Modern travel retailing, enabled by offers and orders and enhanced with AI/ML solutions, presents new ways for agencies to interact with customers. It also means new processes, increasingly fragmented content, shopping-led instead of schedule-led workflows, and the eventual end of the PNR. To minimize disruption and build a future-proof business, agency leaders need to consider how they operate.

Modern travel retailing

Modern retailing refers to customer experiences that meet and exceed the expectations of today’s travelers. It involves frictionless, intuitive, and personalized shopping, booking, and servicing with…

  • New products and non-air extras beyond traditional ancillaries 
  • Personalized product bundles tailored with contextual information 
  • More relevant search results based on traveler profile or persona
  • Improved self-service and automated order management 

It might be time for an organizational restructure  

Like any organization going through an industry-wide evolution, travel agencies will likely need to adapt their organization structures and working practices to effectively introduce modern retailing capabilities. The scope of change will depend on an agency’s size and resources: larger agencies could introduce new teams or expand existing ones (e.g. retail experience, supplier partnerships, data science, customer relationship management). Smaller agencies with more limited resources could instead focus on redistributing responsibilities between existing team members, for example, marketing managers analyzing data deeper into the product funnel or support staff providing more tailored itineraries. 

Regardless of agency size, it’s important for leaders to encourage more cross-functional collaboration, remove siloed processes, and introduce or reinforce agile and flexible work practices to respond to the dynamic nature of modern retailing. This means bringing together commercial, product, and technology expertise to design new or updated customer experiences and web/app user journeys, and empowering teams to make faster decisions, run more experiments, and regularly iterate. 

Questions to consider…

  1. How are your organization’s functional teams currently structured and what changes would improve the speed of product development and delivery?  
  1. Do you have an intentional strategy and success metrics to ensure effective communication and knowledge sharing across different departments and teams?  
  1. Are roles and responsibilities clearly defined within and across teams, including contractors and partner organizations? How could you redefine these for modern retailing? 

Traveler safeguarding responsibilities are changing  

As the scope of travel products expands and traveler and corporation expectations continue to evolve, agencies need to reassess their duty of care responsibilities. For example, if an airline partners with a new provider of excursions and hospitality events that wasn’t available previously, agency leaders need to understand and agree on their responsibilities in case of changes or disruptions. The tools, processes, and workflows used to reaccommodate travelers today may need updating to meet obligations for new products from new supplier partners. 

Travel management companies (TMCs) are particularly experienced at providing real-time monitoring and communication with travelers, as well as automating processes for risk assessment and response. Agency leaders should consider using AI/ML solutions to scale and improve disruption predictions, deploy more sophisticated chatbots to improve response times, and combine data from disparate sources to get a more complete understanding of traveler needs and preferences. 

Questions to consider…

  1. What duty of care commitments are you responsible for today? Do you have existing resources to expand the scope? 
  1. What are your escalation protocols to handle emergency situations and disruptions that require multi-supplier solutions (e.g. flight, hotel, ground transportation, medical assistance)? 
  1. What expectations have you set with internal teams and partner organizations on the roles and responsibilities for delivering comprehensive duty of care? 

Dramatically reduce the cost of servicing  

One of the most notable modern retailing innovations is the improvement in automation and disruption management enabled by the ONE Order data standard. Individual travel agents can use automation tools to speed up post-booking quality checks, schedule changes, queue management, ticketing, exchanges, and refunds across suppliers. This will save them time to work on more complex itineraries or be reallocated to revenue-generating sales activities. 

Self-service capabilities will also play an important role in travelers’ interactions with agencies. Many travelers want the ability to make changes, cancellations, purchase add-ons, and access relevant booking information themselves without contacting customer support teams – just like they do when buying products in other industries. Empowering travelers with self-service options can help agencies reduce costs and improve customer satisfaction and loyalty. 

Questions to consider…

  1. What are the biggest bottlenecks in your current operations that can be addressed through automation or self-service options? 
  1. What is your cost of servicing? What is the business case for investing in self-service solutions to reduce cost of servicing in the future?  
  1. How can you balance automation with human interactions to provide a seamless, personal experience for travelers? 

Who’s in charge? Redefined SLAs and fulfillment responsibilities 

One notable implication of modern retailing is the maturing of terms between industry stakeholders. In the short term, this includes agencies and customers seeking assurance that future content and capabilities match or exceed traditional offerings, for example, corporations including NDC content in requests for proposals. In the medium term as the product scope increases, agency leaders will also need to think about which products and services they are responsible for and capable of fulfilling. 

Another important consideration are the key performance indicators (KPIs) used to measure service quality and partnership success, for example, net promoter scores (NPS), average response times, booking accuracy/bookability rate, and look-to-book ratios. Agency leaders need to think about how these will evolve and which KPIs are most relevant for their businesses. 

Questions to consider…

  1. Which metrics and key performance indicators (KPIs) are you currently using to measure the performance and success of partnerships? 
  1. Are there any areas of potential conflict or ambiguity in your current fulfillment responsibilities that need to be addressed? 
  1. Do your teams have the tools and resources they need to effectively fulfill new product offerings? 

Back to school: training on new tools and processes 

For travel agents who’ve used the same processes for years, modern retailing presents significant change, notably the move from the command-based interface to graphical interfaces and the end of PNRs as the core booking reference. Although this lowers the barrier to entry and training time for new employees, industry veterans will need support to adjust to new ways of working. 

Beyond new user interfaces and booking/servicing processes, agency leaders should also consider how modern retailing will impact reconciliation, accounting, analytics, and reporting workflows. By effectively training employees on new tools, processes, and automation capabilities, agencies can strategically redeploy individual travel agents to activities that improve customer experience like dedicated VIP concierge and travel advisory services. 

Questions to consider…

  1. What do your internal training programs and personal development frameworks look like? Can existing process be used to adequately upskill your team on new tools and workflows? 
  1. Are any external partnerships or resources needed to provide specialized training? 
  1. Do your new job adverts on career websites reflect the future needs of your agency? 

Achieve modern retailing success with Sabre

Agencies’ existing organizational structures and processes have been used to build a resilient global travel industry. While modern retailing capabilities have the potential to propel growth and create efficiencies, agency leaders need to start planning to minimize disruption and future-proof their businesses. Sabre supports leisure agencies, travel management companies, and online travel agencies to achieve modern retailing success with a strong foundation of travel content, end-to-end solutions, innovations and partnerships. It’s up to agency leaders to choose the combination of tools and capabilities that matter to them and their customers.

New content and intelligent capabilities. We aggregate and normalize travel content from a vast number of suppliers to give customers a broad choice of relevant, tailored options. This includes millions of lodging properties and hundreds of airline options, including traditional EDIFACT and NDC content (15 live airlines and 35+ in the pipeline).  

As suppliers make new content available, including personalized offers and non-traditional ancillaries, we roll it out to agencies. This content is underpinned by our intelligent retailing capabilities, customizable fares, and automated commission calculations to optimize revenue every time. 

Efficient distribution, automation, and payments solutions. Accessing end-to-end capabilities is crucial for agencies to build modern retailing experiences. That’s why we offer a suite of tools for every agency: Sabre Red 360 – an intuitive point of sale interface for agents; GetThere – a comprehensive corporate booking tool; and Sabre travel APIs – extensive, flexible APIs to power travel shopping, booking, servicing, and fulfillment. 

To help scale operations and lower servicing costs, we also offer smart automation solutions to quickly manage notifications, exchanges, refunds and more, even during peak times. To complete the end-to-end coverage, Sabre Virtual Payments helps agencies get more value from every transaction with improved cashflow, revenue from rebates, and automated reconciliation. 

Transformative innovations and strategic partnerships. Modern retailing wouldn’t be possible without continuous innovation and strong industry collaboration. Notably, our 10-year partnership with Google includes a cloud platform migration to provide a robust and scalable infrastructure and access to capabilities that power the world’s largest consumer travel products. We’re also co-innovating to solve agencies’ toughest challenges like improving search response times with an incredibly fast shopping cache and combining Google-powered AI/ML tools with Sabre’s rich data to unlock conversion and revenue opportunities.  

To make sure innovations address agencies’ unique needs and reflect their value in the ecosystem, we regularly invite our customer advisory board to share feedback, host workshops and attend industry events, and advocate for agencies at IATA working group meetings. 

About the Author 

Jonny Blackler is part of the Sabre team exploring what the future of travel will look like, what it means for travel agencies, and how agencies can transition their businesses to make the most of emerging technologies. 

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