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Travel industry slow, but keen to adopt cloud

Legacy distribution systems hindering move to cloud, says online travel network, but companies now actively exploring migration possibilities in bid to reduce cost.
Written by Tyler Thia, Contributor

The travel industry is generally 12 to 18 months behind technology adoption, but many are now "exploring" cloud services which has become an "extremely hot issue" among market players, says Sue Heilbronner, chief marketing officer of online travel network, Swiftrank.

One reason for the industry's laggard IT use is "the legacy nature" of reservations and transaction tools still in use by major suppliers, she told ZDNet Asia over a phone interview. And these systems were not written to take advantage of the cloud.

Heilbronner explained: "I believe global distribution systems (GDS) companies are exploring the use of cloud-based technologies to see how they can bring efficiencies to their demanding transaction-based business. Some of these applications have dependencies on other internal applications that need to move to the cloud, too, before they can function correctly."

But this is starting to change, she said, as companies look to reduce operational cost and accelerate their time-to-market with new products and services.

The hotel booking portal recently moved to Amazon Web Services (AWS), which Swiftrank said would provide more flexibility in scaling its business, at a lower cost. The company said it was not able to do this with its previous single-hosting environment.

Bryan Harwood, the company's senior vice president of strategy and innovation, said during the phone interview: "Before using AWS, the cost of maintaining and supporting a multi-datacenter strategy was cost-prohibitive and time-consuming. Now, it frees up our technology team to focus on driving innovation and constantly improving user experience across all our market-specific travel-planning and booking sites."

The hotel booking portal provides location-based links with listings of properties and prices, and has acquired 20,000 travel-related domain names to fuel its business, Harwood said. For example, when "Singapore luxury hotels" is entered into a Google search, www.singaporeluxuryhotels.com appears as the top result and contains only relevant listings of high-end hotels in the city-state.

Swiftrank deployed the AWS cloud in three regions--US East, EU-Ireland and Asia-Pacific Singapore--allowing it to serve customers closest to the company's main business locations and provide a faster search experience.

Security a mitigated concern
With security a critical element in any cloud migration, Harwood said the company is confident its safety measures can ensure potential risks remain minimal. He added that benefits from adopting cloud far outweigh security concerns.

Some of these measures include regular security updates, weekly scans, encryption of stored data as well as data exchange with business partners, and ensuring network access is limited to those with legitimate working needs.

Harwood said: "Security, as a whole, is a shared responsibility between the cloud provider and the client. It is important to note that companies need to build security at every level of the stack, too. We think Amazon's scale and focus on security affords us more protection than larger companies would have been able to afford on their own."

Social takes flight
With more travelers turning to social media and Web sites for product reviews and travel purchasing, Heilbronner noted that these platforms have become an integral part of Swiftrank's business model. The company relies on Twitter to provide updated content on both their B2C (business-to-consumer) and B2B (business-to-business) sites, she added.

Feedback from social media allows the travel network to test and evaluate its products and finetune them, she said. "We're looking toward that as a big factor when we think about what content to develop and what to really focus on," she shared.

Asked about the feasibility of deploying location-based services such as those provided by Foursquare, she said it is currently assessing this space.

Heilbronner also revealed that while the U.S. travel consumer market leads the world in online travel transactions, Asia's adoption of smart phones is a trend players such as Swiftrank are taking note of.

"While Asia's rate of online travel purchase far lags behind the U.S. and Europe, mobile penetration in the region is so far ahead of the world. The travel industry is really looking at creating real viable technology that allows for online mobile growth," she said.

The rapid growth of tablets such as the Apple iPad, has also created a valuable mobile way to shop for travel purchases and provides the perfect means for travel shopping, she added.

Swiftrank will be launching its first mobile booking app which will feature listings of airport hotels. The company has 12, 000 Web sites that provide hotel booking services.

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