S., Lewis says, especially in the northeast corridor.
Sabre has also initiated total pricing on its screens, which includes all taxes or locally mandated fees. This policy eliminates any surprises for the traveler at the car rental counter.
From EDIFACT to XML
Since 2006, Amadeus has rewritten its rental car inventory system to use only OpenTravel XML messages to connect to its trading partners and consumers.
“Even though the world is in an economic downturn, the technology never stops developing,” says Jerome Vanazzi, head of Amadeus Cars in the car rental business unit for Amadeus worldwide.
Amadeus has moved to what Vanazzi calls a “future-proof technology” by implementing OpenTravel XML messaging between Amadeus and its car rental companies. In addition to messaging with EDIFACT, now car rental companies can use OpenTravel XML for all messages exchanged with Amadeus. “The benefits are lower maintenance costs and enhanced links to Amadeus,” Vanazzi says. “XML is more cost-effective for our car rental partners, and it prepares them to support many of the new features that Amadeus will be launching in the future.”
Amadeus also claims a “100 percent seamless environment.” This allows travel agencies using Amadeus to retrieve information directly from the car rental company’s own reservation system; in other words, there’s no need to use databases to store data. “The benefit for car rental companies is a decrease of the distribution cost,” says Vanazzi. “It also means higher security and reliability of data, which in turn increases customer satisfaction and enhances customer loyalty.”
In January 2009, Amadeus achieved a 100 percent e-voucher policy, which uses electronic payments so that travelers do not need to produce proof of payment when picking up their car rental. “The e-voucher does for the car rental industry what the e-ticket has already done for air travel so successfully,” says Vanazzi.
Enhancing the Graphical User Interface (GUI)
Like other GDSs, Amadeus is moving forward on its GUI platform as well. “At the point of sale, we constantly improve the usability of our solution so that the car rental company can provide a user-friendly environment to its customers,” says Vanazzi. Amadeus recently re-branded its Vista environment as the Amadeus Selling Platform, a point-of-sale desktop solution for travel agents.
The Amadeus Selling Platform allows a travel agent to book travel using a green screen or a GUI or a combination of the two. It’s possible to make a request on the green screen and see the results in a GUI environment with multimedia and click-through information. “This has been particularly good for car rental, and we believe that GUI is a clear driver of booking in the car rental environment,” says Vanazzi. “We believe travel agents are much more confident in making a booking for a flight than for a car rental, so it’s important for us to give them all the information at hand, and this is only possible through a graphic interface.”
Reaching the Smaller RAC
Amadeus’ technology has evolved to where it has been able to offer connectivity to some smaller car rental companies in Brazil and Spain. Amadeus also plans to implement a small car rental company in the French Caribbean this year. “Our technology is flexible and simple; we can now target a car rental company of any size,” says Vanazzi, noting that utilizing existing technology such as XML is a helper and enabler in that area. “Up until a year ago, you needed to be able to talk in EDIFACT, and the cost was really prohibitive. Now we can implement a small car rental company in a matter of a couple of months.”
Some car rental companies, such as Hertz, are offering prepaid rates through Amadeus; these cheaper rates are attractive to travelers as well as car rental companies because they reduce the no-show factor. “This is unique in the GDS world,” says Vanazzi.
The prepaid rates are available in North America for outbound business going to EMEA regions (Europe, Middle East and Africa) and Australia.
Creating a Future Selling Platform for the Travel Industry
In August of 2007, Travelport acquired Worldspan, bringing it into the fold that included Galileo and Apollo. Using its three distinct GDS cores, Travelport connects 63,000 travel agencies to its vast database of global content.
One of Travelport’s major initiatives is launching a new global, multi-GDS selling platform that can be used with any of the three GDS cores.
In April 2008, Travelport acquired the technology assets of G2 Switchworks, a travel commerce service provider. These technology assets enabled Travelport to accelerate the development of its future selling platform, explains Patrick Walters, director of partner marketing and ground transport distribution for Travelport GDS.
The new selling platform will enable car rental companies and other suppliers to better merchandise their products, including better mapping capabilities and sale of ancillary services. “The desktop will enable better cross-merchandizing opportunities of the car relative to the other verticals, namely air,” says Walters. “We’ll be in a better position to drive the offer of the car rental after the air booking is made or after a hotel reservation, depending on the workflow path of the travel agent.”
Travelport will begin rollout of the new selling platform by the second quarter of 2009, with full rollout globally by the end of 2010.
Travelport’s compliance with the ACRISS (Association of Car Rental Industry Systems and Standards) Car Classification System helps its member car rental companies by providing very accurate descriptions of the cars available for rental. “We have the capability of handling the new codes for vehicles and equipment, such as child car seats and GPS, which can be added to GDS bookings,” Walters says.
Travel agents will be able to do more than simply offer a rental car along with an airline reservation. Travelport recently instituted its Car UpSell program, which alerts travel agents that a higher-level car is available for just a bit more per day and prompts them to ask if the customer would like to rent at that level. The new selling platform should make it even easier for travel agents and travelers to see the difference a few dollars per day can make, says Walters.
Along with the other GDSs, Travelport offers access to its content via an XML connection. Offline and online travel agencies, as well as other third parties, can use XML to access the full scope of car content in the Travelport system.
While car rental companies still need to use EDIFACT to connect with Travelport, that is likely to change in the future. “We’re looking at a couple of solutions to make it a lot more affordable and a lot easier from a technology standpoint for car rental companies, including smaller providers, to connect to our system,” says Walters.
Pure Focus on Car Rental
The newest company to offer GDS-type connectivity, CarTrawler is an Ireland-based technology company with a pure focus on car rental distribution. It is a neutral system that any car rental company can use to find other distribution channels for its content. CarTrawler already has a wide presence in Europe, and is “in speed-up mode with North American business,” says CarTrawler’s Bobby Healy, chief technical officer.
CarTrawler is presently partnered with more than 500 Web sites that specialize in North American rentals, including the thousands of travel agencies connected to the Airlines Reporting Corporation (ARC), the commissions settlement company for travel agents. Car rental companies can distribute directly to ARC travel agencies through ARC’s own Web site, for free, without using a GDS. This partnership will help expand CarTrawler’s presence into off-airport and smaller locations, Healy says.
The company was established in 2004 by brothers Greg and Niall Turley, who have worked in European car rental for 25 years. “This company was founded because car rental companies were frustrated at not being able to participate in GDS to sell their own cars,” Healy says. “GDSs were too expensive with too much of a barrier to entry.”
A New Generation of GDS
CarTrawler, which calls itself “a new generation of GDS,” departs from the traditional GDS business model. In that model the GDS charges a car rental company about $5 per booking, and the car rental company pays a commission of 5 percent to 20 percent to the travel agency that made the booking. Further, the GDS pays the travel agent an incentive to make the booking on the GDS, and not directly with the rental car company.
In CarTrawler’s model, car rental companies pay a commission only after the consumer pays at the rental counter. The RAC then either pays the CarTrawler affiliate (the travel agency or airline) or CarTrawler directly, depending on how the three parties have negotiated the deal. CarTrawler takes its cut from there.
One of CarTrawler’s strategies for promoting car rentals is offering the rental earlier in the online booking path, for instance, on an airline Web site. “Even if the customer didn’t ask for a car, we give them a car option from a list of car rental companies,” says Healy.
This generates incremental revenue to both the airlines and to the car rental companies, Healy says, by getting those airline passengers to book their cars online as part of the air booking process.
CarTrawler allows car rental companies to choose which channels to participate in, and also to offer different pricing on different channels. For example, on an airline Web site, the car rental company can offer its premium product available only to customers who have already booked a flight. Those prices are not seen by anyone else in the market, so the car rental company can continue to offer a different range of prices on its own Web site.
If a car rental company has surplus supply, it can have CarTrawler open up every possible channel. “And if the rental lot is starting to empty, you can close all your distribution channels but leave the premium price option open,” says Healy. “It’s a great way of increasing revenue without destroying pricing in other markets.”
Implementation is easy, Healy says, and takes from a few days to two weeks to get a new car rental company online. CarTrawler writes the code to connect to the company’s reservation system, minimizing extra IT work for the company. CarTrawler is unencumbered by a legacy language such as EDIFACT and uses OpenTravel’s standard XML messages. Even very small car rental companies without a customer-facing reservation system can participate by feeding rates directly to CarTrawler for incorporation into its system.
In addition to distributing content, CarTrawler provides many car rental companies with their own Web sites, powered by CarTrawler’s booking engine.
A Booking Tool for the Small Guys
CarTrawler will soon launch a direct car rental booking tool called Rate Router. Rate Router is a standalone booking engine that connects car rental companies to CarTrawler’s databases, yet allows them to customize rates and content without displaying CarTrawler’s full multi-supplier solution.
Rate Router is aimed at car rental suppliers that have individual contracts with local businesses (such as body shops, corporate account holders or travel agents) and wish to automate the booking flow but do not have the resources to invest in creating new technology systems.
“There are many car rental outlets that have one-to-one localized rental agreements,” says Greg Turley, CEO of CarTrawler. “To date, these businesses have either needed to process these bookings manually [by phone and paperwork] or invest in creating a one-off booking engine. We have automated the process for them.”
“For the hundreds and hundreds of smaller car rental companies that can’t afford the traditional GDS model, we provide access to the market,” Healy says.
Making the Business Case
As the three GDSs continue to upgrade their technology and enhance their selling environments, and with the arrival of a new GDS-type technology focused purely on car rental, the door is swinging open for more and more car rental companies to take advantage of the benefits of using GDSs.
“To be successful, any distribution company has to have inventory available for consumers,” says Perini of OpenTravel. “It’s in the GDSs’ best interests to offer compelling and competitive distribution models to mid-tier rental car companies.”
“The GDSs have realized that there are small and mid-tier companies out there, with inventory consumers want, who can’t afford to support legacy programming languages like EDIFACT,” Perini continues. “XML is a much easier language to write to and support, and the GDSs are all working to provide connectivity via XML.”
Technology advancement makes it easier for suppliers to connect to sellers. The only question remaining is, does it make business sense to connect? Car rental companies are in a better position than ever before to take advantage of what GDSs have to offer.
A GDS TECHNOLOGY GLOSSARY
EDIFACT: Electronic Data Interchange For Administration, Commerce and Transport. EDIFACT comprises a set of internationally established standards, directories and guidelines for the electronic interchange of high-volume data such as banking information and travel reservations processed by GDSs. While EDIFACT is considered a “legacy” language, many now favor XML for its widespread use, low cost and compatibility to other applications.
GDS: global distribution system. A GDS is a worldwide reservation network used to store and retrieve information and conduct transactions related to travel, including airline, hotel, car rental, rail and cruise bookings. GDS companies distribute inventory to travel agents, booking engines and directly to the consumer through Internet gateways.
green screen: A text-based computer interface that offers no graphics, such as the MS-DOS operating system. The opposite of a GUI.
GUI: graphical user interface (usually pronounced GOO-ee). A GUI offers graphical icons and visual indicators, as opposed to text-based interfaces, typed command labels or text navigation, to fully represent the information and actions available to a user. The Windows operating system is an example of a GUI.
OpenTravel Alliance (or OpenTravel, previously known as OTA): a trade group developing a common standard for the exchange of information within the travel industry. OpenTravel’s mission is to engineer specifications that make data transmissions flow smoothly throughout travel, tourism and hospitality.
XML: Extensible Markup Language. XML is a language used to create common information formats and share both the format and the data on the Internet. XML has rapidly become the most common tool for Web-based data transmissions and is becoming more and more popular in the area of storing and describing information.
OpenTravel XML: The XML schemas developed by the OpenTravel Alliance for use by travel companies worldwide.
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