The evolution of travel distribution is manifesting in ways that aren’t all music to travel managers’ ears

When Ben Park, senior director procurement and travel at Parexel, was asked what his biggest challenge right now was, he didn’t miss a beat. “It’s very simple: travellers going on dot com pages of airline and rail companies and comparing the products and prices they see publicly with what’s on the corporate booking channels,” he explains.

This neatly summarises one of today’s big challenges for travel managers. The days of GDSs’ having full content may have been consigned to history but the demand for it remains. Pascal Jungfer, managing director of Arkea Consulting, reiterates the travel manager refrain: “It’s content, content, content”.

The rules of the game have changed. As a travel manager in financial services pointed out during the research for this piece, “Previously, comparing the content on managed channels with that on direct channels was not like for like. That is no longer the case. Fares online are cheaper and it is like for like.”

“What is not changing,” says Jungfer, “is the race between content generation and the desire to organise the multifaceted and changing aspects within a marketplace. What is changing with NDC and deregulation and new entrants is the organisation and creation. It shows the value chain is constantly moving, which is a good thing. For example, travel management companies have to find ways to integrate content. It’s why they’re proposing their own hotel platform – clients can’t function with hotels only in GDS.”

Jungfer’s comments are a reminder of the everlasting  push-pull of “new content and new ways to distribute it”. He continues: “There’s always a generation of new content because of deregulation or new players or smarter marketing and packaging – NDC, for example.”

Creativity and change may be positive in a macro sense but that does not mean there are not challenges for individual players – especially travel managers. Content may be their perennial desire, but its distribution became disrupted when it ceased being delivered through a single source.

When low-cost carriers, with their direct-to-market principles, started to become used by business travellers in managed programmes, they were a minor irritant which was solved by a hybrid presence on the GDS. When NDC and its XML methodology came along, the minor irritant of non-GDS content became a major headache.

The suppliers’ distributors – travel management companies and aggregators alike – are well aware that they are on a journey to accommodate more and more non-GDS content into channels that work for travel managers. Bookings made either through the TMC or an online booking tool depend on technology developed by and for GDS content. NDC content is made available through aggregators. It includes extra products and services that corporates want but whether it is actually available depends on whether it can be accommodated by the TMC and booking tool.

Managed travel programmes exist for three basic reasons which don’t sit naturally with direct booking channels: corporate governance, data analytics and the ability to service bookings.


The ability to track travellers, monitor emissions and monitor commercial partners (the geographic or political associations of suppliers, for example) is vital for corporations.

Park believes that explaining this obligation is necessary for travellers to accept travel policy. At Parexel they take pains to explain the bigger picture on factors such as risk management and to encourage travellers to think on the macro level, overall for the company, rather than their individual trip.

“Sometimes it’s limiting but you can’t compromise on risk management. You can’t book outside [of preferred channels] because then you don’t know where your travellers are. You have a duty of care obligation which is something people understand.

“If we notice a travel alert and we email [a traveller] to ask how they are, we can often receive a ‘we had no idea you were tracking me but thank you’ reply,” he says.

Angel Gallego, executive vice president travel distribution, Amadeus, believes that corporates are more conscious of their travellers’ welfare since Covid, but also of carbon emissions. “Sustainability is gaining more traction, particularly in northern Europe.”

According to Paul Tilstone, managing partner of business travel consultancy Festive Road, people can’t get the sort of rich data that is needed for duty of care and carbon emissions monitoring unless they’re in an NDC world. “You obtain this at point of sale. It’s much harder to get it in an analogue world,” he says.


Data is required not just for good corporate monitoring practice. It is the key to understanding behaviour and sound commercial decision-making. It is not just about how much a trip costs but what factors contributed to that cost – business or standard class rail, time of journey, time of booking, was a seat booking included or any other extra amenity.

The challenge for travel managers is that what the company is paying for is frequently more than just transporting a traveller from A to B. Mihai Dinu, global travel manager for UiPath, gives an example. “Besides pricing, NDC content gives access to those services that otherwise the end-user has to do, like going to the airline’s website to book a seat. Many companies allow travellers to purchase a seat but you can’t do that at the time of booking. One of the benefits [of NDC] is that at the time of booking you can get the seat all in the same single transaction – and one payment. But I don’t know about the implications when the ticket needs to be changed – we might have some problems then,” he says.

Dinu is referring to one of the biggest frustrations travel managers have in differentiating the consumer purchase from the corporate purchase – the servicing of that booking.


Service is a core part of the TMC proposition. Its importance becomes evident in business travel. Business trips are much more likely to require itinerary changes than the annual family holiday for which work leave has been booked long in advance. Business trips are also much more likely to be multi-leg and even multi-carrier trips.

Travel managers have expressed frustration at the level of service available on NDC bookings. The lack of compatibility of airlines’ APIs through aggregators with legacy GDS systems is often many experts’ explanation for the difficulty with changes to bookings and refunds. The proportion of NDC bookings in its early days was heavily weighted towards leisure so this gripe has only become more prominent with the increase of corporate usage.

It’s also perhaps because bookings increasingly involve more than just the flight. David Bishop, chief operating officer at Gray Dawes Group, stressed the commercial importance for agents of selling not just the flight but what goes with it. “The traveller might buy a flight but buy their parking direct and might do the hotel direct,” he says.

Agents need to sell that airport parking as part of the initial booking and are increasingly doing so. However, the more extras on one element (the air seat, the meal on the plane) combined with the more elements of a journey – the parking, the accommodation, the transfers – the greater the likelihood that service will be required.

This is perhaps why IATA’s NDC initiative has expanded to encompass One Order and One ID. One Order will be key to corporate travel management in the future. According to IATA, it will eventually erase the need for multiple reservation records – e-ticket numbers, airline reference numbers and GDS reference numbers, for example – merging them into a single ticket format. That reference number can then be used across the distribution chain, making servicing the traveller easier across any point in the journey.

IATA has also introduced One ID which it believes will “transform the passenger experience”. According to its factsheet, “Passengers will no longer need to juggle between different documents. Passengers will be given an opportunity to share the minimum data necessary from digital identity with airlines, airports and governments prior to departure. Passengers will then arrive at the airport ready to fly in nearly every travel scenario. At the airport, passengers will not need to present their documents repetitively, and will enjoy contactless travel at all airport touchpoints with biometric recognition.” That evidence of Covid vaccination will no longer have to be retrieved at every stage of the journey, for example.

Upheaval in the world of distribution may not be directly altering travel managers’ basic business objectives but the changes are profound enough to influence the profiles of the next generation of travel managers.

 Areka Consulting’s Jean Michel Kadaner explains: “The skill sets required today for a travel manager are not the same as they were ten years ago. They now need to be tech savvy.”

For example, 20 years ago, the biggest challenge around online booking tools was ensuring compliance. Compliance can now be automatically detected but there are new challenges instead. For starters, travel managers today need to be able to work out how to ensure that carbon emissions are reported and sustainability targets are monitored, whether suppliers’ APIs are delivering what they’re meant to, and whether it’s clear what’s packaged into NDC prices and what’s not.

“How can a non-geek travel manager do that without IT support?” asks Kadaner. Indeed, expectations are changing.