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Friday, 1 October 2010

An industry reliant on faxing...

In a world of billions of web pages, natural use of email and tightly integrated web services - why is the fax still important for business in 2010?

The word fax derives from the Latin word "fac simile", meaning "make similar". The first patent for a fax was recorded in 1843 by Scottish inventory Alexander Bain who created a pendulum based back-and-forth line-by-line scanning mechanism. The first commercial fax machine, named the Pantelegraph, invented by Italian physicist Giovanni Caselli went into production in 1861. Fax machines were invented and in commercial use almost 15 years ahead of the invention of the telephone!

Whilst the fax machine has had a fair number of competitors over the years, it's still here and we see the number on the footers of our emails and the adverts in the paper. It's the easiest way to securely send a document quickly. Business' still don't trust the internet for the delivery of data; often we receive DVDs or memory sticks hand delivered with a small excel file due to the authors not trusting the delivery of sensitive data via email.

We all understand the fax is also sent over the telephone network and it's just a print out at the other end - so why fax over email? Emails can send encrypted files, but the end users may not have the relevant skills or software to decrypt the file. As a rule email is NOT secure. As the Met Police advise, you should never send any confidential information to anyone through email.. Moreover from a suppliers point of view accepting credit card numbers by email may be in breach of merchant agreements, and lead to penalties being imposed by banks.

Receiving a printed document still feels tangible - something you can touch - and important, just as you were to receive an invoice from a supplier, therefore it's still managed with care and attention.

Acceptance of faxes within hotels is a natural business requirement and an entire workflow runs from the messages received via faxes. Our Conferma Settlement Platform (CSP) utilises faxing technologies to communicate the payment details in a PCI DSS manner. It wouldn't be possible to communicate payment details/card data to hotels via any other standard delivery manner that is secure, accepted and with a prompt delivery time.

To remove the fax communication to the hotel entirely online booking systems and suppliers should adopt functionality to accept explicit payment details and payment restrictions. This is some years away from reality, until then the fax is here to stay.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Enabling Mobile Payments

With the launch of the iPhone App Store came a revolution, a restart and repositioning of what mobile applications should be. WAP was dead and mobile optimised websites were simply not good enough. Along came the mobile application; responsive, online, location aware and functional. Chasing after Apple's App Store came the Nokia Ovi Store, Windows Mobile Marketplace and Googles Android Market - each with their varied success, but all with a fresh look at enabling mobile applications for the end user. From games to sports, education to entertainment, navigation to news, productivity to photography - the applications available are broad in their appeal.

The highest downloadable applications have to be games - simple, addictive and on-demand, which are free in many cases. Newer games on all platforms are also coming into line with established handheld gaming devices such as the Sony PSP or Nintendo DS.

With regards to business applications however, download volumes are small. The availability of good business applications, be it hotel booking or general procurement applications are few and far between. There are many applications that provide location based hotel search, where the look to book ratio must be exhaustive. Mobile booking just isn't trusted. There are a few reasons for this; the client is using his or her phone so may as well dial the agent for them to book, the applications are not that user friendly or simply due to a slow connection speed where disconnects are frequent. However, one key issue stands at the fore, payment. Users still do not trust entering their card details into a phone for security reasons... Not to mention the vision of Mr Jones, the salesman, sat in a car park at 8pm, payment card in one hand, phone in the other - manually typing the card details into a phone with a sensitive keyboard or keys that are too small for his fingers. Not a great user experience.

Other attacks at the mobile payments are from the likes of PayPal or Google Checkout with mobile wallets, these are cumbersome in their implementation involving text messages and PIN numbers for authorisation.

Mobile purchasing only works successfully where you already have a card stored with the owner of the application, for instance you've stored your card on your Amazon account via the Amazon website, or your card details are already stored with Apple via iTunes. Essentially the accepted payment method, in a mobile purchase, is one click purchasing.

Earlier this year we launched the CSP On-Demand API, giving third parties access to the award winning CSP Platform in their own applications. This is being successfully rolled out at the moment with great momentum. Clients are learning that by not only linking in the system to their self-booking tools and desktop applications, that the mobile space is a fantastic opportunity to successfully take on. End users never have to see or enter a credit card into any application.

With the CSP On-Demand API and our card partners we're enabling mobile one-click payments to grow in the corporate procurement marketplace.

If you have a mobile application and are interested in learning more, get in touch.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Be brave upgrade!

As a software company we face the key question of 'how are we best going to provide our products to our user base?' At Conferma we want to ensure all our products are easily accessible to our clients and updates are made available instantly. To this end we chose to build web based solutions, opposed to desktop applications. This enables our clients to access all our latest releases through a web browser like Internet Explorer or Firefox.

Web Browsers essentially allow you to browse websites (pages/documents) on the internet which are delivered in a presentation language called HTML (HyperText Markup Language). HTML was originally designed to combat the multiple formats universities were using to create documents, by using one format, HTML. The idea was anyone anywhere in the world could access them over the network. The project was started by Sir Tim Berners-Lee whilst he was working at CERN in 1989. Since then the Netcraft Web Server Survey (December 2009) estimates there are over 233.8 million websites exposing over 20.3 billion web pages.

The user experience of websites has exploded over the past few of years (remember that 2007/8 buzz word "web 2.0"?), they've become smarter, faster, more intuitive, desktop-like and all round more powerful. The browsers have enabled developers to do more by offering better support for presentation (CSS), faster JavaScript engines (client side scripts) with AJAX support and application level functionality such as tabbed browsing, plugin support and enhanced security features.

At Conferma we're committed to increasing efficiency in T&E processes by removing the unnecessary items and automating processes where possible and with the release of Hotel Booker V4 we've done just that. We've brought the number of pages down from 8 to 3, enabling bookings to be placed in less than a minute and enhanced the speed of both the profile and booking search - it's quick!

Efficiency savings can also be gained by upgrading your browser, for instance did you know Internet Explorer 6 is over three times slower than Internet Explorer 7 and that Internet Explorer 7 is twice as slow as Internet Explorer 8?

IE6 has served its purpose, but the fact is it's one of the worst performing browsers in terms of security and speed and is no longer supported by Microsoft. As a technology provider offering products over the web we find IE6 actually stifles our development potential by using developer resource to ensure our sites support it, rather than letting them innovate.

We fully encourage users look at the available browsers and upgrade, older browsers are wasting your time...

Monday, 21 June 2010

Conferma and the BBC

There is a company who never fails to innovate in the UK, the BBC. Since its founding in 1922 the company has brought us technological media innovations matched by no other in its industry, from Radio to TV, Ceefax to NICAM, Freeview to iPlayer. I actually found myself watching the world cup on the iPlayer yesterday and it's amazing how much the BBC have developed that product over the past 30 months. Since the iPlayer launched the product has exploded with functionality; seven days catch-up, HD streaming, live streaming, subtitles, expansion to consoles and mobile platforms, series stacking, enhanced UI, favourites and social media integration - which is probably why in May 2010 they hit a whopping 130 million media requests. This is an example of a company who ceases to innovate work hard for its clients, the general public.

Conferma, like the BBC believes in driving innovation. Over the past year the team has broken new ground in the travel and expense industry and improved service to our customers.

To reflect on our achievements, here's just a few; we have...

- expanded our card partner line-up to include support for American Express and AirPlus, taking place next to Barclaycard Commercial!
- launched a range of innovative payment tools built on our award winning CSP platform; Event Trustee, CSP On-Demand API and CSP On-Demand Low Cost Air!
- saved our clients thousands of pounds worth of expense using our insightful Rate Analyser, offering in-depth market insight into hotel rates and their fluctuations!
- partnered with more agencies than any previous year!
- reached a great milestone of CSP usage in over 80 countries!
- migrated our entire data centre to the most advanced hosting technologies available, all without any customer impact!

Oh, and we completely rewrote our Self Booking Tool, named Hotel Booker V4! It's sporting a rather slick new design backed-up with powerful technology and innovation including; PNR integration, corporate travel policies, improved self-booking features including online client amendments, advanced additional information data capture, 80'000 hotel photographs, greater configuration options, etc.

Our clients have also enjoyed a good year with the updates to our Booking API and the launch of new CSP On-Demand API, which opens up our CSP Platform to allow clients to integrate into their established applications. It's really good to see clients integrating our services in new and exciting ways. For instance, earlier this year Micros Fidelio won the Travel Technology Innovation Award at the Travel Technology Show for their SABS Corporate tool, which is connected to our Booking API. Innovation backed up with our technology continues and there will be exciting announcements in this area soon.

As we are some 85 years younger than the BBC we have some way to go in matching their “institution” like status but like the BBC we are driving the innovation in our industry and watching others follow.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

The Randy Quaid hotel bill: time to use billback

The jailing this week of actor Randy Quaid (famous for being the drunken crop-sprayer in Independence Day and sheep farmer Joe Aguirre in Brokeback Mountain) and his wife shows just how expensive it can be if you fail to pay your bill when you leave a hotel. Expensive for hoteliers if you do a bunk and expensive for guests if they are subsequently caught.

The couple stayed at the exclusive San Ysidro Ranch in Santa Barbara, California last year, and it is alleged that they used an invalid credit card when paying the $10,000 tab. A standard room at the ranch, where Chris Martin of Coldplay and actress Gwyneth Paltrow got married, costs from around $545 a night. The Kennedy Suite, where JFK and Jackie spent their 1963 honeymoon, is a little pricier – $3,000 a night.

The Quaids were jailed not because of the bill itself – which has apparently been paid since - but because of their failure to turn up at court hearings. The judge was fed up with their no-shows and ordered them to be put behind bars. They got out four hours later after raising bail for a second time. Earlier bail payments of $40,000 have been forfeited, making it one very expensive hotel stay.

The couple wouldn’t have been in such a mess if they had been using the Conferma Settlement Plan system. The system uses virtual credit cards to make a payment on behalf of a travel management company, meaning that hotel guests do not use their own personal cards when they leave the hotel.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Volcanic disruption: how TMCs have been able to help stranded travellers

The eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland has stranded anywhere between 100,000 and a million travellers overseas, and it is travel agencies who have borne much of the brunt of helping those abroad trying to get home by whatever means necessary.

Many travellers who have not booked through a travel agency have had to resort to their own ingenuity to get home – buying bicycles to take advantage of cyclist fares on ferries and paying taxi drivers thousands of pounds to get home. If the latest news from the Government is to be believed, some travellers might end up hitching a lift on HMS Ark Royal.
It is at times like these that travel management companies come into their own for getting business travellers home. Consultants who deal with travel plans day-in, day-out for business travellers, are the best placed to know all the possible alternatives when flights are grounded.

Yet just knowing the travel alternatives is not enough, a consultant needs to know where the travellers are in the first place. Conferma’s booking API, used by a number of travel management companies, is a good place to start. It allows the TMC to search for travellers by location, helping them prioritise those travellers who are in the greatest need.

Several of Conferma’s agency customers have been using the API in just this way over the past few days, helping their corporate clients’ travellers extend their stays or find an alternative place to stay or means of travel.
It doesn’t yet include booking places on HMS Ark Royal but the wide range of options have come as welcome relief to many who have been caught up in this unprecedented event.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Rate Analyser: a glimpse into the future

Fast forward 10 years. The days of the 9-to-5 job for life have gone forever. The Con-Lib-Lab government elected in 2010 decided that Britain could only emerge from economic ruin by doing away with traditional working practices and introduced the ultimate in flexible working.

A Europe-wide e-auction system, introduced in 2012 after a £20 billion cost over-run, means that when you wake up each morning, a list of jobs for which you are qualified appears on your iPhone 5GS-3D holoscreen, You then tap in the minimum rate for which you are willing to work for that day. If you are successful you get out of bed and head to work, guided by the sat nav on your iPhone since you have probably never been there before.

It may sound far-fetched for employers to use technology in this way to pay their staff as little as possible but it isn’t really. Already, there are websites out there that do something similar. If you have ever needed to hire a designer, web developer, writer or PR expert, you might have come across a website called Elance which hands out work posted to freelance professionals based on the best price.
It is just the logical conclusion of the desire by people of today to get the best possible price for everything. People want to pay as little as possible for everything, whether that’s a freelance web geek or the latest CD from an X Factor runner-up.

Our own Rate Analyser tool for hotel bookings has the same idea behind it. This clever bit of technology hovers around in the background after you have made a hotel booking using our Hotel Booker tool. If the rate goes down before you depart for the hotel, it rebooks you at the lower price.

It really is a little piece of the future that has somehow found its way into the present. And if any employer out there wants us to build them a Wage Analyser, just get in touch.

Monday, 12 April 2010

The General Election, MPs and Westminster hotels

So, we are going to have a General Election on May 6. That means we have weeks of claim and counter-claim, statistics and bare-faced lies, polls and more polls to look forward to.

Despite that, the election is an interesting one for a number of reasons. The fact that the outcome is likely to be the closest for years means that there is more to play for, particularly for the smaller parties, than for a generation.

Secondly, we will see a record number of MPs replaced, largely due to the fallout from the MPs’ expenses scandal. At least 150 MPs have announced that they are planning to stand down at the forthcoming election. Many others may elect to join them after it was announced recently that golden goodbyes of up to £65,000 will be banned from the next Parliament. Going now rather than in five years could make a big difference to their “retirement”.

Those new MPs will be working under a new expenses regime that is still currently being finalised. However, it is already clear that there will be new restrictions on MPs’ use of hotels, with a cap on the amount they can spend if they need to stay the night close to the Houses of Parliament.

However, even with a price cap they will have plenty of choice.

New MPs looking for somewhere to stay close to the Houses of Parliament – or their travel booker in their constituency, whether that is their spouse, an otherwise unemployed son or daughter or merely an employee - could do worse than looking at our hotel booking tool Hotel Booker.

The hotel booking tool lists 150,000 hotels around the world. Just within a mile of the House, there are at least 50 hotels available to book.

Hotel Booker, which includes a natty mapping function, shows that the five closest hotels to the Houses of Parliament are the Hilton London Trafalgar Square, the Sanctuary House Hotel, the Premier Inn London County Hall, the Marriott County Hall and the Park Plaza Westminster Bridge.

What that means is that our new MPs – whoever they may be – will still be within running distance of the House should the Division Bell sound while they are still sleeping off a late-night session (parliamentary of course) in their hotel bed.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Booking the right hotel at the right price

This week’s Hotel Guest Survey, from research company BDRC, makes for interesting reading.

It shows that almost half of all business travellers have been asked to change their behaviour over the past 12 months in order to reduce costs. The survey showed that 44% of travellers have experienced an increase in the level of enforcement of their corporate hotel policies during the year. The most common change to policy has been the introduction of a cap on the rate that companies are willing to pay for their employees to stay overnight.

This is where a hotel booking tool, like Conferma’s Hotel Booker (http://www.conferma.com/Corporates/BookingEngine.aspx), comes in handy. A booking tool has the ability to enforce a new hotel policy without emotion. Yet a lack of emotion does not mean a lack of choice. Hotel Booker has a database of around 150,000 hotels worldwide, giving travellers a wide enough range of properties at every possible price point.

This works well for companies who just want to find the best rate on the day – something that is proving successful in a market where hoteliers are doing everything they can on rate to attract guests.

Yet Hotel Booker also helps those companies that have negotiated deals. Although the rate may not be the cheapest available, a night at a preferred hotel can come with other benefits – a better room, a more flexible cancellation policy or breakfast and internet access thrown in with the rate.

As well as cutting costs, Britain’s business travellers are also travelling slightly less. They spent four fewer nights away from home in 2009 than they did the previous year. Overall, UK plc spent 56 million nights in British hotels.

What is even more enlightening from the survey is the proportion of travellers who choose their own hotels – 53% of all travellers and a whopping 73% of frequent travellers. Since Hotel Booker can let you book a hotel in just three clicks, that gives time for highly recompensed executives to do what they are really paid for.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

The 2010 Budget: the impact for TMCs

Today’s newspapers are full of stories entitled “How YOU will be affected”. The annual round-up of how smoking and drinking single mothers, car-driving families with 2.2 children and pensioners will be affected by the Budget is as traditional as the appearance of the battered red briefcase outside 11 Downing Street.

But how will TMCs be affected by Chancellor Darling’s pre-General Election Budget?
For small TMCs, there are some extra benefits. The government is extending its Time to Pay initiative, which allows businesses to spread their tax payments over an agreed timetable.

Businesses will also enjoy a temporary increase in the level of small business rate relief. Small TMCs occupying properties with rateable values up to £6,000 will pay no business rates for one year from October while those benefiting from the rate relief taper (rateable values up to £12,000) will receive significant reductions.

One thing that was widely expected was an increase in the rate of VAT to 20%. Coming just after the return to 17.5% from the reduced rate of 15% on 1 January, perhaps this was unpalatable for the Chancellor when the election is just weeks away.
Travel management companies that have a significant number of clients in the public sector – a sector worth around £5 billion by some accounts – will have taken note of the Budget’s focus on costs.

It said that the Government had identified more than £11 billion that could be saved every year from 2012-13. High up on the list of ways to deliver these savings is the concept of “collaborative procurement”, a phrase scattered liberally throughout the full text of the Budget, made available just after the Chancellor sat down.
This means even greater efforts by Buying Solutions, the executive agency that looks after public sector procurement, in the area of travel. It will soon announce the winners of a vast £3bn tender to look after the travel requirements of everyone from central government down to local authorities.

There were no changes announced on air passenger duty. APD moved to a geographical footing base don the distance to the capital of the country where travelers are heading in November. Next November’s further increases are set to go ahead too. Looking at the small print, the Budget predicts that the unloved tax will raise £2.4 billion for Government coffers in 2010-11, up half a billion pounds on this year. To put that in context, that’s more than is raised by inheritance tax and almost as much as amount by the duty on whiskey and other spirits. Trebles all round!

Monday, 22 March 2010

Hotel bill extras: do you know what's being charged?

An interesting news item has emerged from across the Pond. In the state of Minnesota, a bill that would have prevented state employees from staying in hotels that offered pay-per-view adult films that included degradation or violence has been kicked into touch.

While we are making no judgments here at Conferma on the rights or wrongs of this decision, it raises an interesting point. How do travel managers ensure that what their company’s business travellers charge to their hotel bills is both acceptable and within the corporate policy?

In-room movies are big business – thought to generate several billions of dollars a year – and while many business travellers are probably relating to George Clooney in the business traveller film Up in the Air, many others are watching adult movies.

It’s not just about adult movies either. It could be any additional charge that a traveller puts on their room, be it the cost of using the minibar or doing their monthly laundry using the hotel’s in-house service.

This is where using the Conferma Settlement Plan (CSP) comes into the picture. By ensuring that every hotel payment is reconciled with its related booking, companies can check to see that the actual spend equals what was booked. Deviations from policy can be quickly identified.

As you may have seen last week, the availability of CSP is set to become wider too. We have just announced a partnership to offer travel management companies and hotel booking agencies using travel payment provider AirPlus the ability to do hotel direct billing.

The AirPlus Conferma Hotel Settlement Solution will be available to AirPlus’ UK customers from the end of April.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Hotel billback: the HMRC agreement

Hotel billback, where the payment of a business traveller’s bill is handled by a travel management company or hotel booking agency, has been overshadowed by changes to VAT legislation which could have seen corporate buyers facing sharply increased bills from 1 January. That was the date when new European VAT legislation came into force which meant that TMCs and HBAs could have been required to pass on VAT to their corporate clients, which they would subsequently be unable to claim back.

Representatives of the Hotel Booking Agencies Association (HBAA) and the Guild of Travel Management Companies (GTMC) have been lobbying HM Revenue and Customs to find a solution and an agreement was recently reached. The HBAA, for example, worked hard to make sure that whatever solution was reached should not be too onerous on corporate clients.

As a result of the agreement, billback suppliers now have to state explicitly they are working as an agent on behalf of the corporate client. TMCs and HBAs will no longer recover input VAT and charge output VAT and instead will charge a disbursement to the corporate client who will be able to recover the input VAT shown.
The agreement with the Revenue also calls for TMCs and HBAs to “identify on their invoices the hotel guest, their employer and ideally each will carry a unique reference number” (bold type ours).

Here’s where we at Conferma are able to help. Our revolutionary billback product Conferma Settlement Plan assigns a unique number to each billback booking – a virtual corporate card number - until the payment is reconciled.

Changes to tax and VAT legislation are never easy but the outcome has generally been positive. The changes will add some administrative burden to the TMC or HBA’s billback process and this may result in higher fees. However, they are unlikely to be anything like the 17.5% hike that having to pay the VAT would have meant.

Monday, 8 March 2010

The search for good hotel rates

Finding a good deal for a hotel room seems easy. You speak to a travel consultant on the phone and tell them when and where you want to go and seconds later they come back with a selection of properties and prices. Alternatively, you fire up your favourite travel search website, plug in your details and moments later you have a range to choose from.

Yet these two fast processes show little of the enormous amounts of technology that sit behind the consultant and the travel website.

There are hundreds of thousands of places to stay in the world, ranging from tiny bed and breakfasts to vast, modern hotels with thousands of rooms that are part of a global chain.

When you do a search, either using a travel agency or a website, the details of all of those hotels have to be searched in an instant and the rooms they have available and the rates they will charge returned to you to make your choice.

For a hotel chain, that is relatively easy. Each hotel in the chain has a property management system containing the availability and rates connected to one or more of the global distribution systems (GDSs).
For a small, individually owned hotel, things are tougher. They usually have a database showing available rooms while the rates change rarely, because they do not have the technical sophistication to adjust rates dynamically according to demand. Sometimes these databases are connected to the internet via a so-called switch company, enabling people around the world to peer inside that database of availability.
The secret of finding a good hotel rate is having access to the widest range of all these types of hotel. Conferma’s Hotel Booker, for example, has access to 150,000 hotel properties worldwide, covering all sizes and shapes of property.

But how can all of that data be crunched so quickly, to give you a rate within seconds? If the hotel is on a GDS, getting a rate quickly is not a problem. Yet that covers only a small proportion of available hotels and even then there may be problems accessing a hotel chain’s property management system fast enough.
The answer involves some clever technology similar to that used by Google when you search for something on the web. Google does not search the entire internet in real time when you enter a search term. Instead, it relies on a snapshot of the internet it has made itself prior to you doing your search.

In the same way, the hotel rate you are quoted on an internet site is not necessarily what you will end up paying because the rate is a snapshot.

As a result, the rates you see show a fine balance fast search and accuracy. Tools like Conferma’s Hotel Booker, however, go further than taking a single snapshot of rates. Instead, it creates a guide rate that is the average of recent booked rates. No guide rate is allowed to get more than 14 days old and as a result it is amazingly accurate. On average, the guide rate is 97% of the ultimate booked rate. What that means is that there is a much smaller trade-off between accuracy and speed. What you see really is (or very nearly is) what you get.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

How prompt payment can boost your business

If there is one thing that is virtually guaranteed in a recession it is that companies, particularly smaller ones, take longer to pay their bills. When cashflow becomes problematic, because the orders are not flooding in, it is very tempting for companies to start paying their suppliers later. Of course, those suppliers then have their own cashflow problems and this cascades its way throughout the economy.

What happens then is that companies that become known as prompt payers start becoming increasingly attractive to suppliers. Smart companies realise that by signing up to initiatives that promote speedy payment, such as the Better Payment Practice Campaign in the UK, can use it to their advantage.

The travel industry is little different. However, late payment can become an even bigger problem because of the thin margins that many in the industry work on.

This is where many of our products, based around virtual credit cards, can become incredibly useful.
Take Event Trustee, our credit-based, automatic invoice settlement tool. It uses virtual cards to automatically pay pre-agreed event costs at pre-scheduled times and reconciles each item with the same unique number when it is booked, billed or paid for.

It helps event management companies and other agencies organising events improve their cashflow in two ways. Since pre-agreed payments cannot be made until an invoice has been received, hotels invoice you as quickly as possible. This means you can invoice your clients sooner.

At the same time, because the invoice is paid for by a credit company initially, you have longer to settle the eventual bill.

But that’s not all. Since you are paying suppliers, such as hotels, more quickly they may offer you better rates to pass on to your clients. And if there’s something that can help you survive an economic downturn better than anything else, a happy client is it.

Sunday, 28 February 2010

Pop-ups and other unusual hotels of the UK

It had to happen sooner or later: the pop-up trend has spread to hotels. Pop-ups have been with us for the past few years. They probably started with the fashion store Comme des Garcons, which opened up guerrilla stores, temporary shops in unusual buildings such as piers, warehouses and galleries. Other stores followed suit.

The trend then spread to bars and restaurants, with one of the most successful being the Reindeer, a Christmas-themed restaurant set up inside the old Truman Brewery in London’s Brick Lane which remained open for just three weeks.

Now, London is to get a pop-up hotel for five nights in the middle of March thanks to hotel chain Radisson Edwardian. It has converted a luxury American Airstream caravan – one of those iconic stainless steel ones – into a temporary boutique hotel room complete with flat screen TV and sound system. The ‘hotel’ will change location every night and will stop in London Zoo, Alexandra Palace, the South Bank, Covent Garden and the Old Royal Navy College in Greenwich.

The news of the hotel got us thinking about other unusual hotels around the UK. Our Hotel Booker tool has details of over 150,000 properties and the list includes some weird and wonderful places to stay. How about these?

Auld Kirk Hotel, Ballater. This Victorian Scottish Free Church building within the Cairngorms National Park was converted into a six-room hotel in the 1980s.

Crazy Bear Hotel, Beaconsfield. Crazy name,crazy hotel. Walk in here and you feel like an extra in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge.

The Lime Tree,Fort William. This former clergy house overlooking Loch Linnhe is now an art gallery selling the works of landscape artist David Wilson and also offering B&B accommodation.

Malmaison Oxford. A former Victorian prison that still retains some original features including heavy metal studded doors, wrought iron stairs and three-inch thick steel doors.

The Old Railway Station, Petworth. The luxury of the Orient Express but without having to travel to Istanbul. This unusual property consists of four restored Pullman carriages and station house in the Sussex town.

If you own an unusual hotel that’s not on our extensive and fast-growing database, why not add it here?. It’s free to be included.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Why no-frills is set to become the new billback

The opening earlier this month of a business lounge at Stansted airport for passengers of Ryanair was greeted by incredulity by some, who mock the airline’s business credentials. Yet there are undoubtedly those companies that use the no-frills airline because it is convenient. Say you are a fast-growing company on the Cambridge Science Park and you need to visit the headquarters of the Santander banking group in northern Spain – Ryanair’s route between Stansted and the Spanish city is perfect for your needs.

Now what happens if you are the business travel agency who handles the account of that Cambridge research company? How do you handle those Ryanair flights? As has been well-documented, Ryanair shies away from involvement in the GDSs. Perhaps the only option is to make a booking on behalf of the client using the agency credit card and then charge that on to the client, along with a £10 or £15 booking fee.
That is all very well, but the process is time-consuming, reconciling the payment a challenge and it also carries the credit risk on behalf of the client.

This is precisely where CSP On Demand, which we launched this Valentine’s Day, comes into its own. CSP On Demand is the settlement part of our award-winning Conferma Settlement Plan hotel billback service. The difference is that it can be used for any type of travel booking made using a credit card that you need to track, including no-frills airlines.

CSP On Demand assigns a unique virtual credit card number to the whole process, meaning the travel management company can keep track of the booking and invoice, providing valuable management information to the client and transferring the risk onto the credit card provider, such as Barclaycard or American Express.

This could mean the ability to offer lower transaction fees for the no-frills booking or an added service – the MI – for which you can charge. If, like many companies on the Cambridge Science Park, becomes a world beater, needing to make more of those Stansted-Santander flights, that is good news for everyone.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Tina, Lisa and the future of hotel booking

In this age of austerity, many travel bookers will have become more familiar with Tina and Lisa. As travel budgets have been cut, many companies have decided to restrict their travel policies, making company travellers stay in lower rated hotels than they did in the golden age of the noughties when the mantra was often “anything goes”.

So who are Tina and Lisa? Anyone who has tried to make a Premier Inn or Travelodge booking over the phone will know them only too well. They are the automated telephone booking agents of the two budget chains. Tina, whose acronym means Travel Inn Now Automated, referring to the company’s former brand name, is based on technology from ScanSoft and Voice Genie while Travelodge’s Lisa is based upon speech recognition technology developed by a company called Fluency (now Syntellect).

Yet Tina and Lisa may eventually be forced into retirement. Online booking systems such as Conferma’s Hotel Booker interact directly with the reservations systems of the two companies through an API, bypassing the dulcet tones of Tina and Lisa. Luckily, Tina and Lisa are not easily upset and will probably go off to pasture without a whimper.

Indeed, the process may already have started. Just try to find the telephone booking number for Travelodge on its website. As with other travel companies who see the web as the future, such as easyJet, finding a telephone number is quite a challenge.

We should not be too worried. Tina and Lisa are both clever girls, but just try to get them to do something a little unusual and they will protest. Take our Rate Analyser tool. This will monitor the hotel rates for booked hotels. If the price dips, it will cancel and rebook at the lower price. Just try getting Tina and Lisa to do that.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

The inevitable VAT rise to 20%?

The Times this week reported that no matter which of the main parties wins the next General Election, and presuming that it isn’t the Lib Dems, we will see VAT jump to 20%. The paper reports that the move would generate an extra £13 billion for government coffers.

If the reports are true, it will mean that VAT will have jumped enormously this year. The rate only reverted to 17.5% from 15% on 1 January this year. There is clearly an enormous black hole in the public finances which needs filling and the VAT hike will go some way (although by no means all the way) to fill it.

The hike will worry travel buyers who are already concerned that they may have to pick up the VAT element on hotel billback transactions. The entry into force of the EU VAT Directive on 1 January seemed to indicate that TMCs would not be able to reclaim the VAT element of billbacks and instead would have to pass it on to the client. Buyers were inevitably nervous about the prospect of an additional 17.5% on top of their hotel bills. An extra 20% would be even harder to bear.

Whether buyers will have to pick up this charge is still uncertain. The legislation itself seems clear – that the VAT cannot be reclaimed (see http://www.hmrc.gov.uk/briefs/vat/brief7409.htm) – but there may yet have to be a test case on whether that is what HM Revenue and Customs will do in practice. Lawyers wanting to challenge the interpretation of the rule may choose to look at whether business travel agents should come under the definition of tour operators and whether billed back hotels really constitute part of a package.

Either way, it looks like we will all have higher VAT bills come the summer.

Travel technology: when yes sometimes means no

In the business travel sector, it's sometimes hard to take in everything that happens in the second week of February. This is when the Business Travel (not forgetting the new "and Meetings" bit) Show takes over London's Earls Court 2 exhibition centre.

It's hard because nearly everyone decides that this is the best time to launch new products and services because it is one of the only times that travel buyers, suppliers and media covering the sector are all together in one place. We often hear about senior company executives and members of the Royal Family flying separately to avoid a business or constitutional crisis. Goodness knows what would happen to the business travel industry should some disaster ever occur at Earl's Court that week.

But enough of the digressions. The point is that there is an awful lot of new travel technology unveiled at the show, some of it better than others.

It is buyer beware, however. Anyone who has ever dealt with technology suppliers will know that they often over-promise and under-deliver. When asked whether a new technology has a particular function, the given answer is usually "Yes, of course" when the real answer is "Oops, we forgot about that".

The point is that although it is easy to get caught up in jargon, it is more important than ever to check that the technology you are offered really does what it says on the tin.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

The most effective Man Utd players of all time

As a Manchester-based company, it is perhaps inevitable that football is a constant topic of discussion in the office. Debates over whether Best, Charlton or Cantona is the greatest player ever to grace the pitch at Old Trafford will always rumble on.

But for every footballing genius like Cristiano Ronaldo there’s a duff signing like Brazil’s World-Cup-winning-but-ultimately-useless Kleberson to balance things.

Manchester United’s long term success can be put down to many things – money and management among them – but what perhaps is the most important of all is the team. What managers like Sir Alex Ferguson know, and predecessors Ron Atkinson and Sir Matt Busby knew, is that Man U’s performance is not about any one individual – although Wayne Rooney is clearly trying to prove Ferguson wrong this season.

What does this have to do with travel? The successful corporate travel manager has to emulate Ferguson and his ilk, putting together the right team to succeed. In business travel, this is not just about people – although they are vitally important – but also about choosing the right technology.

Like those star managers, you need to ensure that the whole system of people and technology works together smoothly as a team. Conferma’s booking and settlement technology is part of that team. We don’t compare ourselves with those high-profile strikers mentioned above but rather see ourselves as the lesser known full backs, wingers and midfielders who have been part of the Red Devils over the years and worked hard to deliver success to the team as a whole. That’s how it should be with a technology company; the slicker the process, and the less you know about how we achieve tha, the better as long as we deliver the right end results – savings for your company.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Reduce, reuse, recycle.

Schools have always been known for teaching the three Rs – reading, writing and arithmetic – although in the past any child who pointed out that writing and arithmetic don’t begin with R would have earned a clip around the ear.

Schools these days have another three Rs that they are teaching their pupils – the environmental mantra of reduce, reuse, recycle.

It is a mantra that Conferma believes in too – and not just when it comes to the environment. CSP (the Conferma Settlement Plan) lets companies reduce the number of corporate cards they hand out to their employees and it reuses and recycles the card numbers in a very clever way.

Imagine you are a company with thousands of employees who regularly stay in hotels on business. You could issue corporate cards to all of those who travel. You could, but it could become logistically challenging and introduce greater risk of employee fraud. What if there were a way to create a bank of virtual cards which are used to pay for hotels only when they are needed. That is just what the CSP tool does.

Conferma has a very clever algorithm that works out the optimum number of cards to have in this virtual bank. When a hotel is booked, either through our own Hotel Booker tools or through a third party booking system based on our booking engine, the booking can be billed back to one of these virtual cards. That card is then taken out of circulation until the booking is reconciled, allowing the card number to be used as a virtual ID tag for the transaction.

In fact, because the card is only ever used in this virtual manner, there is no need to issue a card at all. What could be better for the environment than that?

Monday, 1 February 2010

OMG. TMCs, TLAs and APIs

The travel industry is full of TLAs – three-letter abbreviations. Sometimes when you read an article in an industry magazine, you need to keep a glossary beside you just to keep track. You probably have an SLA with your TMC – which might be HRG, BCD, FCm – and another with your HBA – possibly Expotel or NYS.
Both the TMC and HBA will use a GDS to make their bookings and, increasingly, those bookings are made online, through an SBT.

New TLAs are cropping up all the time. Another one that is starting to make an increasingly regular appearance in the news is API and it is one that is going to become increasingly important in the future.

API stands for application programming interface which sounds very techie but is just a way for two different pieces of computer software to talk to each other. The API usually consists of a set of instructions on the form in which data will be shared and how the two pieces of software will initiate a conversation.

The general public is coming to learn more about APIs through social networking tools like Twitter and Facebook. APIs allow you to update your Facebook status and have it updated at the same time on Twitter. APIs also help people develop what are called mash-ups on the web. For example, there are websites you can visit where pictures are pulled in from the photo-sharing site Flickr and overlaid on top of a Google Map showing where they were taken. An API has made this possible.

In travel, APIs are what allow no-frills airline easyJet to put its fares on the GDS. They are also what allows our Hotel Booker range connect directly with the hotel inventory of Travelodge and Premier Inn.

We also use APIs to allow travel management companies to incorporate our hotel booking technology into their own self-booking tools. It is the API that makes the process go smoothly and appear seamless from the perspective of the booker.

But we are not stopping there. One of the most innovative things we do as a company is the settlement related to these bookings. This raises the exciting prospect of creating not only an API that handles booking but also an API that handles settlement.

A settlement API allows travel management companies and other travel suppliers to handle the booking themselves – and that could be of anything from a hotel night to a no-frills airline or train seat - and then hand over the payment and reconciliation element to Conferma. That’s very smart. OMG, as you might say in the world of TLAs.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

The Awards Season

It is now 12 months since Conferma – along with its partners Barclaycard and Portman Travel – picked up the Business Travel World award for best business travel product. The award was for Hotel Tracker, our corporate hotel booking tool which helps streamline hotel payments for corporate companies, booking agencies and hotels.

The reason Hotel Tracker won the best business travel product award was simple – the tool helps travel management companies reduce the financial risk associated with making hotel bookings on behalf of their corporate clients. Many TMCs end up making bookings for hotels on their own corporate cards, making a manual note of the use of the card and then charging that on to the corporate client. But with lengthy delays in some cases in reconciliation by the hotel supplier, the TMC would then be unable to bill the client and receive payment until possibly weeks later.

Hotel Tracker gets round this by charging a hotel stay to a Barclaycard Business Hotel Tracker account on the guest’s departure. The tool’s booking and settlement platform then helps the tMC to track payments, provide data consolidation and issue prompt and accurate monthly transaction reports.

Before introducing Hotel Tracker, Portman Travel had four team members were responsible for reconciling invoices for the hotels division of the business alone. Naturally, the costs of that team were passed on to Portman’s corporate clients.

Winning an award was a great accolade but companies that gain industry plaudits sometimes rest on their laurels. Not Conferma. Since the award for Hotel Tracker, we have launched Rate Analyser, a browser-based, rate optimisation tool for hotel bookers and worked with some other major travel management companies on some very clever pieces of technology to make the settlement process as smooth as possible.

We like winning awards, of course, but knowing that our clients can be more efficient and save money by using our tools is reward enough for us.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Corporate New Year Resolutions

How are the New Year’s resolutions going? If you are most people, the answer is probably pretty badly.
Every year, there are countless surveys which aim to find out what the most popular resolutions are and the top few are inevitably the same from year to year (with a little shuffling), indicating that people clearly do not keep their resolutions from one year to the next.

The top resolutions, in no particular order, are to get your finances in order, lose weight and drink less. All are clearly inspired by the bloated and extended Christmas period immediately beforehand. In fact, two weeks into the new year, many people have already ditched their resolutions. One survey says that a third of people have broken their resolutions by the end of January.

Putting aside personal resolutions, what could corporate travel buyers resolve to do in 2010? Here are Conferma’s suggestions:
Spend smarter. You have been doing this already in 2009 but there’s no reason why you shouldn’t make every travel pound spent really count. This means tougher negotiating with suppliers and seeing whether a corporate deal or best price on the day is better for you.

Travel less. There is good travel and there is bad travel, no matter how well managed your organisation. Cut out some of the bad stuff – pointless internal meetings spring to mind.

Monitor your employees’ expense claims better. Do you really know what a scribbled ‘subsistence £120’ means on your employees’ expense return? Does it mean the odd glass of orange juice grabbed between endless meetings or is it indicative of the minibar being emptied?

Hang on a minute. This all looks very familiar – finances in order, lose ‘weight’ and drink less. Some things never change? Let’s hope your company manages to keep to these corporate resolutions better than most people do their personal ones.

Friday, 8 January 2010

The hotel key card myth and other security scares

If you travel on business and are of a curious nature, it is likely that during some idle moment on an otherwise busy trip, you will have stopped to wonder what exactly gets stored on the various cards you have on your person.

There is the old chestnut about room keycards, for example. There are plenty of scare stories going around about how key cards contain enormous amounts of personal data, including your credit card number, date of birth and – if you believe the scariest of the scare stories – the full details of any in-room movies you might have watched last night.

In fact, while hotel keycards have the potential to store any sort of data – including your lottery numbers if you so wish – they are configured only to use the scantest of essential information. This usually means your room number along with date and time of arrival and departure. The idea that they are encoded with your credit card data is an urban myth.

The information held on the magnetic strip of your credit and bank cards is another source of intrigue, not least because of the headlines about card readers attached to ATMs that regularly surface.

In fact, thanks to an organisation called PCI, you can find out exactly what’s on your magnetic strip and you can see this below.

As you can see, there is very little space for information and most of it is the same information that is printed on your card but in an electronic form.

But unlike hotel key cards, there is some information on your magnetic strip (or increasingly on the chip) that could come in very handy for a scammer and that is the information to the right of the diagram labelled with the words VIOLATION TO STORE.

These last few pieces of information relate to your PIN and the three-digit security code printed on the front or back of your card. It is exactly this information that means the use of credit and other financial cards is much more tightly regulated than hotel key cards.

This is where PCI comes in. This global forum was set up in 2006 by five payment companies including American Express, Mastercard and Visa. One of the key functions of PCI is to set standards for the handling for this sensitive information - the so-called PCI DSS specification.

The specification is highly prescriptive, making it hard for just anyone to set themselves up to handle cards and that is as it should be. We know how important security is and that’s why we are PCI DSS compliant.

So now you know what’s on the back of your card, you can rest easy in the knowledge that no-one else will find out.

Monday, 4 January 2010

Conferma and Neutrality

It is now almost a year since Conferma won the award for best business travel product at the 2009 Business Travel World awards.

The award highlighted Conferma’s relationship with two of its partners Barclaycard Commercial and Portman Travel. Yet many people do not realise that Conferma works with many partners on a neutral basis – you could say it is the Switzerland of the corporate travel world.

Conferma has a clear policy of working with many different GDS companies, direct content suppliers, travel management companies and card providers.

While most people associate us with Barclaycard for the latter of these categories, we actually work with others too in this spirit of neutrality. Our recent deal with American Express is a case in point.

The deal means that American Express Global Commercial Card customers can use the Conferma Settlement Plan facility. It works by using a virtual American Express account number and travel bookings can be tracked right from the moment that something is booked to the point it is settled.

You won’t see us working with every Tom, Dick and Harry – we do have standards, naturally. Yet a whirlwind has hit the travel sector, bringing the barriers between companies that tended to work in their own little silos crashing down. This “glasnost” – in part prompted by the internet - is not over yet. At Conferma, we fully intend to continue in that same spirit and hopefully, with the support of our many partners and customers, win a few more awards along the way.