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8/24/2005
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Travelers Can Soon Book Trips From Microsoft Outlook

The trend toward providing travelers with travel-booking desktop interfaces that link directly to reservation systems is expected to accelerate. Next up: booking trips from cell phones and PDAs.

Travel agents need all the help they can get fending off the competitive threat of online travel sites like Expedia and Travelocity, and next month a startup called Portaga Inc. will add a key weapon to their arsenal. Portaga Travel Manager will let agencies offer travelers a desktop application that lets them book all the elements of a trip from Microsoft Outlook.

A year in development, Portaga is a Web-services platform that uses the Open Travel Alliance's industry-standard XML messaging schema to pull inventory from Sabre Holdings Corp.'s global distribution system. It will later add connections into other distributors, as well as the reservations systems of airlines, hotels, car-rental companies, limousine providers, and restaurants, CEO Rob Kost says. The company, founded in 2000 as Realtime Enterprises, spent its first few years building applications on a contract basis before deciding to attack a wider business need in the travel industry.

Portaga last year built what could be considered a mini-version of its new service for Cendant Corp.'s Avis Rent A Car System Inc. The Book Avis tool is downloaded into Outlook, adding a button to the main toolbar that travelers can click to initiate an Avis booking via an Open Travel Alliance XML link into its reservations system. Like that product, Portaga Travel Manager will automatically integrate travel-booking information into the traveler's calendar, as well as those of any colleagues who need to be alerted. It also will automatically create expense reports related to trips when needed.

Avis has seen enough from the Book Avis tool to know that Portaga Travel Manager is a welcome product in an increasingly complex travel-distribution market. John Turato, VP of technology for Cendant Car Rental Group, says the trend toward building travel-booking interfaces that rely on direct connections into reservation systems is going to accelerate, giving travelers more options in a single interface. Removing the need for travelers to come to the Avis site can only mean more business. "From the supplier point of view, more roads are better," Turato says. "It'll be interesting to see how the suppliers adapt to this new world and develop new distribution strategies."

Portaga's software targets travel agencies that are working with small companies--professional-services firms, for instance--that have a lot of business travelers but don't have formal travel policies. The company will provide the software free of charge to agencies, which will then make it available for download by their customers. Portaga gets paid a piece of the fees associated with each booking. The product will soon integrate with other desktop information tools, such as Lotus Notes and Microsoft Word, and will also support additional platforms such as PDAs and cell phones, Kost says. Once a user clicks on the Portaga button, a blank itinerary opens, with icons on the side representing airfares, hotels, and car rentals. Users simply drag one of those icons and drop it into the blank area, triggering a window asking for desired times and dates, and the app then retrieves options based on those parameters.

Kost believes the technology will benefit travel agencies in a number of ways. It should tempt business travelers away from the online travel sites they normally use to book travel, none of which provide the kind of travel aggregation and desktop integration Portaga says it can offer. It also will let agencies serve those customers without devoting the phone time it typically takes to book an agent-assisted trip. Best of all for the agencies, it allows them to retain their commissions, which suppliers will continue to pay for each booking. "The travel agents still have a place in the industry," Turato says. "Not everyone wants to interface with us through the Internet."

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