An exploration of modern cloud-based booking management systems, with insights from experienced booking engine developer Peter Downie, Wodu Media CEO and Creative Director.
1. What is Res Tech?
2. The Dawn of Reservation Management Systems
3. Online Booking Systems: The Primary Players
1. What is Res Tech?
Res tech is travel, tour and activity industry shorthand for reservation technology. Also referred to as booking management systems, booking engines, online booking systems, and online reservation systems, res tech includes any software platform that helps a tour and activity operator or any experience-based business automate on-site and/or online booking, ticketing, and payment operations. Careful selection and effective deployment of powerful res tech is a key to staying competitive in a marketplace that is increasingly going online and global.
Most booking management platforms today also offer back-end tools to support a wide range of day-to-day business activities such as reservation tracking, real-time inventory management, employee scheduling, marketing functions, guest communications, business data analysis and reporting plus much more. Some res tech providers offer the tools and support needed to build a branded, optimized website that interfaces with the booking management system.
Having one platform that integrates many essential operations greatly improves efficiency, reduces administrative and customer support costs, frees the owner/operator to work on business development, and can lead to increased revenue. Perhaps most importantly, a good booking management system delivers a nearly frictionless conversion and booking experience on the customer-facing side, or front end.
Accessed via a Book Now button on your tour and activity website, a low-friction booking journey directly translates to more customers. According to Peter Downie, CEO and Creative Director at Wodu Media, a successful Florida USA-based tour and activity website development firm and a destination management company with global reach, a Book Now button giving instant access to a booking engine with live inventory is one of the top 5 “must have” features on a great tour, activity, and attraction website. When asked to provide one sentence capturing the most important rule in tour and activity website development, Peter joked “Make the Book Now button bigger.”
Make the Book Now button bigger.
Peter Downie, Wodu Media CEO]
All joking aside, it is critical to present your website visitors with a simple booking process requiring minimal effort. For example, forms are a source of friction in the conversion process, and studies have found a clear relationship between the complexity of required forms and conversion rates.
As a tour and activity operator, you are selling leisure items and your prospects are looking for enjoyment and relaxation, not work. You need to automate as much of the booking process as possible, and design the information-gathering portion of that process for maximum simplicity and ease. Appropriate res tech is the key to reaching this objective.
Leverage the Power of OTAs
With the online travel booking business passing the $10 billion dollar-per-year mark and growing rapidly, the online travel agency (OTA) is taking over from the face-to-face travel agent to become the option of choice for most travelers. Now the travel industry’s largest source of bookings, the OTA has become the big box store of travel, delivering everything from flight tickets, hotel rooms, and car rentals to day tours and activities all in one stop. Consumers can use websites or mobile apps to access their favorite OTA and do self-service from the very first research steps to final booking and ticketing.
Expedia Holdings in the USA and Booking Holdings in Europe are the two dominant operators in the OTA space. These giants control brands spanning regions and categories, cover all corners of the globe and every travel niche, and pull in the majority of online travel bookings. Aside from managing traffic from their own websites and local sales channels, small independent tour and activity operators can utilize a booking management system to engage these powerful OTAs and access massive global markets.
2. The Dawn of Reservation Management Systems
When air travel became popular in the early 1940s, expanding demand brought with it the need to deliver ticket booking services to thousands of passengers. Early systems based on ticket agents at phone desks accessing rotating “Lazy Susan” files of index cards holding flight and seat data could require up to 1.5 hours for a single booking. All flight and passenger information was checked manually and tickets were filled out by hand.
Computer punch-card technology had just entered the flight booking arena in 1953 when a chance meeting between American Airlines president C. R. Smith and IBM sales rep R. Blair Smith on a flight from Los Angeles to New York led to a collaborative work on a semi-automated business research environment. Development completed in 1964, and the system, called SABRE, became the first computer reservation system (CRS), a closed-platform booking tool for use in the airline industry.
American Airline’s success with SABRE pushed other airlines to get their own systems. In response to this demand, IBM created the Programmed Airline Reservation System, or PARS. Meanwhile, European airlines had been working on their own systems, beginning in the early 60s with CORDA from KLM and SASCO by Scandinavian Airlines. Soon airlines were processing massive volumes of bookings and revenues were increasing.
But travel agencies remained in the fully-manual mode, calling ticket agents at the airline to check seat availability and writing out tickets for customers. Travel agents were a valuable sales channel for airlines, and in order to boost their productivity, they had to be given direct access to the airline’s reservation systems. In 1976, American Airlines and United Airlines contracted access to their SABRE and Apollo reservation systems to travel agents. Other US-based airlines soon followed.
A travel agent would enter a long-term contract with a carrier, and the airline would provide terminals, training, and software support. When the airlines were deregulated in 1978, carriers began to share CRS access on a commission basis, allowing travel agents to access multiple airlines on a single terminal. This was called the Global Distribution System (GDS), a preview of airline ticket booking as we know it today. By 1985, 60% of all airline bookings were coming from travel agencies, and 90% of travel agents were accessing the CRSs.
Booking Systems Go Online
Competition, acquisition, consolidation, and innovation continued in the computer reservation space, and when the Internet became available in the 1990s, SABRE and CIS Technologies created ESAASY SABRE, a subscription-based platform credited as being the first online booking tool. ESAASY SABRE was incorporated as a web application by early online service provider America Online.
SABRE went on to launch the Travelocity online travel agency in 1996. Travelocity was the first service that let consumers reserve and purchase airline tickets through a website. Now, Travelocity, Expedia, Priceline, and Booking.com are household names. In 2021, US-based travelers booked 20% of their flight tickets and 33% of their hotel rooms online, and if the present rate of growth continues, around 700 million people will have made an online travel booking by 2023.
3. Online Tour and Activity Booking Systems: The Primary Players
Advances in Internet speed along with the rise of mobile computing and smart phone applications empower in-destination tour, activity, and attraction providers to follow the airline model of automating the reservation and ticketing processes. They can do this by choosing among the dozens of res tech platforms have arisen in a space where capabilities have rapidly evolved along with technology. The COVID pandemic pushed even more tour and activity operators to expand and optimize their online footprint, and booking management software adoption is becoming an industry standard.
The big OTAs are also expanding their reach beyond flights, hotels, and rental cars into tours, activities, and attractions. Branded OTA spin-offs like Expedia Local Expert and TripAdvisor Experiences along with online tour, activity and attraction marketplaces such as Klook, GetYourGuide, Musement, Tiqets and many other digital distributers are crowding the market.
Most reservation management systems support integration with the OTAs and other marketplaces. But to avoid complete reliance on the large online resellers (with their hefty commissions), independent operators need to bring in direct bookings with a high-quality tour and activity website that offers the same type of easy booking experience found at on OTA.
This calls for the installation of a Book Now button that leads your website visitors into an optimized booking flow process. Or maybe even the development of a complete custom-designed website optimized around a specific cloud-based booking management system. Both solutions are readily available with today’s res tech, and several platforms have risen to the top of the pack.
Fareharbor was launched in Hawaii in 2013 and has since grown to be one of the world’s most popular booking management platforms. According to Peter Downie, “So many suppliers have adopted FareHarbor in such a short period of time that it became the killer app—almost the defacto booking application. FareHarbor is capable of providing so many different detailed options that no one can match it.”
So many suppliers have adopted FareHarbor in such a short period of time that it became the killer app.
Peter Downie, Wodu Media CEO]
Now headquartered in Amsterdam Netherlands, FareHarbor is cloud-based booking software embedded in a complete business management platform that offers a comprehensive suite of the tools a tour and activity provider needs. A wide range of features, advanced reporting including conversion tracking, full integration with Google Analytics, connectivity with hundreds of popular apps, API connections to major OTAs and other affiliates, low credit card processing rates, and a highly-functional backend dashboard have propelled FareHarbor to the front of the res tech pack.
FareHarbor is also rolling out hosted, managed websites built on WordPress content management system templates designed specifically for selling tours, activities, and attractions. The sites are mobile-optimized and made to be user-friendly so operators can add and edit their own content as needed. Full support and website optimization services are available to FareHarbor users along with access to a library of training materials and a knowledge base compiled by one of the most experienced res tech providers on the web.
The Peek Pro cloud-based tour and activity booking platform launched in 2012 and now draws on over 650 Capterra 5-star ratings to support a claim of being the most trusted res tech software. A mobile friendly front-end booking flow developed over the process of more than 1 billion user experiences, fast POS booking functions, a QR code-based guest check in feature, and a full stack of business management and marketing functions on the back end are just a few of the features that place Peek Pro near the top of the booking engine hierarchy.
A Book Now button with customizable colors and multilingual booking flow options, embeddable multi-activity calendars, schedules, and specialized tools for delivering private tours are some of the features Peek Pro can add to an existing tour and activity site. Support for booking multiple experiences in one booking flow, automated upselling, customizable preset packages, and a multi-day itinerary builder distinguish Peek Pro from some of the other platforms out there.
A free digital waiver app built in to the check in system with unlimited waiver storage is useful for adventure tours. This system also operates to collect the email addresses of all guests, with Zapier integration to feed that information directly into marketing platforms. Another interesting Peek Pro feature is photo capture of everyone who signs a waiver; this protects against chargebacks and confirms signer identity. As a time- and labor-saving measure, these check in features can all operate in a self-check in kiosk mode.
Peek Pro also connects to the Peek.com tour and activity marketplace that offers tours and activities in a wide range of destinations along with an interesting variety of virtual experiences for use in team-building and client engagement programs. The Peek Pro website offers a good overview of platform functions with demo operations available for many of them. A noticeable minus point there is the lack of any information on packages and pricing. And, while Peek Pro appears to deliver a powerful, enterprise-level res tech tool set, no bespoke website building function is available.
Founded by an experienced tour operator, named as a play on the words “reservation ready” and headquartered in Australia, Rezdy offers the comprehensive feature set of a full-suite booking platform oriented toward experience-based businesses.
On a relatively user-friendly, well-supported platform, Rezdy delivers all the resource management, marketing tools, reporting functions and sales channel integration capabilities that are now expected components of any comprehensive booking engine. The platform’s front end has a clean, simple feel that helps to make the booking process fast and comfortable no matter what type of device a guest is using.
Along with the essential booking button feature that puts access to live inventory on an existing tour and activity website, Rezdy offers pre-templated one-click website creation. By coupling this feature with immediate access to over 100K products at destinations around the globe in the Rezdy marketplace, a tour and activity reseller could be up and operating within an hour or two.
The cloud-based Rezdy platform comes in 3 monthly base charge + booking fee pricing packages, with a 21-day, no credit card required free trial available and customized platform and payment options possible for high-volume users. The RezdyPay integrated payment gateway can be branded to match an existing website. Powered by Stripe, RezdyPay supports 6 major currencies at present (AU, NZ, US, EU, UK, CA) with more to be added. Coupling the Square card reader with the Rezdy mobile app or manually keying in customer details make walk-up and POS bookings and payments possible. Speaking of payments, weekly rather than monthly payouts and instant refund processing are two attractive aspects found with Rezdy.
Of the platforms reviewed here, the Rezdy website has the most user-friendly feel and a generous sprinkling of informational videos, while the platform’s user resource base claims to be the world’s largest data base of tour and activity industry-related content.
The Zaui online reservation system was developed in 1999 and initially launched in Canada as a transportation booking management system for a shuttle company moving passengers from Banff to Calgary. It is one of the oldest booking management systems on the market and is distinguished by its inclusion of a selection of tools specifically designed for ground transportation providers. The company also produces Zaui Stay, an all-in-one hotel Property Management System.
Zaui comes in a multitude of configurations with a very broad catalogue of features aimed at making the platform customizable for specific purposes in the tours and activities, transportation, ticketing, and rental sectors. Mobile and point of sale apps, multicurrency and multilanguage support, multiday tour package handling, custom tourism website development and optimization plus many more capabilities put Zaui up there with the most flexible and powerful res tech platforms on the market. In addition, the Zaui user resource base is one of the most extensive encountered in these reviews and includes API documentation and a number of case studies.
The Zaui free version is something startup, small, and seasonal operators might want to consider. It comes with everything the more expensive enterprise version offers except for API access and a choice of payment gateways (Free version users must sign up with Zaui partner gateway Stripe.) When bookings come in, a consumer booking fee of 6% applies. This arrangement makes it possible to transition to online res tech without being tied to monthly payments.
TrekkSoft launched in 2012 as a booking software platform for tour and activity companies in the Interlaken region of Switzerland. Like Rezdy, TrekkSoft was designed by experienced tour and activity providers who know in detail about the type of problems that come up daily in the business. With growth and a series of acquisitions, by 2018 TrekkSoft was in use by tour and activity operators in 138 countries around the world.
The TrekkSoft platform allows operators to place a Book Now button on their existing websites or create branded websites with complete marketing, booking, and payment capabilities. TrekkSoft also builds customized packages for high-volume enterprises, and the platform has all of the back-end features needed to run a tour and activity operation of any size.
Live resource and inventory management, point-of-sales booking support, routine task automation, guest communication, analytics, reporting and more are there to support all phases of operation. Extend and manage sales channels via integrations with Expedia, Viator, and other OTAs along with connections to hundreds of 3rd party tools through Zapier. A customizable payment gateway lets users create individualized payment policies, and a card reader for mobile devices supports offline payments in the field.
High-volume enterprises can arrange monthly payment solutions, but smaller and seasonal operators will benefit from the TrekkSoft fee per booking payment arrangement. Integrate the booking management system with an existing website to get access to online booking capabilities, resource management tools, an integrated payment gateway, and a sales channel manager with connections to over 30 OTAs then only pay when guests make bookings.
Xola emerged from the San Francisco tech scene in 2011 with a stated mission to be a provider-focused res tech platform. Known for ease of use and a rich array of marketing-focused tools, Xola claims to be the only unified booking, sales, and marketing platform for tour, activity, and attraction operators.
Xola comes as a Book Now checkout button or a booking storefront plugin that can be added to WordPress websites. The mobile-optimized checkout draws on conversion science to make booking a 30-second process with minimal form fields and no redirects to detract from the customer experience.
Marketing tools include campaign spend performance tracking with integrations for Facebook Pixel, Google Analytics Ecommerce, and custom conversion tracking. Abandoned cart remarketing follow-ups are useful for capturing more bookings, and automated review request emails help with brand management.
Full point-of-sales integration allows for phone and in-person reservations, with payments via cash, credit, gift cards, vouchers and custom methods supported. Channel integration and management features streamline the handling of bookings running through OTAs, affiliates, and local partners. Features like the ability to design and print custom keepsake tickets, run on-site self-serve kiosks, and display upcoming tour information on Xola TV are interesting highlights of the platform.