Mistakes made with the launch of an online booking system caused a lot of pain for self-catering providers, the Public Accounts Committee heard.
Problems with the MyUK.Travel system, introduced on January 31 this year, resulted in lost bookings and a deluge of complaints.
The Public Accounts Committee launched an investigation after failings highlighted in an internal audit ‘gave us some concerns’, said chairman Alfred Cannan MHK.
Giving evidence to the committee, Economic Development Minister John Shimmin said: ‘We have accepted there was insufficient consultation with the Isle of Man accommodation industry. We genuinely felt we were doing the right thing for the right reasons.
‘It caused a lot of pain because it was potentially a very busy time for those businesses.’
Mr Shimmin said 16 different complaints had been made to his department but was aware of ‘significant disquiet’ among the self-catering sector – ‘probably more so than any other issue during my time as Minister.’
Owners of self-catering accommodation complained that the new booking system lacked flexibility and was more geared to the type of shorter-stays bookings taken by hotels rather than weekly or fortnightly bookings.
Initially, at least, providers were unable to edit their entries to include email address and telephone number. Lack of training meant they were unable to operate the site.
The committee heard recommendations from the internal audit had been implemented and that further testing had now ironed out many of the bugs in the software.
Mr Shimmin saidthere were no plans to change the system which he said came at no cost to the taxpayer but he added: ‘We really need to evaluate this system in the spring to see whether it is suitable for the Isle of Man and to see whether the complications we had this year are replicated. We need to have a proper run now people are trained up.’
Head of tourism Angela Byrne explained the only payments made by the department to MyUK.Travel had been £10,500 to incorporate the system on the Visit Isle of Man website plus £200 to £250 for the hire of a venue for training.
She confirmed that the contract with MyUK.Travel, which was for two years with an option to extend that for a further year, never went out to tender.
The Minister explained that MyUK.Travel was introduced as a solution to an immediate problem when the old system crashed in late 2012.
Alternative tailor-made software solutions were considered but found to be too expensive and would take too long to develop. MyUK.Travel was the only off the shelf system available that could be incorporated on the visitisleofman.com website.
Committee member Leonard Singer MHK asked: ‘MyUK.Travel worked well in the UK so why didn’t it work here?’
Ms Byrne insisted: ‘It does work here.’
Mr Shimmin said: ‘The level of training provided to the users was not as adequate as it could and should have been.’
Training offered to all 400 accommodation providers was originally planned for November last year but was delayed until April. Some 120 took part.
Committee member Brenda Cannell MHK suggested the system was a trial and asked what it might cost to renew the contract for the next five to 10 years.
Mr Shimmin said it was ‘not 100 per cent’ that MyUK.Travel would want to renew the contract and there had been a very real risk the company would walk away from the deal as there was ‘very little’ in it for them.
The outfit is paid a fee of £99 a year by those accommodation providers who choose to adopt the online booking arrangement. Mrs Byrne explained that the price is based on the number of bedrooms so hotels will pay a lot more. Other providers who opt not to pay the fee get a free listing.