Technology giants such as Apple and Google will increasingly dictate the rules by which travel products are sold as the industry struggles to agree new sets of data standards suitable for the online age.
The warning came during a round-table debate organised by Travel Weekly sister publication Travolution in conjunction with technology firm partners SAS
Tony Berry, industry and fare distribution director at corporate travel specialist Hogg Robinson Group, said the global distribution systems that established existing standards had failed to keep up with the advance of the internet.
“The GDSs have gone from strength to strength and they have diversified but their strength was in the uniformity of connection to suppliers,” he said.
“Along came the internet, XML and other forms of rapid methods of distribution, and it has actually disrupted the flow.
“What we find now is that the GDSs are really struggling, not with actually incorporating that data, but on standardisation.”
Berry said suppliers like airlines looking to differentiate themselves from rivals were able to exploit new technology to push selling points, such as a new lounge, through their own channels.
But he said this threatened to fragment the way travel is distributed, blurring the boundary between corporate and leisure, and leaving agents having to deal with a plethora of systems.
“We are lobbying for standards – to see that the GDSs embrace that because it is a principal way of booking for travel management companies.
“If it shifts and we have to use another channel, then we have to develop new interfaces that connect to our back office and then you’re in danger of taking over the role of the GDS and that’s something we don’t want to do.
“The costs of developing GDSs have been borne over time. You can’t develop an alternative within a few years.
“Standards are key to this business but I also recognise that suppliers want to differentiate themselves.”
Berry described the question of who should develop new standards as one of the “most intractable and difficult questions to answer”.
However, Jim Zalles, senior managing consultant with IBM’s business analytics and optimisation division, believed new standards were already being forged outside of the industry’s control.
The panel agreed that popular new consumer devices were beginning to have an impact on how people researched and booked travel.
“The consumption of travel is going to be increasingly through the iPhone or iPad, or some device that has yet to be dreamed up,” said Zalles.
Panel members agreed that retailers in other sectors had had to ensure they could sell through the devices of Apple and other suppliers, and said airlines and hotels could have to follow suit.