The usual array of travel buyers, other intermediaries, suppliers, technology and distribution companies, lobbyists and industry groups were in the Czech capital of Prague last week.
The annual GBTA Europe conference is running under the title of "no boundaries - beyond the process" this year, an apt enough slogan to rally the masses and remind them that the status quo really isn't going to stay in its current guise for much longer.
Some business travellers (apparently many Gen-Yers) are beginning to challenge long-held corporate policies; others are often armed with more ideas about their upcoming trips than their travel managers; and existing processes around distribution and workflow are under scrutiny by all sides.
"Under scrutiny" is actually a diplomatic way of describing the current and often spiky debate over plans by commercial aviation body IATA's to introduce what it calls the New Distribution Capability (NDC), officially a new "set of standards" to change the way airlines connect with intermediaries.
For anyone with their head buried in the sand for the past 15 months, NDC is causing - in some quarters - an almighty stink as some agencies (especially on the corporate travel side) and the GDSs are concerned about what they consider to be dark motives by IATA-led airlines to create a new model that is not needed technically and will muddy the waters around pricing and give too much power to carriers.
There have been plenty of public debates and numerousarticles about the issue over the course of the past year or so.
In Prague last week, GBTA organisers assembled a panel to debate a session under the title: "The battle for your distribution spend."
- Mike McCormick – executive director and chief operator officer at the GBTA
- Christoph Klenner – secetarygeneral at GDS-backed lobbying group ETTSA
- Paul Wait – CEO of the GTMC
- Aleks Popovich – senior vice president for industry distribution and financial services at IATA
Moderator Philip Wolf (ex-PhoCusWright
CEO) started the discussion with an audience "clap-poll" - those in favour of NDC; those against NDC; and those undecided.
Remarkably, given the apparent opposition some would have the industry believe that exists within the corporate travel sector, applause coming from the delegates appeared pretty equal across the three options offered.
So, the session turned to Popovich to outline IATA's strategy, including the new(ish) video clip:
And, yet, herein lies the current problem with the NDC discussion.
For all the glossy videos from the IATA end of the discussion and continued poking at the project from the likes of the Business Travel Coalition, there is actually very little progress being made in terms of outlining how the wider "future of distribution" will evolve.
In some respects the panel's representatives from the GBTA and GTMC were a side-show to what delegates were hungry to hear - Klenner and Popovich tearing strips off one another.
The pair have tried doing so on the pages of Tnooz in recent months ("Fear and loathing in airline distribution (aka NDC Phobia)" from Popovich and "When it comes to the NDC, every day is Groundhog Day" by Klenner).
But it feels to many that have watched this debate unfold over the course of the past 15 months or so that we are now in a somewhat frustrating period of stagnation.
Each of the panellists were quick to point out how they are "not against innovation", "I'm pro-innovation" etc, (well, derrr), but here most of the consensus ends.
IATA is doing a great job of being the front-man for the airline members which are keen to really push the "new standards", at the same time as ETTSA is representing its membership (some online travel agencies and the GDSs) with a string of valid concerns about transparency, ownership of customers and the financial model for any large scale changes to the ecosystem.
The problem now is that no-one appears to be winning that debate.
Should there be a winner, some might ask?
Well, not necessarily - but what appears to be required now, 15 months on, is some kind of evolution around the arguments being put forward by either side.
The fact that when Wolf repeated the clap-poll at the end of the session, and there was almost no change in the volume levels for each of the three options, it perhaps illustrates that the arguments are not changing the hearts and minds of some of those at the sharp end of the project's outcome.
It also shows how far the debate needs to move on before any kind of wider peace in the valley can be achieved. The red and blue corners need to meet in the middle somehow.
But perhaps the growing levels of shoulder-shrugging that many appear to have around the NDC debate could be averted, and some progress made, if all sides did follow what Klenner proposed on-stage (which actually got a decent round of applause) and "just got together in a room and talked".
One airline executive suggested privately after the debate that if IATA wants to move the argument forward it should talk more about the wider opportunities for the wider industry by having a single pipe of content and functionality (yes, please, come and plug in Amazon, Apple and Facebook), rather than behaving like it is protecting a relatively small cabal of airlines.
Equally, as one travel tech company representative also suggested, ETTSA and the wider community seemingly hell-bent on opposing NDC should, rather than hitting the entire concept over the head with a stick, demonstrate better how progress is being made by the existing ecosystem to evolve.
With the exception of perhaps Travelport, which some believe has done a reasonable job (and actually been praised by IATA for it) of illustrating how agents can really get under the skin of new airline requirements through its Air Canada-Agencia platform), those representing the status quo (especially at an industry representative body level) appear to be stuck and not, to coin a phrase, waking up and smelling the coffee.
Airline distribution is evolving - it actually has to, given how the needs of travellers and suppliers have also changed in recent years.
Unfortunately the way the debate is currently being played out is only helping those that believe the distribution ecosystem doesn't need to change.
It does. But so should the debate.
NB1: Disclosure – accommodation for the author’s visit to Prague was supported by the GBTA.