Cruise line changes BI tack

In an attempt to navigate rough economic seas, Holland America Line is trading its cumbersome old big-iron-based business intelligence (BI) reporting system for a Web-based one that end users can more easily and flexibly access.

The move was triggered by the Seattle-based cruise company's decision to use improved BI tools in order to make an additional US$1 million annually through more efficient sales, marketing and revenue management. This required changes to its existing reporting and analysis system.

Prior to launching the upgrade to the new reporting system a year ago, the information systems staff needed to access operations information from the company's IBM S/390 mainframe and format it into reports, says Jon Dawson, Holland America project manager.

The reports included everything from small, ad hoc inquiries to major "canned" reports that were prepared weekly to assess the company's revenue and inventory performance, says Paul Grigsby, senior revenue manager at Holland America.

To improve this system, Holland America installed software from Information Builders, a New York-based BI software maker. Dawson says the cruise company implemented Information Builders' WebFocus analysis tool to connect to the mainframe through an adapter and pull out the relevant information for queries and reports. The application, which runs on a Sun Microsystems box with a single CPU, uses extract, transform and load data-prepping technology for use with Microsoft Excel or Word. The system also includes WebFocus Reporting Server, which enables users to do analysis, reporting and querying.

Dawson says that turning around report requests previously took up to two days. Using the WebFocus BI dashboard, Holland America's IS staff can fine-tune parameters and turn over reports to end users almost immediately.

Some end users even make their own reports. But in order to do that they need to be trained and, as Dawson says, "spend the time to get to know the data."

According to Grigsby, WebFocus is primarily used by revenue management personnel for the smaller reports, whereas IS staffers working off the mainframe still handle the bigger ones.

Starting Slowly

"We're still growing the system," says Dawson. "It's the tip of the iceberg."

For instance, Holland America is working to define the data needed from the ships to analyze onboard spending by department and for specific excursion purposes. The company is facing limitations because of the size of the existing database system, says Dawson, so it plans to load the information into an Oracle-based data warehouse by December.

End users are already noticing a difference. A report that required coding and printing by IS staffers and took days to complete now takes just minutes to run with WebFocus on a PC, says Grigsby. "And this is where the flexibility comes into play," he adds. "If I wish to see a different view of the same information, I can simply change the sort sequence or introduce new fields into the inquiry without having to formally request a new report from the information systems department. It makes both my time and the information systems department's time more efficient."

The reports are indeed more flexible and easier to get to, says Teresa Tennant, manager of online communications for the shore excursion department. Currently, the IT department and a BI specialist prepare reports for her, but Tennant plans to be trained to prepare them herself.

After the report is written, she can get it by logging into a Web site and accessing it in whatever format she wants, Excel or Word document or Portable Document Format. Tennant needs several types of reports for her work and she's able to select them from a complete menu.

"It's very handy. I can drill down into complete details of the booking by travel agency and individual," she says.

There was some doubt among the company's end users when the project began, says Grigsby. "We are yield managers, not computer programmers, and I was frankly suspicious about putting the reporting function in our hands," he explains. "However, after training and a goodly amount of trial and error, we began to see the rewards of empowering the end users."

Given current conditions in the travel industry, which has been squeezed by factors like the SARS outbreak, the war in Iraq and the down economy, Holland America needed to be able to rapidly identify and track industry trends, says Bill Hostmann, an analyst at Gartner.

The real value of the new system at Holland America, Hostmann says, "is how it makes it easier to develop and distribute business management information to more users in a timely fashion around the world than ever before and thereby more fully leverage existing IT investments."

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