Except for the airlines and their central reservations systems, the travel industry has never been accused of being on the leading edge of the technology curve. Computer automation in the offices of tour operators was particularly slow to catch on.
In the past 5 years, however, many operators have taken automation seriously by acquiring software solutions that integrate the functions of separate programs into a single, comprehensive, multi-featured program. These solutions can perform all of the critical tasks required to operate a business and many solutions can be customized to better fit the needs of a particular business or product model.
Your business may be considering stepping up to an integrated software solution and the prospect of such a change may instill feelings ranging from exultation to stone cold fear. No worries; here are five things to consider when selecting a software solution as the plan is put in place. (You do have a plan, right?)
1. What the Software Needs to Do: Compile a list of the tasks. Ask everyone who will use the solution to make a list of their top 10 tasks. Be specific: Weekly Sales Reports by City, print invoices or e-mail receipts are specific features. It is also important to identify the information that needs to be stored or tracked such as customer names and addresses; vendors who send holiday gifts; past trip history; specific travel requirements; and more.
2. Custom Designed or Pre-Written: You will find that almost any type business has a choice of pre-written, off-the-shelf software solutions. These will include basic functions such as customer relations management (CRM), sales, accounting, vendor and product management and reporting, tailored for your specific industry or product. Pre-written solutions can save a great deal of time and money over custom solutions – they come pre-tested and ready to run. Custom solutions provide the best fit if your business is truly unique but time, money and the patience of Job will be required. My recommendation: a pre-written solution that allows a great deal of customization offers the best of both worlds.
3. Where the Solution Will Run: Your business solution will typically be shared by all or most of the computers on your office network. It can be hosted on a local computer or it can be hosted on a server somewhere on the Internet. The functions of your solution will determine the best method of hosting. Solutions or applications that are more specific or generic in function make good candidates for internet hosting. Internet applications are developed to be a “one-size-fits-all”, they are generally “rented” and they are not as customizable as an in-office solution. On the other hand, solutions that have a broader range of functionality or are more customized are better implemented on your local network. For your development dollar, generally you can get more features if the solution is designed to be hosted on your local network. Other considerations: security, backups, access to your data. If the solution and data are in your office, you have more control.
4. Budget: Set a realistic budget by speaking with other, similar companies who have recently implemented a solution. Trade groups are a good source for contacts. Don’t forget to consider required hardware upgrades, customization of the solution, training and support.
5. Demonstrations and References: One would assume that the salesperson can make the software look good but try to find one that has practical experience in your line of business. Ask about the developers or programmers, it’s a big plus if they have experience in your industry beyond the “programming”. Speak with actual users about their implementation experience, software’s performance, solution’s reliability, customer service team, scalability, and more.
When an integrated software solution is thoughtfully selected and systematically integrated into the office’s operation, the return on investment can be immediate and huge. Any office task you might think of can be completed more quickly with a well-designed, integrated solution. Rooming lists can be generated with a button click instead of editing or typing a document. Accounting reports can be automatically updated if a reservation changes, and invoices or receipts can be automatically queued and delivered. Tours or a series of tours can be “set up” in the system ready for booking with no more effort than creating the first one.
I like to tempt potential clients with the thought that they can start work at 9:00 in the morning and with the dramatic, time-saving performance of their integrated software, they will be finished by 9:15 a.m. Well, maybe 9:30 a.m. including time for a cup of coffee.