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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.