Every year at Christmas my parents, who live in Fort Lauderdale, take their extended family on a cruise. Three years ago my mother could call her travel agent and book the finest suites on her favorite ship six months before the departure date. But this year, when she called on January 2 to book a cruise embarking December 23, the ship she wanted - it has about 1,300 cabins -- was totally booked.
The boon times in America have created a tsunami wave of travelers interested in boarding a cruise ship and enjoying a luxury vacation. The Cruise Line Industry Association (CLIA) forecasts the number of cabins will grow 45 percent this year, from 3.8 million to 5.2 million.
Long before the Internet, the travel industry has been in the forefront of computer automation. As far back as the 1970s, airlines that couldn't harness technology effectively crashed and burned. (Pan Am and Eastern, for example.) But because of the complex nature of booking ocean liners, cruising has been the last bastion for manual bookings, according to David Anderson, vice president of technology for GoCruiseDirect.com, a Miami, Florida company.
He reports 95 percent of all cruise reservations are still made by the travel agents themselves. In most cases the travel agent phones the cruise line to reserve cabins for their customers.
Companies have tried to develop on-line booking systems for cruises, but these have always relied on the Windows platform. Mainframe booking systems like Galileo and Sabre have tried to include cruise bookings into their general systems. But GoCruiseDirect.com wants to move this process to the Internet.
Moving Bookings to the Web
Anderson says GoCruiseDirect.com sailed out of port attempting to bring electronic connectivity to the buyers - travel sales organizations -- and the sellers - the cruise lines. "We want to be a business to business play, becoming a technology solutions provider to the cruise industry," he explains. The company is developing a tool set to allow these transactions to occur on the Web.
When GoCruiseDirect.com charted its course, Anderson says his company had to create the application from scratch. Since Anderson and founder John Stewart wanted to concentrate on the technical challenges of creating a unique software solution, they wanted no distractions. So they decided to outsource non-core processes from day one of their journey.
Anderson says one of the lessons he has learned in his business career is that "it is hard to be good at everything all at once." The founders at GoCruiseDirect.com decided that software development was their core responsibility. They chose to let someone else "be good at" installing, hosting and managing their information infrastructure. This was an easy decision since their site had to have significant redundancy† because it had to be available 24/7/365. "It was more practical to partner with Unisys," he says.
Outsourcing the information infrastructure made sense economically. As an outsourcing provider, Unisys can spread its fixed costs over a fleet of customers, generating savings for its buyers that they would be unable to do alone.
Anderson says the 12-month-old company did not want to worry about staffing a server farm. Booking qualified people to run the server farm was headache enough. In addition, these staffers had to keep their training up to date in this constantly changing world. By outsourcing, GoCruiseDirect threw those staffing responsibilities overboard.
Why Unisys Was the Ticket
The Miami company evaluated a variety of suppliers before selecting Unisys. "They had all the check marks," reports Anderson. A key component was Unisys' server farm set-up. "Their server model made sense to us," he continues. In addition, the development phase could easily sail into the deployment area when GoCruiseDirect.com is ready for production.
Anderson bases the success of the relationship on the fact that Unisys assigned an experienced project manager to its account from day one. This manager had the authority to be the captain of the ship and steer his crew "to meet our needs," according to Anderson. "This dedicated project manager has made all the difference," he continues.
In addition, the two have been able to weather storms with their weekly teleconferences. (Unisys is in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania.) Every department that might be affected has a representative at the meeting. Anderson says he can throttle through all open actions because the people who can address the issues are there and can speak to the issues.
In addition, the buyer was impressed that Unisys had the flexibility of a Baryshnikov. Anderson says his company's initial concept may not been the same as the final production. It is relying on Unisys to be its harbor master, navigating the company through shoals it might not know about. "There will be gaps that we will have to fill in. We need an unemotional response," he explains.
The Ability to Scale
Finally, Unisys' ability to scale and grow quickly was also a deciding factor. "It's impossible for us to be able to forecast our initial transaction volume," says Anderson. The start up needed a vendor that could handle any volume when GoCruiseDirect.com finally reaches cruising speed.
Lessons from the Outsourcing Journal:
- Start ups need to select an outsourcing provider than can grow with them and handle any size volume since they have no idea what those volumes will be during the development phase.
- Having a provider assign an empowered project manager to the buyer from day one leads to outsourcing success.
- Assembling everyone involved in the outsourcing relationship for the weekly teleconference allows the partners to work out any difficulties quickly.