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Don’t miss the train

February 16, 2012

(Published in TTG 16.02.12)

A new partnership between Google Maps and thetrainline.com could help agents earn more commission from rail travel. Matthew Parsons reports

Packed commuter trains crawling along tracks after a light dusting of snow may not bring to mind a golden age of travel, but there’s no denying the appeal of travel by rail, and many are still switching for a range of reasons.

As well as speed (set to improve further once the government’s HS2 project is complete), there are rising petrol costs and the public’s desire to be greener to consider, not to mention tighter corporate policies on business travel.

One rail operator keen to work with more agents is thetrainline.com, which unites most of the UK’s major rail operators, such as First Great Western and Virgin Trains, into a single bookable website and began working with the travel trade in 2003.

“Our business travel side is quite well established now. It’s maturing, and moving away from the call centre to self-booking tools,” says Adrian Watts, sales and distribution director.

The company currently works with the likes of Hogg Robinson, Carlson Wagonlit, Egencia and American Express, as well as domestic tour operators, and is eager to work with leisure agents whatever their size.

Tools for agents
The trainline.com pays around 3% commission to agents for bookings, and offers three tools that agents can embed into their websites: TOTI (track over the internet) – a professional call centre reservation tool; a self-booking tool; and an API that provides content.

Although the company charges for the technology costs, partnerships director Omid Golshan argues that agents “don’t need any hardware” as passengers pick up their tickets on the day of departure, and there’s no licence involved.

“It’s an easy win for agents to work with us,” he adds.

For a lower outlay, smaller agencies can take the affiliate option.

“If agents already have a front-end system, and want to use the TOTI system, then all we do is give them a URL, open up a firewall, and they can be up and running within 10 days,” says Watts.

“It’s useful if they are trying to switch their customers away from driving, or want to promote train travel to Heathrow, for example,” he adds.

On the map
Thetrainline.com’s latest project with Google Maps underpins the operator’s drive to make booking as easy as possible.
This innovation was first conceived two years ago, but only launched

on January 19 this year after developers from both sides spent six months merging the two technologies.

“We do a lot of business with Google anyway. There were development costs, but it’s not a commercial agreement,” says Golshan.

Anyone using Google Maps can click on “Get directions” on the left of the screen to find the best route from point A to B. Currently the default options is via car – it’s a similar method to the AA Route Planner.

Now a train icon has been added to the right of the car icon, allowing the user to plan their route via train – with live times – and most importantly each station on the highlighted journey now comes with a link to thetrainline.com. Further down the line, click-throughs may be traceable back to a travel agent – enabling them to earn 3% on each booking.

This addition would provide a useful tool for any agents wanting to embed the highly popular Google Maps into their website.

Ed Parsons, Google UK’s geospatial technologist, says the tie-up with the trainline.com – adding public transport station and schedule information – is a part of Google Maps’ mission “to provide a wide range of relevant local information for the whole of Britain”.

One downside is the slightly hidden location of the train icon, and Golshan admits there is scope for more education. “When we went live there was a high level of interest and excitement, with thousands of tweets. It is a lot more successful than we imagined,” he says.

“But I think Google will now do more to educate people about it.”

Another negative is that the user expects thetrainline.com’s window to provide the itinerary for their desired journey – but instead they are asked to type in their details again. “This is on the cards, and we’ll have to work more closely with Google,” says Golshan.

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