A database helps manage information to produce meaningful results. Travel agents are among the most experienced users of databases. All computerized reservations systems rely upon sophisticated databases of flight inventories and reservations. Agents also maintain client databases in traveler profiles. What differentiates these databases from those developed in-house on computers is that the airlines, not the agents, control them.
A characteristic of databases is that the data is linked into one useful system. For example, an agency may store client information on index cards. By shuffling through these cards, it is possible to identify who went on which tour, produce an alphabetized list, or, rearrange the cards in zip code order for a bulk mailing. Similarly, a database provides an automated, or “computerized,” method for recording and storing data.
Data in and of itself has no use. It is only when it is processed – selected, sorted, or arranged in some meaningful way – that it has any utility at all. Names, addresses, numbers, and dates are typical of the data you may need to store. Data becomes information only after it is arranged in a manner to answer a question, solve a problem, or take action.
This fundamental concept should guide the development of your database. Unless the data you collect can be used to answer a question, solve a problem, or take an action, it is probably not worth the effort. Automating useless data gets you nowhere-only faster.
The development of a database may pose several hurdles: learning how to master new software, and figuring out how to computerize all of the notes, cards, and lists that now comprise your “database.”
Taking on all of these hurdles at once may be overwhelming. If you have only limited experience using a computer or no experience in developing a database, you may want to consider employing an outside contractor to assist you. You would design the “specifications” for the database, including the data to be included, the kinds of information the system should produce, and the activities you want to accomplish, such as mailing lists and monthly reports. An outside contractor can then take your requirements and develop a database.
Although it may be more costly in the short run, requiring the contractor to train you or someone on your staff on the software will enable you to maintain the database more effectively and develop new databases as the need arises.
If you are experienced on computers, or are persistent and patient, most software packages offer a step-by-step approach to database design in tutorials that should enable you to develop your database yourself. Whether you use a contractor or develop the database yourself, selecting the right software for your present and future needs is an important decision.
There are two main forms of computer software for databases – (1) record-oriented databases, and (2) relational databases.
In a record-oriented system, one record is created for each traveler in the system. In a relational database, a traveler’s name would appear on several related lists. The distinguishing factor between the record and relational database is the flexibility and added capabilities characteristic of a relational database. The trade-off is that while relational databases are more powerful, they also require more time to master.
While this article focuses on the use of databases for marketing leisure travel, the principles of database organization may be applied to any database. Before beginning the design of a database, define the functions the data will be expected to perform. These should be the actual activities you plan to automate through the database, such as mailing lists and traveler preferences, etc. Time taken to carefully specify the expected uses of the database will be rewarded many times over in the future.
Once the uses for the database have been determined, factor these into the data elements needed to furnish the requisite information. Since the same data is used for many purposes, expect many of the data elements within the categories to overlap. This “paper and pencil” work will require several drafts to come up with the right data.
Data elements for the previously defined uses might include:
• Personalized information on prospects
• Special interests
• Group Affiliations
• Unique Preferences
Other Preferences, needs (wheelchair accommodation, dietary restrictions, etc.)
• Promotion Effectiveness
How did prospect hear about trip or tour
• Market segment
Market segment code
• Mailing Lists and Letters
Database for Marketing
The list above illustrates how data elements are identified. The unique feature of databases is that they may be customized to suit virtually any need. The database that you design will have an array of data elements that will fit your specific needs. And need is the key concept. Once the list has been developed, go over the list to determine which data elements are missing and, equally important, which data elements are not needed. Superfluous data extracts a high price in a computerized database – more input, more disk space, more maintenance to keep the data current.
Once the data elements have been identified, design the screen layout for data input. In designing the layout, the following principles are helpful:
Plain English. While travel abounds with acronyms, such as fone, using plain English means that you will not have to hire a travel agent each time you want to enter data. An easily understood input screen goes a long way to explaining what data needs to be entered.
Load data that changes first. Some data needs to be changed more frequently than others. Entering these data eliminates the need to scroll to the bottom of the record to update a line. This means data that one usually thinks of first, such as name and address, is put at the end of the record since it is least likely to change.
Utilize error trapping. Many software packages include error trapping features that monitor if data has been entered correctly. The extra time required in setting up error trapping routines makes input easier and information more consistent.
Employ multiple screens. Most databases allow more than one screen to input information. Multiple screens enable you to include the detail required to make a database more effective than just a mailing list.
Include maintenance data. Maintenance data records when and by whom a record was last updated. This information is helpful in monitoring the timeliness of the data and establishing accountability for the quality.
Putting the Database to Work
As the database is maintained, it will take on a life of its own. You will begin to think of new applications for the data that exceed your original definition.