Advantage opens Gateway – but will suppliers come in?

Advantage Travel Centres leisure director Julia Lo Bue-Said is already known as a tough negotiator.

But she could face her toughest challenge yet as the consortium rolls out its much-hyped selling system and deals with reduced cruise commission payments.

She is tasked with persuading both members and preferred suppliers to sign up to the new Advantage Travel Gateway system, which some operators have already described as ‘aspirational’ because their technology is not yet able to provide content for it.

But Lo Bue-Said, who is standing for election to the board of the Institute of Travel and Tourism, appears confident on both counts.

She said: “I don’t have any concerns; all the key suppliers that we need will be on Gateway.

“It may be aspirational but it’s there and it’s up to us to make sure we have a robust enough system that agents want to use.”

There is no doubt it is the type of system members have long waited for. The web-based selling system operates as a price-comparison site across product from key suppliers. It offers accommodation-only, flights, packages and add-ons, with cruise product to feature later this year.

So far, 150 agents use the system and Lo Bue-Said said she would be happy if 250-300 signed up by the end of the year. There is no intention for all agents to use it.

But the consortium is less open on the number of suppliers signed up, preferring to call it a ‘work in progress’.

Bed banks are signed up, but many traditional tour operator partners are not, with some conceding they do not have the technology to provide live links through Gateway to their products. Some privately admit they do not want their holidays to feature on a price comparison site.

Lo Bue-Said admits not all cruise companies will feature, as smaller specialists do not have XML links. “Until they offer us access to their content easily, it will restrict us,” she said.

Advantage needs all preferred suppliers on the system to reap the benefits in commercial discussions. The system will also allow Advantage for the first time to see exactly how much of suppliers’ products members are selling.

Lo Bue-Said is confident the system will make a significant difference, but insisted it would not turn independents into multiples.

She adds: “It’s no mean feat trying to negotiate terms, but we would never say this will turn independents into very disciplined multiple agencies; that is not what we are trying to do. But we will be able to work more proactively with suppliers and be more focused.”

The change is significant given that consortia continually face criticism for failing to have enough power over members’ sales, and comes at a good time as commissions are under threat, with Complete Cruise Solution having already cut rates for 2012 to 5%.

Commission is likely to be one of the many issues that Lo Bue-Said will air to a wider audience as an ITT director.

And she will no doubt have the support of hundreds of agents she has worked with during a 16-year stint at Advantage, where she started as commercial co-ordinator and now sits on the board overseeing the group’s entire leisure strategy.

“At the end of the day I am synonymous with independent agents,” she said.

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