Travel agencies will soon be able to present more unique, tailored and compelling offers to customers which could not come at a more critical time, says Travelport’s Jason Clarke

Next Generation Storefront (NGS)™ capabilities mean travel agencies will soon be able to present more unique, tailored and therefore compelling offers to their customers – and this new airline-retailing solution could not have come at a more critical time.

Fierce competition for traveller attention in an era of low airfares and rising fuel prices has seen airlines expand their commercial horizons from being service providers to retailers, as personalisation continues to define consumer behaviour.

For example, two-thirds of today’s business leaders now combine business trips with leisure activities at least once a year.

Demand for greater flexibility among leisure travellers is also adding layers of complexity to the process of delivering memorable and exciting travel experiences.

However, our research shows that offering more choice to customers may not be enough on its own. About 60% of global travellers are frustrated at not being able to see easily what is included in a fare, despite having more opportunities to customise their travel plans.

Some of the tension between customer choice and consumer confidence lies in segmentation and the unbundling of fares that would previously have included certain features.

At the same time, information overload, decision fatigue and heightened expectations caused by greater global mobility have had a role in giving customers sleepless nights.

How we manage and respond to these trends as an industry will be crucial as we enter deeper into a world of customer-centric travel.

Making sense of airfares

Consider the last time you booked a business or holiday trip. Unless you are extremely committed to an airline loyalty programme, you probably browsed at least four or more booking options – using corporate booking tools, on and offline travel agencies or airline websites to ensure you found the perfect flight at the right price for your needs.

As an increasing number of options become available to travellers, from seats to airport lounge access and early boarding, agencies and airlines have struggled to ensure the widest range of content is displayed consistently and accurately during the booking process.

Up to now, these businesses have had little alternative but to sit and watch from the side lines as Amazon, Google, Uber, and others lead the charge afforded by the growth of the platform economy. Not anymore.

NGS is a data-driven industry standard created and led by airfare publisher ATPCO (the Airline Tariff Publishing Company).

It has emerged from the realisation that customers don’t want to wait to find out if a fare option they are looking at includes luggage, meals or in-flight entertainment, or whether they can book business and economy seats for different legs of the same trip, or lounge access and so on.

As a global technology company and member of the working group responsible for delivering NGS, Travelport has been able to help bring this standard to life and recently launched the first-phase trial of its own NGS capabilities to online travel agencies (OTAs) connected to our latest API (application programming interface), Trip Services.

It means our agency partners can now help customers quickly sort, compare and visualise the differences between multiple airline products on a single, user-friendly platform in the same way they would on an airline’s own site.

The expectation is that customers will be able to mix-and-match fare points and ancillaries such as upgrades, bags, Wi-Fi and lounge access, and ultimately feel more confident in what they are paying for and happy with their choices.

This objective is supported by our airline partners who frequently tell us that the customers who are clear about what they’re getting tend to have an experience more closely aligned with their expectations.

Unsurprisingly, these passengers typically have fewer complaints, which has obvious benefits for repeat bookings and customer loyalty.

At the same time, airlines and agencies are expected to benefit from NGS by being able to upsell products and maximise basket values earlier in the customer journey.

From price to valued experiences

Travelport first pioneered innovations aimed at distributing branded content to agencies in 2014 through its Rich Content and Branding.

More than 270 airlines now use this platform to provide agencies with brand and ancillary data – helping travellers get the most value from their bookings.

This has been a key learning for us and where initiatives like NGS can add real value to the shopping experience. Today’s travellers don’t necessarily want the cheapest fare, they want the greatest value.

To take full advantage, we must be prepared to change how we see and create value in the travel economy.

There are also things that must still be defined to ensure NGS works for the whole industry. One of these is how best to group fare categories without undermining existing products or causing some airline passengers to feel less valued.

Another is the question of how many ‘shelves’ or fare categories customers, desktop and mobile devices can cope with.

Yet as NGS evolves we expect to see more-exact comparisons across a wider range of airline products, and we’re working with travel agency customers and technology partners WhereTo and Travel Technology & Solutions to see how we continue contributing to this process.

Jason Clarke is Travelport senior vice-president and managing director, Travel Partners