Friday 30 September 2022, JW Marriott Grosvenor
November 2022, Virtual
21 November 2022, Hilton London Metropole
'SOCIAL NETWORKING' is one of those phrases which meant nothing five years ago but is now part of the vernacular. Sites such as Facebook, TripAdvisor and Twitter have become established in a very short space of time as more and more people around the globe start to share information with one another. Facebook recently announced that it had signed up its 500-millionth member.
The business travel world is not shielded from wider consumer trends, and business-based interpretations of social networking are starting to interest travel management companies, corporates and the business travellers themselves. The sector's technology businesses are interested too.
Amadeus, Sabre and Travelport are all active in business-to-business (B2B) social networking. And while there is some consensus among them about the importance of allowing and enabling online conversations to take place within a business travel context, differences have emerged - Sabre and Travelport each have developed their own platforms while Amadeus is more interested in integrating the various systems and content sources already available.
Sabre's platform is known as Cubeless, and was officially launched in the early part of 2008. American Express was involved in the development, and proved useful in terms of security protocols. Cubeless is used by the business travel group within American Express, with Sabre execs saying that a wider rollout across the American Express organisation is being worked on.
Tony Brice, vice president of customer success, for Sabre Cubeless, explains that Sabre has been experimenting with social media since the mid-2000s when it launched Sabre Town, an upgraded intranet which was positioned as an in-house online community.
"We wanted to see how our people would use the social web within an organisation," Brice says. "We watched how they formed groups, what they wanted to know, how the software worked." The main innovation of Sabre Town, something which has been transferred across to Cubeless, is the 'relevance engine', which ensures that people and groups with similar professional interests are connected proactively. Information put into an employee's personal profile is used as the main source of information for the relevance engine.
Sabre Town users now span around 60 countries, and the way in which Sabre staff use Cubeless continues to drive the development.
Travelport has developed its own business-focussed social media platform, which forms the basis of its Travelport Opinions product. While Sabre partnered with American Express for security expertise, Travelport linked up with French business Vinivi to pull in content.
Jason Hancock, Travelport's director of new business development, explains that the reviews on Opinions were clearly demarcated between those which came as part of its Vinivi tie-up and those which were generated by Opinions users for other agents - business and leisure - who had signed up. "No-one likes to go to an empty site," Hancock says.
Sabre is thinking along the same lines, bringing reviews from Travelocity, its consumer-facing sister company, into Cubeless. This helps smaller businesses that do not have a critical mass of reviews from their own travellers. However, Cubeless allows a 'walled garden approach', with companies able to filter reviews to show only those written by people within the organisation.
Opinions was launched in France towards the end of 2009 after a successful beta period, and the UK came on board in March 2010.
Hancock notes that the growth in popularity was almost viral. "We did put some marketing into the UK launch, but we launched South Africa and the Middle East via the trade press with no overt marketing as such. The global nature of what we are doing comes through when you consider we now have Opinions subscribers in more than 100 countries."
The Travelport Opinions website has a TripAdvisor-type ticker on the home page which is regularly updated. At the time of writing, Opinions has 6,426 members from 115 countries.
Again, there is a similarity between Travelport and Sabre, with Sabre having an equivalent product in AgentStream. A recent tweet on the official @agentstream feed said the number of subscribers was approaching 3,000. Opinions and AgentStream are open to agents who are signed up for other global distribution systems (GDSs).
Amadeus meanwhile wants to partner with everyone, creating a genuine difference between its approach and that of Sabre and Travelport.
Sébastien Gibergues, who heads up Amadeus' Travel Technology Consulting group, says that the idea of social networking within a corporate context "was not mature enough to warrant millions of dollars of investment".
He says: "We have decided that we will not develop our own proprietary platform. Instead we are working on integration, developing open systems which will integrate with existing platforms such as online booking tools, desktop apps and mobile. It is not the role of the GDS or the TMC to build the network infrastructure." His colleague Michelle Batten is a US-based travel tech consultant, with the specific target area of social business. She agrees that the debate should not be about the platforms but the possibilities of what social business can do for a corporation.
"It has become established that social media will change purchase behaviours around leisure travel, but on the corporate side there are a number of constraints such as supplier agreements, overall cost, and corporate social responsibility considerations," says Batten. However, she points out that many business travellers are familiar with social networking tools from their personal lives and have the expectation and desire for them to be part of their working lives too. "The question is: how can this be integrated into the travel programme?"
Sabre has already done this, integrating Cubeless with its multi-GDS online booking tool GetThere. Paul Wiley, director of product marketing for GetThere, explains: "We actively promote and sell the Cubeless connection with GetThere. It sits nicely with our desire to collaborate with corporates by enabling travellers to collaborate with each other."
The most obvious example of the integration is that trips booked via GetThere will be used to populate a traveller's profile in Cubeless, giving staff the chance to meet up with each other while on the road. Wiley however is quick to point out that this is an opt-in feature. "For commercial reasons, the CEO might not want his meeting schedule made available to the whole company."
Amadeus and Travelport are listed companies with shareholders to answer to, while Sabre is owned by private equity houses. Profit is a key driver of what they do, and their efforts in the social networking space are no exception. Sabre seems the most advanced when it comes to monetisation - it has clearly positioned Cubeless as an 'enterprise solution'. It is understood that around 30 organisations have signed up for Cubeless, a strong start to something which is clearly a long-term initiative.
"Businesses realise the power of B2B web applications but they want it to operate within the company in a secure way," Brice says. US research house Forrester said way back in 2008 that large US companies would be spending $4.6 billion on Web2.0 technologies by 2013 - and the emergence of social networking since the report would suggest that the figure will be even higher.
Travelport meanwhile is thinking about white-labelling the Opinions platform for corporations or TMCs to use, moving it away from its current agent focus. Hancock hints that finding a way to "encourage reviews and collect them" is vital for this initiative to work.
Looking ahead, the three tech giants are singing from slightly different song sheets. Sabre is very much focussed on persuading corporations that an internal network based on the Cubeless platform offers a good return on investment.
Brice acknowledges that the buzz surrounding the corporate networking was greater than the reality, although the gap has been closing over the past 12 months. "Many corporations were curious about the idea and wanted an explanation about what it could offer," he says. "There is the usual sell cycle with any enterprise solution - certain pockets or departments with a local need for something take it on before it becomes accepted company-wide." He adds that avoiding the term 'social networking' in favour of 'corporate networking' also helped.
Amadeus is taking a similar approach to the consultancy work it is picking up around the issue of networking. Batten suggests that the sea change in the C-suite happened as recently as "within the past six months".
In particular, Amadeus is looking at how corporate networking can help drive efficiencies by incentivising travellers to stick to policy. "Online booking tools have for the past decade been about driving policy," Batten says. "We've seen recently that some companies are starting to use the idea of corporate networking to incentivise rather than force travellers to stick to policy. The big question, as ever, is at what point in the booking path do you introduce the social element?"
Having dismissed spending millions on an Opinions- or Cubeless type platform, Amadeus' ongoing investment in its mobile offer does include an element of networking. A recent upgrade to its Checkmytrip product included a dedicated Facebook application, allowing users to share their travel itineraries with friends and family who are also registered Facebook users.
The idea of using Facebook as the platform is another example of a Firebrand told the WTM Vision Conference this June that many brands were starting to use Facebook as their web platform rather than run one on their website. He pointed out that many consumer-facing advertising campaigns were now steering people towards a Facebook page rather than the brand dotcom.
And recently STA Travel, the youth travel brand that should have a greater insight than most into how twenty-somethings operate, has dropped its own proprietary social networkand is focussing on its Facebook presence.
So while trends from the wider consumer world are clearly impacting the take-up of social networking in business travel, the ultimate decisions will come from within. Amadeus is convinced that the adoption of corporate networks within a business will be dictated by the corporate culture and importantly the sector and markets in which it operates. "A Google would have different perception and needs from a BMW," Gibergues says.
Sabre on the other hand believes that the market for web2.0 technologies is mature enough for it to continue developing and selling Cubeless, while Travelport hopes that its platform will become sufficiently established for it to be private labelled.
The way in which these three tech leaders approach social, corporate or online networking will shape how it develops within the corporate travel environment. The differences that exist between them show that there isn't, as yet, a definitive answer.