Abacus International's commercial and corporate relationship with Sabre is giving it the impetus to take control of the Asia Pacific distribution market, while also putting both at the front of the queue as China's travel tech market slowly opens up to foreign firms.
Abacus is 35% owned by Sabre and uses it as its core GDS across its network of agents. It is migrating its agents from Abacus Whiz to Abacus Workspace, essentially the same as the Sabre Red Workspace.
The benefits of this relationship were highlighted to media during its International Conference in Abu Dhabi this week by CEO Robert Bailey and CMO Martin Symes.
"Sabre had been Abacus' GDS since 1998. Agents have access to this global product but we can customize this core where appropriate for APAC and also build new products ourselves which work with the core. This gives us better localised product for APAC than our competitors."
The migration to Abacus Workspace opens up the world of Sabre Red Apps. Abacus is a certified Red App developer and, claims Symes, "no-one has built more Red Apps than we have".
ContentPlus is one such product and will be available to all Abacus agents across Asia Pacific. ContentPlus is a Red App developed by Abacus which aggregates a bunch of content into one bucket which can then be connected into the core GDS product and booked in the usual way.
The API-based connectivity means that low-cost carrier content from Travelfusion is now available to agents. Other big names are involved - CarTrawler is providing the cars; CityDiscovery providing tours and activities; AIG providing the insurance.
Inventory comes into ContentPlus at net rates so can be marked up by the agent. As things stand, this is being targeted at offline agents only.
One issue here is that not all the offline agents are reading the memo. Bailey notes that o2o (offline to online) could take some time:
"Once we've built a Red App and had it approved, we can deploy it into Workspace overnight. The challenge is adoption. We're aware that agents will not change everything they do overnight - there will be some early adopters but we're hoping that it will become mass-market is a short time".
One nifty way of doing this is the development of a "two views become one" upgrade which is a split-screen version of Workspace which converts the cryptic commands into graphical and vice versa.
Symes says: "In some APAC markets agents are wedded to cryptic, maybe because of bandwidth issues. We don't want to take that away from them."
Another mindset Abacus is fighting is productivity concerns in a market where, Symes says, "traditionally, no-one is bothered about throwing labour at a problem because labour is cheap and plentiful. But that is changing..."
ContentPlus, which means agents do not have to switch between screens and systems, has an efficiency enhancement appeal alongside the revenue benefits. Elsewhere, Abacus also launched something called TAS which automates a plethora of tedious and time-consuming processes for business travellers.
Symes admits that "there is much more innovation and excitement in growing revenues; cost efficiencies are a bit dull but are necessary and equally important."
ContentPlus' big-name partners reflect Abacus ability and desire to work with third parties where appropriate. It has linked up with UK-based Conferma to launch Virtual Payment, a virtual credit card product for corporate travel agents which automates secure payments to suppliers. It will be piloted in Australia in the first quarter of next year.
China is a market where, in geographical terms alone, Abacus should be one-step ahead of its rivals. When asked Bailey agreed, to an extent.
"We've been in China since 1995, we've got offices in five major cities and are selling hotels, cars and productivity tools which are not regulated in the same way as air. We've got a good relationship on the ground, we know the market and we know how the system works, so I think we are marginally ahead of other GDSs at this stage. But we will take a collaborative approach and look at joint ventures, collaborations and partnerships".
China tends to monopolise the global growth conversations, let alone APAC ones. India is often part of the same conversation, often lumped in as part of the overused BRICs acronym.
Bailey notes that there are big differences between travellers in the two markets - notably that Chinese travellers have a higher disposable income to spend on travel than Indians, but over the medium to long term that will change. India has not only a younger population but also a growing one. And the Indian travel tech market has been open to foreign investment.
Bailey also expressed an interest in ASEAN (Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand).
"I'm often asked why are you bothering trying to capture a market of 1.2 billion which is essentially closed when there's another market opening up with 600 million people?"
Perhaps one of the benefits of knowing the Chinese market is knowing that it might not be the only growth story in town.
NB: Author's travel and accommodation for the customer event was provided by Abacus.
NB2: Petronas Tower image cesc_assawin / Shutterstock.com
NB3: Original published version mistakenly reported that Sabre owns 40% of Abacus. The story was amended on 18/10/2014 with the correct figure of 35%.