Every industry that relies on connectivity, whether physical or digital, requires standards. So why did it take so long for the experiences sector to finally come to terms with the need for them? To travel industry insider, the path will look familiar.
In 2008, at the Phocuswright conference in Los Angeles, Valyn Perini, the executive director of the OpenTravel Alliance at the time, approached me at the buffet line and we struck up a conversation about standards in the experiences sector of the travel industry. I was already aware of Valyn and the work that she and OpenTravel were doing in more established sectors like air, hotel and car rentals.
As one of the first technology platform CEOs to focus exclusively on experiences, it seemed incumbent on me to try to not repeat some of the failings or struggles of other sectors in the travel industry. After all, didn’t we all share some similarity in terms of our connectivity demands?
For experiences it was still a bit early, but it wasn’t going to be long before more tech platforms emerged and as a result more distribution alongside it. At that point, there were only a handful of technology platforms for operators and an equally small number of distributors including Viator, Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz, Isango, and few other smaller regional players.
Soon after that conversation, I agreed to join the board of directors of OpenTravel. Since it was already established and had the clout of some major brands, it made sense to use it as a platform for driving the experiences standards initiative. I made it my mission to publish an experiences standard through OpenTravel. For the first year or so, my focus was primarily on learning about how all the sectors in the travel industry work and how standards have been of benefit to them.
Learning from hotels
What I discovered is that the hotel industry offered a narrative that was closest to what I was starting to see happen in the experiences space. With the combination of the rapid rise in internet access, the growth of OTAs like Expedia, and the negative impacts of 9-11 on the travel industry, hoteliers were at a point where they had to make their inventory available electronically or risk losing revenues. With so many PMS, online booking tools, and distributors entering the space, it was time to come up with standards that everyone could use to communicate availability and pricing data more efficiently. By the time I joined OpenTravel in 2008, hotel distribution messages had been in use for several years.
Based on what I researched, a similar path was beginning to unfold for experiences. With the release of the pivotal Phocuswright research about experiences in 2011, the sector was seeing an influx of capital, new technology startups, and an increase in distribution. It made sense to try and move the experiences segment to standards earlier rather than later.
We could avoid a lot of the headaches associated with everyone loading products into extranets like overbooking, outdated schedules and missed bookings. In addition, since there were still so few players in the market, we could get a standard in place before the ecosystem became overly complicated.
This way, as new platforms entered the market, they could adopt the standard right away, increasing access to supply for distributors and providing more distribution opportunities for operators. What I didn’t foresee however was the lack of pain that the industry felt at the time. With only a handful of systems servicing operators, a handful of distributors, and less than 10% of operators using platforms, the idea of adopting standards was just not a priority for anyone. Despite my best efforts, the support of many, including Viator (pre-TripAdvisor) and five years of trying to push for standards, I let it go.
But I never stopped thinking or talking about it and as the segment continued to grow, more research was conducted by companies like Phocuswright, more reservation platforms entered the market and more marketplaces popped up, it became obvious that the cost and complexity of connecting everything together was becoming more and more overwhelming. I watched as we repeated the history I had tried so hard to help us avoid.
The right time
Then, in 2019, Arival, an event for the experiences space, began hosting what it called “Connectivity Forums” in order to continue the conversation around standards. After three successful forums that engaged trading partners and competitors alike, it became obvious to everyone that the time for standards had finally arrived.
A group of technology companies, many of whom are direct competitors, began working together to build a first version of the standards and test connections between trading partners. The group, known loosely as OCTO, had it final meeting in early 2020 with the goal of releasing the specification at the upcoming Arival Berlin Connectivity Forum scheduled for March. Unfortunately, that never happened.
Despite the challenges of the pandemic, over the course of 2020 and 2021, members of the OCTO group, specifically Ventrata, Peek, Tiqets, Xola and Zaui, continued to work on developing and implementing the specification. Their commitment and dedication to continuing the work of the group is what kept the possibility of an industry standard alive.
By the time the industry was ready to get back together in 2022, it was clear that the work carried out by the original contributors was enough to prove that standards would work. The standing room only audience was asked whether it was time to organize and move forward with creating an organization that could oversee the creation and maintenance of the standard, and the resounding response was yes.
Fast forward six months and OCTO is now a 501.c3 not for profit association with a governing board of directors, a specifications committee, administrative team, a published specification and a growing membership base which includes many of the original OCTO contributors as well as companies like Gateway Ticketing, GoCity, The Empire State Building, Universal Orlando, San Diego Zoo and Maverick Helicopter.
Just because OCTO has been formed and a specification has been published, the fifteen year story of standards in the experiences sector is still far from over. Now comes the hard work of continuing to engage with the community, building specifications that meet industry needs, and driving continued adoption. The challenge now is not whether we need standards, but how do we make those standards the best they can be for all the varied trading partners that exist in our complex ecosystem.
Could we have avoided some of the pain the segment is now experiencing as it continues to grow and evolve, if we had adopted a standard earlier? Probably, but like all things, there is a right time for every solution. That is what I missed in my eagerness to push the idea of standards. Sure, it took fifteen years to get to a point where the sector could agree that standards are important and that we need them moving forward, but that’s nothing compared to the potential we have all unlocked by taking this step forward. Experience operators, technology platforms, marketplaces and all the systems in between will benefit from this first step. Now it’s up to all of us to keep taking the next steps forward together.
About the author...
Stephen Joyce is a founding member of the board of directors of OCTO
head of solutions management at Holibob