A Case of Production Whoas: Northstar Travel Media

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Article ImageCase Study
Thomas Technology Solutions and Northstar Travel Media

Northstar Travel Media
Headquartered in Secaucus, New Jersey, Northstar Travel Media, LLC (formerly Cahners Travel Group) is a business-to-business media company that serves the travel and hospitality industry—specifically, travel agents, corporate travel planners, and meeting planners. The company's portfolio of print and electronic products includes a dozen market news and travel information publications, directories, and destination Web sites. Its largest hotel directory, the Hotel & Travel Index (HTI), is a four-color, 1,500-page compilation of more than 41,000 hotel listings from around the world, published quarterly. www.ntmllc.com

Business Challenge
On December 31, 2003, the company that owned the code behind the proprietary layout and composition system that Northstar had been using to produce its heavily illustrated HTI informed Northstar that it no longer would be supporting the software. Northstar's immediate challenge, according to production director Roberta Bianchi Muller, was to find a vendor that could "produce the index as we knew it." The company also wanted to streamline the production of its other directories, which were operating on various "antiquated" systems. "One system, one efficient process was the goal," she says.

Vendor of Choice: Thomas Technology Solutions
The origins of Thomas Technology Solutions date to the early 1960s, when a company called 707 Yorkway produced the first trade directory that was compiled, composed, and typeset entirely from a database. Four decades (and three name changes) later, Horsham, Pennsylvania-based ThomasTech provides systems integration, enterprise content management, and publishing services to traditional and nontraditional publishers. Customers such as the British Library, Chemical Abstracts Service, and EContent publisher Information Today rely on ThomasTech "to acquire and standardize their content, edit and manage it, and then publish it in print or online," says Jeff Catt, ThomasTech's VP of sales and marketing. "We've built our own databases and we've built our own publishing systems," adds business development manager Eileen Colahan, "so we have experienced the pain of content production from both sides." www.thomastechsolutions.com

The Problem in Depth
Established in 1939, the HTI provides key facts about hotels and motels, organized by destination, to nearly 48,000 travel professional subscribers worldwide. Since 1990, Northstar had produced the directory (which includes roughly 2,100 maps and ads) using a custom-built layout and composition system that incorporated dozens of "business rules" dictating "where ads are positioned on the page, where maps are placed, where city heads appear, and so on," Bianchi Muller explains. "The rules were very specific to the layout of the directory," Colahan adds, "so when the vendor stopped supporting the software, Northstar was faced with the challenge of moving into a more open composition environment."

Immediately, Northstar brought all of the COBOL code behind the proprietary system in-house. "We coasted for awhile, hoping we could learn enough of the code to create some workarounds and not change the product," Bianchi Muller says, but production personnel soon realized they lacked the IT expertise to maintain the large areas of the system that handled the content rules. In addition to considering the advantages and disadvantages of outsourcing its composition process, Northstar began investigating off-the-shelf software packages to see if any of them could retain the look and feel of the product to which users were accustomed. "We knew we either were going to have to spend $500,000 to $750,000 to write a new customized system or purchase an existing solution and give a little on some of the business rules we were using," Bianchi Muller says.    

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