Sabre’s Chinmai Sharma discusses:
- Broadening Sabre’s focus beyond North America and corporate
- New APIs for hotel merchandizing
- Efforts on standardizing sustainability data
Sabre called lodging and ground distribution a “significant focus and expected growth area” for the travel technology company when it announced a new leader for the division in recent weeks. Chinmai Sharma, a hospitality technology and revenue management veteran who now is Sabre Travel Solutions’ global head of lodging, ground and sea, spoke with BTN executive editor Michael B. Baker during the recent Phocuswright Conference about Sabre’s plans for the segment and how technology is evolving with the distribution needs of both suppliers and travel agencies. An edited transcript follows.
BTN: What will you be focusing on in your new role?
Chinmai Sharma: Hotels in particular is an interesting area. We are very heavily concentrated in North America and corporate, and we want to expand that to leisure travel agencies, midsize and long-tail agencies as well as international. Part of my strategy is to make the program a little bit better. That includes for the travel agent community, we want to be sure we have good compelling content.
We have nearly a million hotels already on the platform, and we continuously evaluate more partners to bring on the platform, so it becomes more relevant to the travel agency partners. We’re also developing a strategy where, for whatever reason, if we don’t have the right content, we will work with aggregator partners and online travel agencies to bring that unique content in. If there is a requirement in the travel agency community to book certain types of products, we should just have it.
The broader aim is to stay relevant in the travel space. In lodging, we already have a dominant share. Globally, a lot of business we do for hotels on the [global distribution system] channel we have the biggest shares, but a lot of that comes from the heavy North American presence of large hotel chains and [travel management companies]. The vision of the leadership team at Sabre is there is room for improvement in lodging, ground and sea, and we add a lot of value to our supply partners, because the quality of customers that we bring is very good. They pay high rates, they spend on property, etc.
We are also loyalty-friendly, so the hotels see us a little differently compared to some of the other channels. We are developing our ecosystem in such a way that we want to transfer as much information as the agencies want us to transfer to the hotels so the end traveler has the better experience. That could include communication details, loyalty numbers, loyalty status, preferences, etc. So, if you’re booking through a corporate travel agency or leisure travel agency, the end experience is really good. That’s the focus. Bring really good content and supply to the platform and develop Sabre as a solidly B-to-B technology platform, which adds volume to our travel agency community and our suppliers.
BTN: Is there an effort equivalent to what’s happening with New Distribution Capability on the lodging side in how lodging content is presented?
Sharma: Everybody is focused on what they call brand-direct efforts. We differentiate ourselves from the other channels since we pass on as much information as we can. We are on the right side of the loyalty program because we add more value there. The NDC battle in the hotel industry is what we call attribute-based selling. It’s essentially how can you break up the products at the hotel level so you can sell them individually. Hotels are real estate, basically, and you want to maximize that.
There is a big focus within Sabre at Sabre Hospitality on retailing and merchandizing, and they’re developing a product called Retail Studio, which is helping hotels to do that. If you bring that same logic over to the Sabre side, we want to make that easier for the travel agencies to do that as well. We are coming up with some new APIs for the first time where things like interconnecting rooms and booking multiple rooms will become easier. That will appeal to the leisure travel agencies as well.
If the hotels have inventory they want to provide, we would love to pass that on the travel agency community. The next couple of years, there will be some announcements to very easily aggregate restaurant reservation, banquet booking capabilities, group capabilities, etc. Our whole plan is to just build services for lodging as flexibly and in as modular a way as possible, so whatever the supply partners want to give us to pass on to the agency side and whatever the agency wants to book, we want to become a marketplace. Our dynamics with hotel partners are a little different than NDC and the airlines, and we’re a little bit ahead on working on those concepts.
Content services for lodging is built in a very modular and flexible way, and we are opening up almost like a marketplace to partners who can work with our specifications. That makes it a lot easier for this ecosystem to work.”
BTN: As you build these, will the technology largely be built internally, or will you be looking for external partners?
Sharma: It’s a combination. We’re taking a very pragmatic approach, because any large company like ours has its own momentum. We have our product roadmap built, but we are working very actively with like-minded companies because we can only do so much in a certain amount of time, and if there is a market need, then we are flexible to partner with companies that can integrate into our solutions. The good thing is, content services for lodging is built in a very modular and flexible way, and we are opening up almost like a marketplace to partners who can work with our specifications and be available in that marketplace. That makes it a lot easier for this ecosystem to work, so that it doesn’t completely depend only on our speed and adding solutions. We can make it a little broader.
BTN: As you seek to broaden your footprint, are any particular geographies first on your agenda?
Sharma: We’re already a very global company, but we’re very heavily penetrated and mature in the North American market. All the growing markets are of interest to us. The natural areas where we’ll focus first is Europe, because that’s relatively well-developed and has a very synergistic effect with North America because of the travel corridors. We’re generating a lot of interest in Latin America and Asia-Pacific as well. We will follow wherever the travel agency community wants us to, because that’s our primary customer. Everything we do is for the managed travel category, and wherever they have needs, we will continue to solve them.
Even though there is a big focus on lodging, we are simultaneously working on ground services and car rentals and rail as well. We recently announced a partnership with Trainline to get new content for our partners, and it’s very relevant for the European market. It’s also very environmentally friendly. Probably all customers are becoming more conscious, but especially in Europe, rail is a part of life, so we do want to expand our services so we eventually have that complete trip in mind.
Whatever confidence you need to make the complete trip or the travel agency work, we will continue to add those. Over a period of time, this could include mobility, ground transportation, airport pickup, restaurant reservation, etc. We will be driven by the travel advisors. Whatever they want us to build, we are a tech platform that can make it happen.
BTN: Are multimodal comparisons a priority?
Sharma: Yes, because Sabre luckily has all the travel companies already in the system, and we want to expose the best possible fare options and choices to the travel advisors. Sometimes, the limitations or the specifications come from the travel agencies because they want to see results in a certain way. Where we have the flexibility to give them more possibilities, we’re already doing it. Sabre has a proprietary tool called [Sabre Red] 360, which is the agent point of sale, and that’s where we’re doing a lot of innovation, of normalizing the content so we can serve it in a bite-sized way.
We have a long-standing relationship with Google, so we’re developing some new products broadly under the travel AI category. Specifically for lodging, we have a solution called Lodging AI, which does very simple things for the travel agency community but is very intuitive. If they are booking a hotel that is not available, how do you recommend them hotels that make sense? If you forgot to attach a hotel in an airline booking, how do you make that recommendation in a very intuitive way?
The demographic of the advisory community is also changing, so a lot of younger advisors are coming on board. They don’t like the command prompts anymore. They like a graphic user stream. The content needs to be consumer-grade, so we’re spending a lot of time and effort making sure we get all the visual content the right way and we surface it the right way to the consumers, because it has to be nearly the same B-to-C grade in the new world we have. If there are 35,000 options available, how do you show 25 relevant options?
BTN: What are the challenges you see specific to rail content?
Sharma: Our strategy is that at least with the key rail suppliers, we want to have direct relationships and direct APIs. So, with partners like Amtrak and [France’s] SNCF we have our own connectivity. In markets where we can bring that content faster, we will partner with those partners like Trainline. Our approach is that we want to look at all our travel competence and how we can add value. If you just look at rail or car rental alone, then it doesn’t look that significant. It’s almost like table stakes for that company to have it. We will always stay invested in making sure that any requirements the travel agency community have, we are able to add value and solve that. Rail in particular is a little more challenging because it’s more fragmented and there are reasonable answers, but at least right now we are solving a big part of that. Just like we had an integration with Trainline, we continually look at partners that can bring in new content and solve problems for the advisors.
BTN: What about sustainability data for hotel and ground?
Sharma: It’s becoming increasingly important. It’s becoming a major factor in how the rates are being procured and the RFP process, because corporations are becoming more sensitive to approving suppliers who are eco-friendly. Our role as a travel platform is to make sure whatever content we service for the advisor community should have the right labels and right logos. We are working very actively to see how best we can service travel options that are more eco-friendly.
Our focus on rail and Trainline is very similar, because some of the countries in Europe are moving in the direction where they might mandate travel within two hours be done on rail, and a lot of hotel companies are very focused on the eco-friendly aspect as well. Our challenge, and opportunity, is that we have more than a million hotels on the platform, and we need to standardize how we service that through the travel community, so it’s not apples and oranges. If it’s a LEED-certified hotel, how do we display it on the search result and give it a little bit of a bias so the agency community can select it. We are developing our content APIs in such a way that any information on certification or being eco-friendly is able to be displayed on the end screen, and that’s a role we have to play, and that’s how we will make it more available in the ecosystem.