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Experience counts

Building on successes, Sabre Holdings enhances offerings to the travel industry.

by Jackie Zack

The mission of Sabre Holdings is to connect people with the world's greatest travel possibilities by selling travel products and providing distribution and technology solutions for the travel industry. The Southlake, Texas-based company supports travelers, travel agents, corporations and travel suppliers through its companies, which include Travelocity, Sabre Travel Network and Sabre Airline Solutions.

Experience counts
Michael Hawkins, director of data warehousing at Sabre Holdings, discusses how active data warehousing affects the overall customer experience.

Sabre's success in accomplishing this mission is evident through the much-lauded achievements of its popular online travel agency, Travelocity. Travelocity has been a leading Internet travel site for years with Internet technologies that have put complete control of travel plans on the customer's desktop. Much of Travelocity's success is credited to its innovative use of a Teradata enterprise data warehouse (EDW), which has been at the heart of its efforts since 1999. In the 2006 World Travel Awards, Travelocity won the "World's Leading Travel Internet Site" for the ninth consecutive year. More than 150,000 travel agents from 80,000 travel agencies around the globe participated in the online voting.

As the director of data warehousing, Michael Hawkins was a key player in developing active data warehousing for Travelocity. With that experience, Hawkins moved to Sabre Holdings in June 2006 to develop an EDW initiative for the parent company.

The impetus for creating an enterprise data focus at Sabre was the success and continued growth at Travelocity. Sabre has recently experienced rapid growth, and the company quickly realized that it was at the center of opportunity for tremendous cost savings through data mart consolidation. Teradata Magazine recently spoke with Hawkins about the direction Sabre is taking with its data warehouse and how this direction will help the company grow even more.

Q What are the areas where Teradata, as an active data warehouse, will bring value to your organization?

A Sabre's customers can be travelers, travel agents, corporations or suppliers. Our goal, with an active data warehouse, is to provide merchandising and to make offers relevant and timely based on a customer's historical context, and then providing that knowledge through various touchpoints, such as an online travel agency or a call center.

Using Travelocity's experience with the online channel, it has been shown that the data warehouse can be used in an operational setting to retrieve historical context about the particular person, including shopping trends and destinations of interest. This helps the online application craft a more pertinent and relevant offer to enhance the customer experience and help us close the sale.

The ability to create a more personalized, relevant experience for the customer is a major goal at Sabre. In a nutshell, it's the marriage of the historical context of the party to the events that are occurring in real time, and that's the union that happens with the operational systems accessing the historical data in the active data warehouse.

Q Can you cite a good example of this marriage?

A One example that is pertinent to most people is finding the best travel deal. If a customer is shopping online for flights and hotels in Las Vegas, the data warehouse can provide knowledge of that shopping behavior even though the customer isn't buying anything yet. From a supplier perspective, the data warehouse searches for the best-priced flights based on different carriers. When we see someone shopping a particular market, we can build a campaign and bring that to his or her attention. You've already got interest—the customer wants to go to Vegas. If the customer sees an ad pertinent to that, it helps generate a better customer experience and it helps us increase the conversion rate and close the sale. In this case the touchpoint was the Web site, but it could easily have been the call center or any means of communication. It's just the ability to create a more personalized, relevant experience for the customer.

Q What competitive edge does active data warehousing provide your company?

A An industry like travel has so many participants with everybody obviously trying to compete for the same market share. Sabre needs to be able to offer our suppliers a way to compete favorably within the market, so we are looking to use the historical data that's contained within the data warehouse to help carriers better market their products.

Q Is privacy protection an issue in this case?

A We don't release competitors' detailed data; we're very protective of data and we have contractual obligations to protect. But in the case of a hotelier who's agreed to share an aggregate view of some competitive information within a market, we're able to provide that capability. That will ultimately lead them to work with us more closely and to start talking about active capability with people who are either on our Web site, their Web site or one of our partners' Web sites.

Q Will operational [front-end] systems benefit from near real-time connectivity to Teradata?

A Today, the agency channel has a lot of connections to the back end for reporting, so we deliver products that give agencies the view into the business they're driving through Sabre. We've got some new products that are pretty exciting coming out in the agency space that will give them a more visualized view of the data rather than just straight reports. We'll start seeing very visual displays of data—things like maps—going out to the agency channel.

Then again, it depends on the context. The travel market is so big, especially when you're looking at it from Sabre, that whether it's the agencies, the suppliers or the travelers, we have to work within the confinements of the data agreements that we have with suppliers and others. But from time to time, a supplier or partner has an idea that they want to pursue and we have the capability because of the breadth of the view from the value chain—all the way from the supplier through the agencies to the traveler. We can help them more proactively market their products. And that capability puts us in a unique position to be able to use that data in an active or operational way.

Q How do you look at availability differently now that operations are based more heavily on the system?

A We have had a data warehouse at Sabre Holdings for about four years, primarily for a traditional back-office data warehousing view. When we started moving into active data warehousing when I was at Travelocity, our operational uptime, metrics, SLAs [service level agreements] and capabilities became much different because now you're in the operational space and the revenue-generating systems, so people have a different way to look at your uptime characteristics. Teradata is an extremely stable system so we've been able to enjoy availability metrics that are 99.4 percent or 99.5 percent. But now we are heading into a place where people expect and demand that the system is up all the time, and that means we are moving into a dual-active environment. Not just because of the merchandising or the active capability, but because there's a business decision in there that says, "Am I going to pay for redundant systems or am I willing to take a risk for that 0.5 percent of the time that I'm down?"

Q Are there technical requirements or changes occurring as you plan and implement more active applications?

A There's a whole different set of expectations that came on us. Once we're able to start measuring the value of the system by the hour because of its operational use, then all of a sudden we can quickly justify the need to build out redundant systems and become dual active. On a typical host environment at Sabre we have a number of systems that are very expensive to run and maintain, but their uptime characteristics are very impressive. So we are starting to build out that dual-active capability to better merchandise for our partners and suppliers and, at the same time, build a bulletproof infrastructure. It won't go down. We are also starting to move into operational reporting and replacing applications that have historically been on a host environment. All of this is mission-critical.

Q What changes in culture, training or governance are taking place within your organization as you implement these projects?

A It starts to change the role of the people within the data warehouse and business intelligence [BI] groups because if we view ourselves as "back office" and we're not really mission-critical then there's a certain way we address projects in that environment that is a little bit more "loose" than if you were in an operational setting. One of the things we noticed was the mental way that we look at ourselves. We're part of the operation's potential to earn revenue so that puts more focus on our ability to measure and monitor our uptime characteristics and how we respond to incidents.

We are still going through a lot of that at Sabre. After taking an active look at enterprise data warehousing, we eventually hired new people and started changing the way we view the work that we do, buttoning down a lot of the processes and really starting to fine tune our procedures. Our goal is to build the foundation to go toward the future through referencing the work at Travelocity and learning from what others have done at other companies. We've got some good experience here.

Q How are you "selling" these projects internally?

A We've got our foot halfway into active data warehousing at Sabre. Because Sabre has grown so quickly, we have a lot of data islands. At the very senior levels there's agreement that centralizing the data is important. However, at a tactical level our business units have their own priorities—but we have been starting to get together on this vision over the past few months. We've worked with some of the key senior executives to help address that challenge. Travelocity is a little bit smaller so it's pretty easy to get top-down, across-the-board agreement to be able to build that active capability pretty quickly. A company like Sabre that has many mature systems and departments, as well as people who have been largely responsible for key elements of the business for a long time, takes a little bit of navigation to work through some of those culture issues to see the value of "Store it once, use it many times." And so, in some respects, a lot of what we need to do in the next few months is to educate.

Q With the operational system connected to Teradata, what is the value of the mixed workloads that are now running concurrently?

A The fact that you can do traditional data warehousing with the reporting and the response time needed and also have mixed workload capability pushing toward the operational functions puts Teradata in a pretty unique spot. We're definitely leveraging that capability. We are aiming to store data once in its most granular form and then use that same data as the basis for operational analytics. If you can get that mixed workload, great, because if it's there, why move it if there's nothing but expense involved? The Teradata system gives a normalized data model that is flexible and has lower maintenance. Very few platforms can do that. The power of Teradata provides the capability to add historical context to the operational system and gives you knowledge you wouldn't otherwise have.

Q Do you have any advice for other companies that are moving in an active direction?

A Some people tend to view the data warehouse as, "We're going to go out and try to own the world." The truth is, we can't own the world. The world is too big, and we need people to help describe it for us. There are a number of independent data marts out there that people have built and have become experts of. Our approach to that problem is going to be to work with them to bring that capability into the data warehouse and use their expertise in order to build and maintain it.

It's a difference between a stewardship mentality of the data versus a strict command and control. While we will have processes, procedures and standards, it really, truly is going to involve working in cooperation with these groups. Once you gain the trust of these people and the business units that own the data marts, selling the projects becomes very easy. When you start doing your justifications and your ROI [return on investment] projects, the cost of "Store it once, use it many times" becomes a pretty sweet picture. T

Behind the solution: Sabre Holdings
Database: Teradata Database V2R6.0.2
Server: 4-node Teradata 5380 Server; 6-node Teradata 5400 Server; and 1-node Teradata 4400 Server
Users: 200 (5 concurrent)
Data Model: Third Normal Form
Operating System: UNIX MP-RAS
Storage: 1.9TB
Teradata Utilities: FastExport, FastLoad, MultiLoad, Teradata Dynamic Query Manager, Teradata Manager, Teradata TPump, Teradata Utility Pack - ODBC Driver, JDBC Driver and SQL Assistant

Jackie Zack, a Michigan-based business, technical and feature writer, has written for several trade journals.

Photograph by Lisa Means

Teradata Magazine-September 2007

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