The following Partner Perspective interview is part of a series of virtual discussions hosted by Sabre’s Emma Wilson, VP Marketing, on the topic of Distribution Dynamics. Together with industry leaders and valued partners across airlines, agencies, and travel buyers, we explore the learnings and evolving strategies that have emerged from unprecedented conditions, and how those will shape the future of travel retailing.
In the second episode of the series, Andrea Bertoli of lastminute.com, part of lm group, shares his thoughts on air content sourcing, the partnership dynamic with airlines, and the role OTAs have to play in the recovery of the business.
Watch the video below to hear their conversation or read on for the highlights.
Emma Wilson: I’m going to start off with a question from our previous interview with Jeff Lobl, who is a distribution leader at Delta Air Lines. He wanted to ask you, of all the issues surrounding COVID, which do you think is going to be the most enduring change in the long term for the travel landscape?
Andrea Bertoli: I really think that what will stay with us is the demand for flexibility from the customer. Historically, if you compare the airline industry with the hotel industry, airlines have been much more strict in giving very limited possibility to customers to change their plans, unless they were paying a hefty fare. I really hope airlines will be able to bring that (more flexibility) to market.
EW: Tell me about some of the learnings from the European market and how that’s impacting your operations?
AB: As an industry what we have to find is a way to give back confidence to customers to book, and probably the lack of confidence is also because the industry is not really able to manage the refund process. We still have thousands and thousands of customers waiting on refunds from flights cancelled back in the spring. Customers don’t want to buy a ticket now, because they could accept that their flight might be cancelled but what they don’t accept is that if their flight is canceled, they will not receive their money back within 14 days, which is the law. This is really something collectively as the industry, especially airlines, we have to find a way out of this, go back to a normal situation where a canceled flight will be refunded within a couple of weeks. This is really important I believe.
EW: Can you tell me a bit about how air content sourcing has changed for your business?
AB: I have to say that, in Europe, NDC is finally a reality. In the industry we’ve been discussing NDC for many, many years but in the last 12-18 months we saw a lot of progress on this.
EW: What efforts are needed on the development and maintenance of the different types of connectivity, and what are some of the challenges you see along the buying process?
AB: For us, on the search and book part of the funnel, this was not really a huge impact. Historically in Europe, we saw a lot of content fragmentation because low-cost carriers had never really been on the GDS. As an OTA, the challenge is the need to integrate different content from one big source –the GDS for scheduled flight, then many different sources support the low-cost carriers. On the search and book, things have progressed a lot, and for us it was not so difficult. It’s a complexity, but a complexity we’re used to managing.
Where the challenge is, is the post-sale management. That is really difficult at the moment because NDC is not really developed for booking management. Even in the extreme situation we face with COVID cancellation and refunds, we realize there is no process in place, every airline is trying to do their own way. For agencies it’s very difficult to manage a booking that was booked on NDC. This is where I believe the GDS has an opportunity to bring value to the market. I really think that the GDS has all the technology and experience to give value to the industry in having an end-to-end solution for this content fragmentation. It’s a long journey. Historically, people always focus on search and book, because cancelation and booking management is a fraction of the work you have to do. COVID showed everybody that you have to have process, automation, systems to manage a booking in post-sale, otherwise you cannot manage the customer properly.
EW: That ability to manage the customer properly throughout the process, that relies on a partnership across the industry with everyone involved. When I look at the partnership between airlines and OTAs, historically there’s been some movement to restrict the access to different types of fares from OTA’s in order to stimulate demand for airline dotcom. We see OTA’s playing a very strong role in this slow recovery of the business. Do you think that means this dynamic might change?
AB: I think it’s always going to be a love and hate relationship. We bring a lot of volume to airlines, and I believe we bring a lot of value also, so not just booking but also the ability to support airlines in markets where their brand is not very strong. We can combine their services with other services, such as packaging. lastminute.com has been focusing a lot this last year on dynamic packaging, so the capability to put together a flight and a hotel in real-time. All activity for airlines is not easy to implement. We bring value, but of course we have a cost in terms of distribution. Airlines should go direct and get as much business as they can direct, that’s why they’re putting fees on third party distribution, they’re restricting content, they are in many ways try to capture market share. I hope as the industry matures, direct sales from airlines become more relevant.
They will also understand the huge costs they incur in direct sales, because cost of distribution is easy to see because it’s always been like this in the past. When airlines start doing proper accounting and see how much it costs them to directly manage a customer vs the cost when the customer is managed by the agency – they will understand that there are some customers there is value for them to serve directly, but a lot of customers where it is much more efficient to serve via third party or an agent. This is something that will come, because as they scale direct sales, and see the cost of direct customer management they will try to find the correct balance between direct distribution and indirect distribution.
EW: Thank you so much, Andrea! Really great to talk to you, some fascinating insights. I look forward to talking to you again soon!
AB: Thank you very much it’s always a pleasure to meet you. Ciao!