07 Apr

The Benjamin Button of Travel

I have been running technology seminars at World Travel Market for nearly 20 years. This year WTM will be celebrating its 35th event, so I thought it might be interesting to write a retrospective on how the technology exhibited at WTM has changed over the decades. I still have the PowerPoint presentation from the first WTM seminar I gave in 1995. I titled it “Travel on the Internet – Don’t Get Left Behind.” I can still remember the embarrassment when my primitive laptop over-heated in the too hot conference room and simply gave up.

Prior to the mid-1990s, tech at WTM was dominated by the Global Distribution Systems. A number of other technology suppliers would also be exhibiting, primarily suppliers of travel agency and tour operator systems. These systems would have been text based rather than graphical but they would still have looked quite modern compared to the GDSs’. GDS users, such as travel agents, needed to be highly trained as the systems used command line interfaces. The user was presented with a cursor – > – and had to know the command to type in, for example:
The modern tour operator and travel agency systems of the day would have presented users with a form to fill-in, eg.
Name: ………..
Address: ………….
Quite a revolution at the time.

Back then hardware was relatively expensive, so it paid to write computer code that made the most efficient use of any processing power that was available. As an example of how expensive hardware was, I remember one of my consultancy assignments which was to source additional memory for a client’s system server. The amount of memory to be purchased was 64Mb – that is 64 Megabytes, not the several Gigabytes of memory we use in our PCs today. I managed to track down the memory at 50% discount but it still cost £25,000.

As hardware prices came down and performance increased, it became possible to produce increasingly voluminous and relatively inefficient computer programs and so we saw the first graphical travel systems appear, using Windows interfaces. The type of tech company exhibiting at World Travel Market also began to change. Alongside the GDSs and other larger system suppliers, there appeared smaller start-ups using more modern programming languages and graphics.

The advent of the internet was the trigger for an even greater range of technology suppliers to display their electronic wares at WTM. As the Internet has advanced the opportunities to develop and launch new, innovative technology solutions has multiplied many fold. Technology is now the fastest growing sector of WTM and has changed out of all recognition to the earlier years. The GDSs are still there, as are the tour operator and travel agency systems. All have modernised for the Internet age with easy to use browser based interfaces that were simply not possible several decades earlier.

The plethora of different types of technology continues to expand. We have mobile apps, social media and big data analytics, channel managers, content management systems and more. Exhibitors at World Travel Market might be tech companies with decades of experience or innovative start-ups that measure their company histories in weeks.

Thinking about this, it seems to me that technology may be the Benjamin Button of travel. As the years have gone by, it has got younger. 35 years ago it was slow and creaky, not necessarily falling over, but quite cumbersome and unwieldy. Today, technology has grown down (not grown up) to be young and sprightly. It is fleet of foot, youthful and fast moving. It works quickly and efficiently. We have moved from vast, monolithic systems to rapidly developed, solution-focused apps. We have moved from ponderous protocols to flexibility.

The technology section at World Travel Market has changed out of all recognition, from old to young, from limited to wide-ranging, from set in its ways to fast moving. As Benjamin Button said, “Things were becoming different for me. My hair had very little grey and grew like weeds. My sense of smell was keener, my hearing more acute. I could walk further and faster, I was getting younger!” Could this the Curious Case of Travel Technology?