Bell Emergis, a division of Bell Canada, provides network-centric solutions to the global marketplace. The company harnesses the Internet to deliver multimedia software capabilities to businesses, consumers, and other carriers. It has been working in the tourism industry since 1988 when it developed a central reservation system for Journey’s End hotels.
In 1992, the Ontario government wanted to improve its tourism marketing, and Bell Emergis responded to an RFP with a plan to modify its existing reservation system to meet the province’s needs. The result was CRIS-ONTARIO, a call centre providing tourism counselling, brochure fulfilment, reservations, and automated accounting.
Through this project, Jim Betts, the Director of Tourism at Bell Emergis, got involved in a number of industry associations in the tourism business. He soon realized that over 50 percent of tourism operators were not linked to the large global distribution systems (e.g. SABRE) because they were too expensive.
This severely limited these operators’ ability to make their facilities available to potential customers. Furthermore, the travel and tourism industry was extremely fragmented. There was little standardization of terms and very little cross-association communication and sharing. When the Ontario government decided to privatize its call centre in 1995, Betts saw it as an opportunity for Bell Emergis to provide industry leadership for mutual benefit. In 1996, the company assumed control of the 1-800 ONTARIO Reservation and Information Service and made plans to grow this business worldwide.
CHOOSING THE TECHNOLOGY
TraveLinx-DMS is an innovative combination of both a business and a technical vision. To define what the system would do, Betts built a team of business people from the travel and tourism industry. Twelve different sectors (e.g. transportation, accommodation, and attractions) were included to ensure that a broad range of industry needs were represented in the application.
To determine how the system would operate, Mike Maguire, Director of Technology for Bell Emergis, watched constantly for new products and new approaches during the 13 months that negotiations were underway to privatize the 1-800 ONTARIO service. For example, he originally evaluated a variety of database products, but by the time the project had been approved, an Oracle database was possible.
He credits rapidly expanding technology capabilities with enabling a completely different approach to this business problem. “Ten years ago we would have taken a much more narrow approach to it. Today, technology enables you to remove physical barriers and to think in a completely different way.”
Maguire’s biggest challenge was the dynamic nature of the information that the system had to provide. His first plan was to use client/server technology and a two-tier architecture but this presented many potential problems in maintaining the accuracy and synchronization of data. Fortunately, during the time it took the government to award the contract to Bell Emergis, the Internet emerged as a potent new technology. Maguire used this time to design a three-tier architecture which offered vast improvements in data management capabilities.
Ultimately, the TraveLinx-DMS system he designed was composed of a number of generic modules, such as menuing, navigation, presentation, communication, billing, query, security, and communications. One industry-specific module of tourism application logic was also created. “We didn’t intend to develop a generic application”, Maguire remarked. “It just became obvious shortly after we began design”.
While vision was important, it was collaboration that made it happen. The project revolved around two key individuals: Betts and Maguire. It was their long-term working relationship that laid the groundwork for the much broader collaboration that was needed on this project. Betts had to coordinate a diverse group of stakeholders including government, industry associations, individual operators, and travel agents. Maguire had no internal technical staff so he partnered with DMC Inc., a local professional services consulting firm. Each had to trust the other and each in turn had to trust his own team members. It helped considerably that Betts had a good understanding of technology and that Maguire had a solid understanding of the business of tourism.
Maguire’s objective was to develop a ‘best in the world’ product. To do this, he knew he needed to use senior, experienced people who could hit the ground running. By using a consulting company as the source of his IT staff he was able to specify and get the skill sets and business knowledge he wanted. As a result, he was able to give them the direction he wanted to go with the design, and then the freedom to develop it.
The system was designed for generic data. Because no structure is imposed on its users, each part of the travel business can categorize its own data exactly as they view it and they are not forced to operate in a particular way. Using templates, users can change the look and feel of the application and can modify, add, or remove information by themselves. By eliminating the requirement for HTML, the system can change the appearance of thousands of Web pages instantly with no new software development. Technical maintenance is only required if the user wants new functions or to extend the data model.
TraveLinx-DMS offers users a variety of distribution channels, such as call centre, the Internet, travel information centres, and publications. Multiple services such as information fulfilment, publications, web site hosting, advertising, transactions and accounting are provided. Subscribers can pick and choose the combination of services and channels that best suit their needs. Using the Internet, invoices and reservations can be faxed or e-mailed to operators with no telecommunications charges and no extra labour. Significant redundancy in the architecture ensures high availability and scalability.
The information component of the TraveLinx-DMS system was launched in January 1997 with over 300 product types. The fulfilment component was completed in August 1997 and a rewrite of the reservation system was completed in June 1998. Today, the system is handling over 5,000 calls a day with about fifty counsellors.
PROVIDING CUSTOMER VALUE
By 1997, due to the phenomenal growth of the Internet, Betts faced a marketing challenge. With everyone developing their own web sites, he had to find a way to demonstrate that working together through TraveLinx-DMS would provide cross-selling opportunities and present customers with integrated travel and tourism information focused on a particular geographic region. Betts dealt with it by offering to develop web sites for industry associations at extremely attractive rates, provided they also link to TraveLinx. Today, the service is in expansion mode. The more subscribers it has, the more value it can offer.
TraveLinx-DMS acts as a facilitator between the point of offer of tourism products and services and the point of sale (the consumer or the travel agent). By sharing one common web site engine for travel information, reservations, literature fulfilment, and other services, DMS effectively harmonizes a fragmented industry. For consumers, this means easier access to tourism information from anywhere in the world. For suppliers, it means multiple channels to market for their products.
For Bell Emergis, TraveLinx-DMS extends the company’s competency in network-centric applications. Additional revenues come from listings, revenue-sharing with operators, and providing fulfilment services. Its business plan is on track and Betts expects to break even in 1999. He notes that with a new type of application, companies must be prepared to discover new sources of revenue that had not been planned. Similarly, planned sources may not be as lucrative as expected for a variety of reasons. However, “the key to success,” he remarked “is owning the content. Once that is locked up, it’s hard for anyone else to get in.”
The TraveLinx management team soon realized that the generic nature of the system made it easily adaptable to other countries wishing to promote tourism products and services or other businesses requiring remote access to centralized data. In 1997, the company began to market the system to other countries. To date, it has been implemented for the Cayman Islands and a contract has been signed to develop prototype systems for Costa Rica, Peru, the Dominican Republic, and St. Lucia. “With a very small team, we can plan and implement a new country,” states Betts. “This is because, with only a few days training, operators from a country can input and maintain the information they want to make available.”