Value for Money Examination 09;  Gulliver : Irish Tourism Information and Reservations System   Summary


Bord Failte (BF? has been involved with the Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB) since 1990 in a joint project to develop a computer-based tourist information and reservation system. The system - called Gulliver - has been developed within the two tourist board organisations by staff members and external consultants.

System Functions

The Gulliver system was planned as a central database to be accessed by tourist information offices in Ireland and tour operators based overseas via computer terminals. The purpose of the system was to facilitate tourists in obtaining information and making bookings.

The Gulliver system contains information about tourist accommodation, events and places of interest to tourists. The original plan for the system provided for car hire information and travel company schedules but these functions have not been implemented to date.

A series of reviews and analyses in 1993 concluded that the original concept and specification for the system were not capable of delivering the planned functions at a sustainable cost.

In January 1994, a Gulliver advisory board identified an alternative system configuration using personal computers (PGs), rather than computer terminals, linked to the central database. This was expected to reduce operating costs and improve system performance. Priority was given to developing this alternative system for overseas tour operators, rather than replacing the existing high cost system in tourist information offices in Ireland. The overseas module, which was expected to generate up to 80 per cent of operating revenue for the system by 1995, is still in pilot phase.

A decision was taken in September 1995 to develop a PG-based module for tourist information offices. It was intended to bring this into service in time for the 1996 tourist season. However, at the end of May 1996, Bit indicated that while the PC-distributed system would be operational in NITB's tourist information centres from 1 July 1996, it would not be introduced in BFE's tourist information offices until after the 1996 tourist season.

Use of the Gulliver System

Tourist accommodation providers who are registered as members of Gulliver can offer accommodation for sale via the system.

Over half of the hotels and guesthouses registered by Bit are members of Gulliver. This entitles them to be listed in the information system. Of those that are members, less than one-third use the system actively to offer accommodation for sale. Over 90 per cent of Gulliver members in the self-catering sector actively use the system to offer accommodation for sale.

The annual registration and approval fee for bed and breakfast, town and country homes and farmhouse accommodation providers in the BFt area covers automatic membership of Gulliver. Again, less than one third of these members actively use the system to offer accommodation for sale. 

While it was intended that all of BF?s tourist information offices and NITB's tourist information centres would be connected to Gulliver by the end of 1993, only 47 out of a possible total of 112 had been connected by the end of 1995. However, the connected offices include the larger BFt and NITB tourist information offices and sales offices in Ireland and the UK. These offices handle 85 per cent of all bookings made through tourist information offices.

The level of business transacted through Gulliver is very low, even for those who actively use the system to offer accommodation for sale. For example only 1.9 per cent of total bednight sales in the BFt area and 1 per cent of total bednight sales in the NITB area were processed through Gulliver in 1995.

Gulliver has resulted in fewer phone calls being required in order to find accommodation. However, the system is not seen by the users as being fully reliable for bookings. Typically, confirmation of bookings by way of telephone or fax is made to avoid the possibility of double-booking.

Project Expenditure

Total expenditure on the project in the period 1990 to 1995 was ?10.2m. Taking account of membership and transaction fees of fl.6m, the estimated net cost of the project up to the end of 1995 was ?8.6m.

Funding for the net expenditure on the project came from EU development grants (?2.9m), BFt's own resources (?2.6m), International Fund for Ireland development grants (?l.6m) and NITB's own resources ($1.5m).

The Gulliver system incurred a deficit of ?641,000 for EFE in 1995, compared to a projected deficit of ?445,000 in the `worst case' scenario. BFE stated that the deficit was higher than projected because of flawed system architecture, inability of the system to cope with booking volumes and the prohibitive cost of increasing distribution channels.

Project Management

The BFE Board had little involvement in decision making about the Gulliver project. Instead, high-level decisions were generally made by senior BFE management.

A 1992 review concluded that project planning and management were weak and that there was an overreliance on the computer company involved in the project.

The way in which the project is currently directed and managed has become very complex, involving the two tourist board organisations, a project advisory group, a steering group, a project manager and a project coordinator.

Outlook for the Gulliver System

Dublin Tourism has recently introduced a computerised self-service system which appears to duplicate certain aspects of the Gulliver system in the Dublin area. BFE. believes that the system can be linked to Gulliver in the future and that the development of self-service systems has no adverse implications for future planned expenditure on Gulliver.

BFE regards Gulliver as an important innovation which, because of the nature of technological change, met and dealt with difficuhies as part of its pathfinding development process. It stated that the development of Gulliver is ahead of most national tourism organisations' information and booking systems, even though many are longer under development.

BFE and NITB are continuing with the development of the Gulliver project. BFE estimates that additional funding of at least ?2.3m will be required in the period 1996/97 to fund planned development and ongoing operational deficits. On the other hand, a near five-fold increase in revenues is projected in the period 1995-2000.

It is planned that a majority shareholding in the system will be sold off as a means of establishing Gulliver as a stand-alone commercial operation.

Conclusions

By reference to the value for money criteria against which the project was evaluated, it can be stated that

  • the system in place has not provided the planned service
  • the system is not being used extensively by the tourist industry
  • the cost of developing and running the system, which delivers only part of the planned service, is greater than had been estimated
  • management of the project has been deficient in certain respects
  • experience to date plus the demanding tasks that remain to be carried out combine to cast some doubts as to whether the cost and output targets set for completion of the project can be met.