Big Data, Little Data

By Arnie Weissmann
Arnie WeissmannOver the past decade or so, success in selling travel seems to have gravitated to enterprises located around the fringes of the size scale.

The very large and the very small do well. A friend of mine recently sold his large corporate travel agency, where the average revenue per transaction was about $28, to start a smaller luxury boutique agency, where he figures the average revenue per transaction will be about $1,000.

He's happy to be out from under the pressures of the volume game he played, where he always had to worry that his customers would be lured away by a competitor whose ticket processing center was larger and more efficient than his.

And he figures that if his new business can deliver on a promise of niche expertise and highly personal service, it will ultimately be just as rewarding to him financially and even more rewarding on a personal level.

Big and small can work. The middle is a muddle, unable to compete on price with the larger players and less likely to be able to devote the time or muster the focus necessary to compete with small specialists.

There may be a parallel in what's happening in information technology. You've likely come across articles recently about Big Data. This marketing buzzphrase ramped up considerably over the past year as advances in technology enable data crunchers to parse, analyze and monetize information that people provide about their demographic standing, preferences and habits.

Information about past and present behavior is gathered, but the most valuable data is what can be gleaned about actual intention. Big Data marketers can try to guess what you're about to do based on your historic preferences, but they also try to capture data during your planning processes, often without you being aware it's being done.

The most successful Big Data marketer in travel that I'm aware of is Sojern. Sojern's original business model was to provide the advertising you see printed on boarding passes. Founded in 2008, its partners include Delta, United, American, US Airways, Hawaiian and Alaska Airlines. It also has key relationships with Carlson Wagonlit and Travelport.

But in April 2011, it decided to add a Big Data focus. When a traveler searches for a fare on a partner airline's website, a cookie is placed on the computer, and Sojern's clients -- hotels, destinations, attractions, travel-related services and others -- can opt to follow the consumer around the Web, serving ads related to the upcoming trip.

As an example, if a traveler purchases a ticket from Chicago to Denver, a hotel brand whose guest profile matches what is also known about the traveler may want to place banner ads to pitch a promo in Denver covering the exact dates of the visit.

Sojern CEO Mark Rabe told me last week that his Big Data initiative, less than two years old, has been so successful that Big Data-related revenues now exceed boarding-pass ad sales.

The key to his business is understanding traveler intentions. He applies it on a very large scale, but at the other extreme of the continuum, very small players also have information-related advantages.

When it comes to traveler intention, no one has a longer range or more clarity than a travel adviser with niche expertise and solid client relationships. Sojern captures intention when a ticket is about to be bought; a travel agent may have worked with a client for months on a complex trip before a fare is even queried.

Further, research has shown that travel counselors can play a significant role in shaping intention.

Knowledge about a traveler's past behavior and intentions is closely held by counselors; to share it with suppliers who want direct bookings, as Sojern does, would work against an agent's interests.

Clearly, a well-groomed client database is as critical to a small agent as it is to processors of massive amounts of data. And that small database can be exploited in combination with other small databases: Matthew Upchurch, CEO of Virtuoso, was a pioneer in collecting and manipulating his members' client information to the benefit of both his members and preferred suppliers. That concept has been so broadly adopted that it's become the modern model for most agency consortia and host agencies.

But the advent of Big Data suggests another paradigm could emerge, one that marries a truly Big Data capability with the long-range visibility on traveler intention possessed by travel agents.

The visionary who cracks that code could reshape the industry.

Email Arnie Weissmann at aweissmann@travelweekly.com and follow him on Twitter. 
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