Tour business makes content journey

A Toronto-based travel company has tapped into a content management system that gives non-technical people greater flexibility when making changes to the company Web site.

Most of the travel material Butterfield and Robinson (B&R) produces for its customers — things like itineraries, trip confirmations and planners for its biking and walking tours — is created in-house using Microsoft Word, according to Chris Tabbitt, the firm’s director of marketing, Internet strategy. But that same information goes up on the Web, which used to make for some redundant work.

Additionally, making Web content changes meant going through some red tape. In 2002 B&R was still working with a traditional Web design firm and needed technical help to work on the site. “Every time you have to change a comma, you have to go through a techie and a design person; it’s slow, expensive and frustrating,” Tabbit said. “Because of the of nature of our business, we’re always changing, improving, adding, deleting. We sometimes have to make changes to things like departure dates. It’s something we have to keep up with on a on a day-to-day basis, so the ease of use and turnaround (of those changes) was critical.”

B&R started looking around for content management systems and happened upon Lexicon Content Server from Version5.1, an enterprise content management solutions provider in Toronto. “We compared [Lexicon] to some big content management systems like Vignette, and we realized this was a company that we could grow with. We were able to get great service from them, they are not huge and not outrageously priced and a lot more flexible…to help us develop unique features for ourselves.”

Akiva Berenstein, Version5.1’s director of business development, said his firm is “mostly in the services business,” in that it doesn’t just hand over the technology to the customer, but also integrates it for them, gleaning feedback from the customer along the way and making modifications as the client’s needs change.

Flexibility is the key feature customers are asking for, Berenstein said. “What our customers need are extensible tools so they are able to easily modify any aspect of that application, add fields or change presentation templates. All aspects of the application need to be modified with minimal effort, so we have focused our development on being able to deliver solutions that would not lock the customer into a particular structure.”

Before building the site, B&R first used wireframes to visually present and test the layout of its main Web pages’ element inventories, including things like content, navigation and branding. Wireframes require minimal skills to create prototypes, allow for quick design tests and let designers focus on how the site works and reads.

But once the main site was built, B&R dropped the wireframes and used an “iterative approach” to expand the site. “We would say (to Version5.1) ‘We want it to do this,’ and they would come back, test and tweak it. They worked closely with us in the development stage, as opposed to what happens in a bigger company, where you’re forced to do wireframes (for the whole site) rather than have it exactly the way you want, because it’s going to be outrageously expensive.” The site went live in July of 2002.

Tabbit said the Lexicon system is very flexible for B&R’s needs, allowing it to be “quite scalable as the business grows and becomes more complex.” Some shrink-wrapped content management solutions, on the other hand, “would have needed lots of tweaks to accommodate the design that we wanted. When designing, it’s scary to know that if it’s done a certain way, you’re stuck with it. Knowing that you’re on a platform where you’re not going to hit a dead end is a nice feeling.”

B&R uses Lexicon to house its paper material, and when someone has to make a change to one trip, they can go to one place to do it, and the information on the Web is automatically updated as well.

Although the firm hasn’t really done any metrics and could not provide any hard ROI numbers on the time saved, “anecdotally, without a doubt, we’ve seen great efficiencies in creation of trips,” Tabbitt said. “All of sudden we have fantastic version control because there is only one place where (the information) lives. There is great consistency between the two mediums (of paper and Web), and much quicker turnaround because you’re not going to two different places to do it.”

More people have the power to make changes to the content as well. “Many people working on this know nothing about HTML the technical side of the Web site. They just know how to write content. Now we have complete control by ourselves.”

Ultimately, he said, that is what IT managers should be allowing end-users to do. “You need something that will get the technical people out of the way and give the users the ability to affect changes on their own. At the same time, it allows IT people to work on more important things than just being the marketing person’s lackey.”

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