If you wanted to travel back in the 1950s, you’d have had to book your trip through a travel agent who would process your flight reservation by hand and file it away in a box with all of the other bookings.
The first semi-automated customer reservation system arrived in 1953 after a conversation between an IBM salesman and the president of American Airlines. The result of their collaboration is the GDS (Global Distribution System) we know today as Sabre (which actually stands for Semi-Automatic Business Research Environment). By the 1960s, Sabre was able to cut the time to process a travel reservation from 90 minutes to just seconds. Pretty impressive considering the internet was still decades away.
While the technology evolved and other major GDS players emerged over the years, travelers still had little autonomy in booking trips as they had no choice but to go through travel agencies who booked trips through these GDS systems. For decades, GDS’s remained the preferred way to book plane tickets, hotel rooms, and other travel products.
With GDS’s monopoly on travel booking due to their complex, opaque technology, it was difficult for other players to come in and disrupt. Still, these systems were archaic and expensive. Over time, airlines started direct selling to their customers, investing heavily in their own distribution systems, reducing their dependency on GDS’s.
In 2016 at the World Aviation Festival, Emirates president Tim Clark said, “I have been banging the drum about the way we are - an industry constrained by the legacy distribution systems. I am not satisfied that the GDS systems of distribution on offer are fit for purpose in the next five or ten years, particularly in light of what has been going on in the digital world."
Since 2016, traveler expectations have changed entirely. Up until recently, travel companies simply packaged travel offers and pushed them to consumers. Today, travelers want to be in the driver’s seat. They expect a seamless experience on their preferred communication channel. They want to book a trip on your website, see the confirmation in their mobile app, and talk to your customer service team on Whatsapp.
With GDS’s offering essentially zero self-service options and very poor personalization of the traveler experience, we’ve seen a whole new generation of self-booking tools emerge. These tools are creating win-win situations for travel agents, travel companies, and travelers.
Today’s trends have turned long-held convictions about traveler preferences entirely upside down. The 2020 SITA Air Transport IT Insights Report found that passengers prefer digital, automated service experiences to human interaction. And airlines are delivering on these expectations. The Chief Digital Officer at leading low-cost airline Wizz Air told us, “We want to get our customer self-service so good that our passengers feel silly calling us to talk to a human agent." You can learn a little bit more about how Wizz Air is doing that here.
The good news is that travel tech companies and the traditional GDS’s including Sabre, Amadeus, and Travelport, are responding to these changes in travel behaviors and expectations.
Over the last few years, these companies have been working hard to open their APIs and developer platforms to allow for more self-service possibilities and integrations. Today, it’s incredibly easy to build flexible travel apps in just minutes that allow for self-service in booking just about anything, automatic modification or cancellation of reservations, smart travel recommendations, and more.
For example, at Mindsay, we’ve connected our conversational AI platform with Sabre and Amadeus APIs to allow our travel customers to provide personalized customer experiences at a huge scale.
Kilroy, a travel company in the Nordics, has connected Mindsay to Sabre as well as their customer service tool, Zendesk. Together with Sabre, we've built a bot that can process flight cancellations, modifications, and a lot more, without having to talk to a human or leave the chatbot interface. As Pernille Vaupel, Kilroy’s Director of Products and Sales Optimization told us, “We partnered with Mindsay because of their seamless integration with Sabre and ability to quickly deliver a chatbot to assist our travelers, who now get instant answers and avoid wait times. The aim is not only to increase efficiency but even more so to improve customer satisfaction by providing quick answers to their needs.”
Amadeus has also released a self-service catalog of travel APIs that can serve the customer throughout their travel journey. For example, in just a few minutes, we were able to connect to their COVID-19 Travel Restrictions API to allow our customers to provide up-to-date information on travel restrictions for hundreds of countries and cities across the world. Here’s an example of a COVID use case (among many!) that we now have in our chatbot platform library that customers can implement in just a few clicks:
Thanks to self-service APIs, companies are now capable of delivering truly customized and personalized customer experiences. Doing this well requires both flexible back-end technology (think Sabre or Amadeus) and flexible front-end technology. Conversational AI or chatbot platforms are a great example of this type of front-end technology. Layering a chatbot on top of your self-service technology and other systems will provide for a great conversational UX that will revolutionize customer experiences and save you a ton of money through the benefits of automation and scale.
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