A long, long time ago, I had a chauffeur drive business and from time to time, found myself driving about the place in what was one of the last of the Ford built, long wheelbase Jaguar XJ6's. It was a car that had a ride second to none; a car which I was able to drive from London to Manchester (and back) and still feel as fresh as a daisy.
But then, that is what Jaguar built. Good, comfortable mile-chompers. Car makers had their style and were known for what they built. If you wanted something similar to the Jaguar, then you could always try a Mercedes Benz. Sure, reliable and incredibly dull. Or there was the BMW. BMW's were viewed as fast and fine; as long as you did not mind your spine coming through your head after, say, the first 100 miles or so. You could try a Volvo, which you could drive at 100 mph into a brick wall and not even get a scratch. A sports car? Buy a Porsche or an Aston Martin.
The point is, that each car maker was renowned for the type of car they made. Porsche do not make 4 by 4's, Jaguar didn't make small round-arounds. Land Rover make solid, mud-thumping, ever-lasting posh tractors. Each brand built a picture of expectation in the mind. Then that changed. Porsche suddenly made a 4 by 4, so did Jaguar (Heavens knows why - it really is rubbish compared to a Land Rover Discovery (which comes from the same stable)). Jaguar built an XE and an XF - Why? Because everyone else built one. Aston Martin and Bentley started making a "baby" version of their cars (not too sure why, the Aston Martin, apart from a bit bigger engine and a marginally up-rated interior, feels the same, basically, as my 14 year old MG TF)
"We have to have a product in that market sector!" screamed the marketing types. "Why?" ask the wise heads.... "Well, because we just do ..... right!" respond the marketing people.
And so the problem with differentiation starts to arise.
What has all this to do with travel? Airlines have followed the same path, resulting in the same issue. In times of yore, people knew that if they flew on a low cost carrier, it was "No quarter given, No prisoners taken". You want a seat - pay, bag - pay, didn't home-print a boarding card? You pay - Oh! And best to take a packed lunch. Legacy carriers (in peoples' minds) were different. Customers expected to be treated not quite like something the cat dragged in, a bag will be okay, chances are, if we ask nicely, we can sit together and we'll get a bit of snap on the way over. Then that all changed.
Now, no airline (certainly for short and on some medium - even long - haul) is safe. One airline starts to offer and charge for sandwiches - all airlines offer and charge for sandwiches. One airline charges for seats and bags, all airlines charge for seats and bags. One airline introduces a "fare family" - Yup.... you've got it - all airlines start a fare family. Step forward the travel technology people who then brain-wash airlines into thinking that the holy grail of that now-lost differentiation can magically be made to re-appear by simply sending reservation information down a different pipe.
Differentiation of product becomes bogged down by the fear of, well, differentiation of product. Will we miss a trick? Are we in this market segment?
No one stops to think in the same way that, say, Michael O'Leary thought - don't try and be first or second down the same path ... make a new path and then you will be in front. Innovation is not producing a me-too version of something that is, innovation is about creating something new from something that is. Disruption is not about finding a new way of climbing the mountain, it is the result of questioning why one is climbing the mountain in the first place.
In the quest to be different, marketing and travel technology has led travel suppliers down a blind alley, promising greener pastures if only things were done their way. Truth is, it is in the travel agency system and in many of the present forms of distribution, that the true answer lies; it does not need to be dismmantled for no other reason than those systems have been around awhile, it does need to be changed simply for the sake of change.
What exists at present (and there is a lot of knowledge in travel agencies as well as in the GDS stables) needs to be forged into something that works for all. This can be done, in a cost effective manner, if the various elements of the travel industry embraced each other and learnt, rather than trying to re-invent the wheel, regarding anyone in the present structures as some sort of enemy.
(Murray Harrold is a homeworking business travel agent. If you would like to have your travel organised by an agent backed by an American Express agency, with full reporting systems, call 07768 180314)