Sabre Travel Network versus Travelport: Who Knows What About Being Social?

A Cautionary Tale

I’m about to offer you two bits of information. One is probably something you learned a long time ago. The second bit is news, a comparative of two major companies, in a way. Sabre Travel Network and Travelport are two huge online travel players, and dogged competitors mind you. What occurred yesterday, I think you will find interesting, if not downright funny – even ridiculous.

Origins of News, Fluffy PR Goofs, and Arrogance?

ITB in Berlin is the world’s biggest travel trade show. Stories that arise out of that conference, usually things worth covering, things people at both ends of the B2B and B2C market should know about, and then there are “fluff” stories. You know, products or services some corporate genius decided to hype a bit, which should have been refined some more before the horns went off.

Well Sabre Travel Network released a German version of hosted social platform AgentStream just for ITB Berlin. Laid on top of Sabre’s proprietary Cubeless product, AgentStream is designed for the “brick and mortar” travel agent primarily. Sabre has some 200,000 in their network worldwide (remember that number), who probably should start migrating thought to digital, but that’s another story.  I ran the story about this, off of a Tnooz report.

AgentStream’s landing page. Note the fields where agents are separated from us “outside influencers” – woe be it for Sabre Group if a Michael Arrington, Richard MacManus, or Pete Cashmore ventured in this port.

As you can tell by the title, “Sabre Launches AgentStream Germany With Resounding Thump” my analysis of the product was not complimentary. The gist of the scathing report was, “A company with Sabre’s resources should never have a far more refined product after three years.” However, just a few dead links and a mediocre landing, is only the tip of the iceberg. What’s was inside, and the B2B interactive to come, is the real story. Bear with me, it is circuitous.

Not 49 minutes after my article went live, Sabre’s Social & Community Product Marketing Manager,  Sarah Kennedy Ellis (a lady who speaks before PhoCusWright conferences) , was making in depth comments  – even adding me on Twitter (and tweeting my exclusion below  –  I felt unworthy). How’s that for wired? The track taken, the insinuation, and ultimately the quality of the engagement B2B and B2C wise, went way South. What should have been an opportunity for AgentStream to gain feedback and make progress, turned into a ham handed segue into more corporate dogma and hype?

The image below is self explanatory. However, Sabre did not take into account an old beta tester would stay logged in. Opps.

Ellis tossed out the numbers, the defense posture, the techno mumbo jumbo, of product manager blathering – the warning siren “BS is headed your way.” A barrage of pseudo intellectual jibber jabber ensued, in comments and on Twitter, and just my “mention” of competitor Travelport’s Opinion platform? Fuel for another rant of directed angst toward our readers (you guys). Here is an excerpt.

“I’m actually quite glad you brought up many of the points you refer to in your post so they can be addressed. Regarding AgentStream being the “largest travel agent community in the world” – simply put, based on the facts, it is.

The term that seems to continue to be “fudged” in reality is what defines a “travel professional” related to these private communities where travel agents are told they can securely exchange information between other agents.

In the case of the other community you mention, it is not exclusive to travel agents, while it may imply that it is in its marketing materials.

That community’s membership numbers include nearly 1,000 employees of Travelport, as well as apparently any other warm body who happens to wander onto the site to register. How do I know? I’m one of them…”

The interchange became a rather lengthy discourse I will not burden you. As you can see, Sabre’s representative (who happens to be the community manager inside AgentStream too) is, let’s say “proud” at best.

Reality Smacks

AgentStream, nor Travelport’s Opinion, can lay claim to being the world’s largest travel agent community. The former asserts they have 4,000 + agents using the platform (define use), and the other actually proved me proof the have 7,100 signed up. Well, it took me one Google search to discover at least one, Travel Agent Central, that gets that many visits in a day. Okay, Ellis will argue TAC is not a true “Facebook” like community, blah blah. I looked for 5 seconds to find one such arguable site.

And furthermore, AgentStream is supposed to be a “walled garden” where travel agents in the Sabre network can ask important questions and prosper via community. Profiles, Q&A, mini-blogs, you know, all the bells and whistles of Facebook – aimed at being a resource. But an agent of the company, bragging about user exclusivity and privacy, the “pickiness” Ellis referred to from Sabre – should have prevented me from gaining access in the first place.

Below, the already successful Vinivi travel startup – probably the best in France.

Sabre evidently was not as meticulous as they needed to be, a product tester of some refute just waltzed in and took the screens you see. Conversely, Travelport’s representative sends an email – in a nice, and genuinely professional way.

Katherine Boyns, Project Coordinator for Vinivi (above), the travel innovators who Travelport wisely decided to use to create Travelport’s Opinion platform, invited us to give their competitive variant a spin. Not only was the result dramatic (as some of the labeled screens suggest), ultimately Boyns connected me with CEO of Vinivi, Gilles Granger straight from ITB Berlin.

Now we’re set for the “night and day” exemplification of perfect social media engagement (Brian Solis may use this as a case study for Engage II). Who knows why, maybe it was Boyns’ time as Manager of Marketing at Ernst & Young, the characters in this dialogue between me, Sabre, and essentially Travelport, could not have been more divergent.

Clearing Smoke

Here’s a  break down comparative of Sabre’s AgentStream versus Travelport’s Opinion, into the simplest terms. Both platforms have value. Neither platform is taking the world of travel agents by storm. Opinion, from what I have seen, has 10 times the user value. Most importantly for potential users of these systems of engagement – Travelport, nor Vivivi claimed anything bogus or in the least bit inflated about their product. In fact, Gilles Granger asked my feedback and collaboration where agent conversion is concerned.

And Sabre? The end of enumerable tweets, no email, and my supposed expulsion from the super duper, top secret enclave of Texan technological thought (sorry, love Texans, but)? My request to speak with someone for the sake of fairness left me directed at normal PR channels (final screen). The tweet below came after Sabre argued to like Karnak the magnificent that tens of thousands of travel agents utilize this immensely engaging tool in their daily travel business doings. The largest travel agent community on Earth, where:

  • Tnooz travel bits are broadcast across the breadth of AgentStream and their group engagement totals 61 living souls
  • The AgentStream “Newbies” group tasks the Sabre servers with 58 members
  • The all critical Social Media Marketing & Technology group hosts a staggering 103 members
  • A massive total of no less than 12 groups have been created in almost three years
  • 71 agent mini-blogs have been created
  • And the fearless leader of AgentSearch, Sarah herself, has been viewed 941 times

If you are not chuckling by now, factor in that since June 2008 only 71 questions have been asked of the throngs of inquiring agents. Also, a search for questions pertinent to Paris for instance, reveals 21 travel agents in the Sabre network desirous of any tidbit about that destination.  And then there is are the aesthetics, the UI, nav, the drill down – end user value. The problem being, Sabre has massive resources at their disposal, and just exaggerated and defended what can only be described as a mediocre digital tool.

The image below shows the minimalist nature of Opinon.

Onward and upward to Travelport’s Opinion (landing above), which Sabre Group’s watchdog tried to pummel into middle Earth in my comments, and in the ensuing twitter exchanges etc. Neither Katherine Boyns, nor French travel startup Vivini’s CEO Gilles Granger, has the slightest derogative for AgentStream.

The screen shot below (sorry you can’t see well) shows a bit of the depth of Travelport’s offering to agents. There is actually no comparison at all between AgentStream and Opinion.  Users of the latter have the simple and the complex options available.

If you want to be met with humility and correctness, contact either of these people. As for their product, the same transparency and credibility shined through. Opinion has exactly 7614 signups (their term) as I write this. Nothing I asked of these people caused them to hold back, I have to say this. Beside the screen history I provide, the list below encapsulates Opinion versus AgentStream.

  • Groups for Opinion were only added two months ago – they now total 23
  • Opinion has a far deeper platform and refined features comparatively
  • Search, databases, community interaction wise, Opinion dwarfs AgentStream
  • Aesthetically, and bug wise, Opinion seems to exhibit far fewer even if more complex
  • The only negative I could find is a bit of UI inflexibility – and admitted lack of Opera support
  • Opinion’s “Find an Expert” aspect alone makes it a more valuable tool

I could go on and on about the differences here. In Sabre AgentStream’s favor I must admit the interface is far simpler and easier to navigate. But then too, there is so much less depth, so many fewer needed nav elements – the comparison I made when talking about these was; “Comparing AgentStream to Opinion is like describing a bicycle to the space shuttle.” It’s easy to have a clean user interface when it only has three buttons.

The image below, one of 35 screens I had to take to grab Opinion function, reveals an agent’s view of a Google API enhanced, Wikipedia enhanced, map element Vinvi created for Travelport. In a closed system or community, such enhancements are crucial to user value.

My problem here, should be anyone’s problem. The best a billion dollar company can come up with is a LinkedIn wanna be? Then they beat up an industry expert about it?

Just Vinivi’s agent/map aspect enables agents more than playing 20 questions within a “so called” platform. Let me get off Sabre’s case for a moment. Aren’t you sick and tired of companies who continue to try and baffle you with BS? Are you sick of arrogant corporate types who do not even have the common decency to figure out with whom they are exchanging? What does behavior say about the underlying products we consume?

Summary Judgments

In all honesty, neither of these products is the YouTube of disruptive technology innovation. Either can improve dramatically, but which one will? When I spoke with Gilles Granger, from ITB Berlin, with questions about a secondary product he created; my own sense of values was re-invigorated – there are people who work for huge companies that can act appropriately still – there’s hope for the “conversation” after all. Products, companies, are reflections of the people behind them. Once your customers or clients understand this reality – there is no going back.

Texas (Sabre Group is headquartered there) is famous for hospitality and a bit for cowboy arrogance too. The balance stuck there is admirable if you think about it. We all admire the state, it’s legacy, and the strong character of the people there. But, what if the balance shifted and arrogant cowboys were all we understood?  This is Sabre’s dilemma, your dilemma too. I leave you with the final Twitter message exchange, right after a request to do a like interview to tell Sabre’s side of things. The rest I leave to you.