Corporate travelers are looking for an easy, seamless way to book travel while staying within their corporate policies, which continue to evolve and change due to financial market conditions, ever-changing sustainable goals, and more. Therefore, providing advanced tools that access a wide range of rich and relevant content enables travel managers to customize search results to their needs, deliver faster search response times and increase traveler satisfaction while maintaining compliance.

Deborah Mahoney, head of sales and business development, Americas for Amadeus Cytric Solutions, says the digital transformation of corporate travel and expense will be vital to improving the employee experience and achieving corporate goals moving forward. “We can see legacy procedures, such as approval processes, paper receipts and reimbursements for trip expense, are all gradually being called into question,” she says. “Employees are asking for change and business leaders are learning to adapt.”

Ultimately, solutions that provide business travelers with the same kind of seamless experience as booking a leisure trip is a win/win for both travelers and travel buyers. “One of the biggest challenges faced by corporate travel platforms is the lack of quick, seamless access to travel industry content, particularly with the adoption of NDC,” notes Maurita Baker, vice president and managing director, North America at Travelport. “Utilizing a platform that integrates multi-source content, including NDC, and presents it in a way that makes it easy to search and compare options from any content source side by side is a necessity for providing a solution that enables corporate travelers to have an efficient and easy experience through their booking process.”

Richard Crum, chief product officer at Emburse, sees the industry getting closer than ever to a completely seamless booking-payment-expense solution, and in many ways, he says, it’s already here. “What’s more, you do not need to choose one solution provider to get this end-to-end capability,” Crum says. “A company can select the best fit of TMC, OBT, corporate card provider and an expense management system, and be able to integrate them all, so that everything syncs perfectly. A traveler’s expense report can then contain a fully itemized travel itinerary that can be easily reconciled against a corporate card and entered into the accounting system.”

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One benefit of modern systems is that everything syncs – both the initial booking and any changes that need to happen after that. So if a traveler needs to change their flight routing mid-trip or add a hotel night, it’s all packaged together, rather than another line item that your finance team needs to manually add to the existing reservation.

“A completely seamless solution has different benefits for different groups,” Crum says. “For the business traveler, it’s all about ease of use, and every step that can be eliminated gives them a bit more time back in their day. Our goal is to automate every step. As soon as the traveler has pressed ‘book’ in their travel system, they should never need to worry about creating an expense report, attaching a travel itinerary, creating separate items for each flight or hotel reservation, and then having to tally all of this with a credit card.”

For the travel and finance teams, it’s about spend visibility and eliminating time-wasting busy work. “An end-to-end travel, payments and expense experience makes it simple for organizations to easily see exactly how much is spent, with which vendors, by whom, when and where, without having to cross-reference multiple data sources,” Crum says. “For finance, that means much quicker reconciliation and less paper chasing, as well as more effective spend analysis. For corporate travel teams, it gives them the ability to more effectively and quickly track policy compliance, and ensure that negotiated rates are being adhered to by travel vendors.”

Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) are also advancing seamless solutions for corporate travel, with a more modern retailing experience that allows bookers to quickly find the most relevant options within corporate policies.

“Corporate travel platforms need to be deploying emerging technologies, such as AI and ML, to ensure a more efficient and transparent experience for travelers beyond the point of booking,” Baker says. “The user experience can greatly impact the overall feelings towards business travel, and the easier it is for employees to book and expense while adhering to corporate policies, the better.”

Additionally, it’s just as important that business travelers and travel managers can easily make changes in the event of delays or unexpected issues that might occur while on the trip. AI and ML technology can ensure the experience is seamless, updating all elements of the itinerary automatically and reducing complexities in a notoriously complex environment.

Nick Whitehead, chief marketing officer of Serko, notes that in the past, the industry has seen vendors push the notion that a corporate program needs to choose a single provider for both travel and expense in order to get a seamless experience, when the reality is that you end with an asymmetric solution – it’s great at making the CFO happy but not for giving travelers a booking tool that is fit for purpose.

“The outcome of this single ‘black box’ approach ultimately hasn’t worked for the company, the travel manager or their travelers,” he says. “Technology is now disrupting this notion of a single vendor for a connected solution. In business as well as our personal lives, we now expect simple, standardized, secure data sharing across multiple apps from different vendors to get a seamless experience. In 2023, we’re no longer limited to compromising on compliance and traveler satisfaction just to get an integrated T&E outcome.”

The Pandemic Factor 
The COVID-19 pandemic halted business travel almost entirely as companies prioritized the health and safety of employees and followed official restrictions and guidelines. Since then, business travel has not rebounded in quite the same way for several reasons, including employees wanting better work/life balance.

“The industry has needed to shift and evolve to incentivize employees and get them excited to travel again,” Baker says. “We’re seeing that in the ways platforms and corporate booking tools are providing greater access to content and more choice for trip options. Modern technology that makes travel and expensing easier with greater transparency, all provide opportunities for business travelers to enjoy the same kind of perks they enjoy with personal travel.”

Amadeus research revealed the pandemic accelerated changes already taking place in this area. “Processes are no longer seen as fit-for-purpose for those who themselves saw their own world evolve rapidly over the past three and a half years,” Mahoney says. “T&E management tools are a key part of this transformation and need to enable a collaborative and efficient travel booking, payment and expense experience.”

Payment Matters 
Today, a growing number of organizations understand they need to modernize their T&E tools by boosting integration with other systems – for example, with virtual payments. And a number of players are coming into the booking tool-expense-payments space that used to be dominated by one supplier.

For instance, Daniel Skaggs, SVP and head of middle market bankcard product at U.S. Bank, points to the company’s first emerging middle market-focused commercial card solution, the U.S. Bank Commercial Rewards Card, as being an ideal expense and travel management solution for firms with $10- $150 million in annual revenue.
“Emerging middle market businesses have similar needs and opportunities as their larger competitors, but the traditional, complex corporate card and expense solutions weren’t designed for them,” he says. “It helps companies automate their expense management, get better spend control, earn rebates for business expenses and so on.”

Unlike many cards designed for small businesses, the Commercial Rewards Card places liability at the corporate level so employees don’t have to worry about personal liability. The card also allows businesses to earn rebates faster with lower spend thresholds than traditional commercial cards. Employees can also take advantage of special TravelBank rates and waived booking fees to save money for the firm, which employers can pass on through employee incentives.

Mahoney notes Amadeus believes it is vital for companies to focus on digitization and enhancing the employee experience. This, in turn, can help improve social capital within an organization. “New technologies offer us new opportunities,” she says. “For example, with virtual payment cards, companies can provide a pre-determined amount on an employee’s smartphone which can be used to pay for on-trip expenses. Company travel policies can be programmed into digital cards so they can only be used with certain merchant categories for a certain amount.” Expenses are controlled in advance eliminating the need to submit and audit expense reports.

Michael Wirth, senior director payments for CWT, notes that since the pandemic, the corporate world’s workforce has become more distributed, and the innovation in technology used to facilitate that has grown – including payments. “Over the past couple of years there has been a noticeable trend towards centralized forms of payments,” Wirth says. “Virtual cards are playing an important role in that development. Their application in contactless mobile wallets have taken root.”

CWT continue to innovate in the space around digitalization and mobile first. While the company pursues “invisible payments” as the optimum, Wirth notes the best payment solutions are those that the traveler doesn’t need to worry about.

“Likewise, they offer travel managers previously elusive opportunities to enhance their travel and expense program’s administrative efficiency and thus their commercial effectiveness,” he says. “The evolving innovation we see in the digitalization of payments and expense solutions is an area that will always create noise. We as consumers are used to using these forms of payments in our everyday lives and we’re starting to see that catch up in the corporate world.”

Wirth adds that real-time data flows are fundamental to providing an interconnected experience across the user journey. “Data from resource planning and HR systems is used to create user profiles, those user profiles drive personalized recommendations and booking options plus other trip expenditures which are company compliant while also considering other business priorities such as environmental or safety/wellbeing objectives,” he says. “Data from those choices inform approval decision makers and simplify and speed up expense reconciliation and reimbursement.”

Changing Solutions 
When Travelport acquired Deem earlier this year, Baker says, the biggest priority from the start was ensuring its travel retailing platform and the Deem corporate booking tool became a tight and fully integrated solution for corporate travel. The goal was to provide access to all multi-source content, including NDC, while at the same time maintaining a seamless and efficient experience for the end user. “We’ve successfully integrated our Travelport+ platform with Deem, utilizing AI and ML technologies to further enhance the search, shop and servicing experiences,” Baker says. 
Cytric Easy by Amadeus, an online booking and expense management tool embedded in Microsoft 365, allows users to plan trips and share travel details with colleagues without ever leaving their day-to-day applications, such as Microsoft Teams.

“Using the solution, booking business travel is faster, easier and more collaborative than ever before,” Mahoney says. “Users have access to one app to search, compare, or book a hotel, flight or car rental. They can collaborate by sharing trip details in Teams chats with colleagues to book the same trip and coordinate. At the same time, they can share a ride with colleagues arriving at a similar time to the same airport or rail station.”

Serko offers both travel and expense solutions, but many of its enterprise travel customers already have expense and ERP systems from the likes of SAP. “We encourage them to stick with what works for their CFO, and upgrade the bits that aren’t working, which is generally the online booking tool,” Whitehead says. “That delivers quick wins for their travelers and their travel program without the pain of change for the rest of the organization.”

What’s Ahead?

Looking to 2024, Travelport sees sustainability continuing to be a focus area for business operations, with companies setting goals and looking for ways to minimize climate impact through various ways, including corporate travel. 
“We’re excited about the plans to implement enhanced emissions data for Deem users, which is already available on Travelport+,” Baker says. “Access to open-sourced data that is integrated within a corporate travel platform will allow travelers and companies to book more sustainable travel and track their climate impact easily.”

Whitehead says modern technology offerings are generally constructed around open frameworks that encourage connection with other business tools. “When choosing the elements of the travel, payment and expense suite, the focus should be an ability to play nicely with other systems,” he says. “If they do not, it is probably a sign that the technology vendor is creating competitive moats to compensate for a lack of competitiveness in some part of their offering.”

Crum is excited about the introduction of more AI, which will make automation throughout the expense process even more sophisticated. “I see a future where an expense management solution is less of a software tool and more of a personal assistant – you upload your receipts and it’ll do the rest for you,” he says. “Or maybe it’ll see that you went on a trip but didn’t add a receipt for the trip back from the airport, and will ask how you got home, and if you need to add an Uber receipt.”

Ensuring a seamless experience for the business traveler goes beyond booking to include search and servicing before, during and after the trip. Identifying a platform and booking tool that is user-friendly to both the travel managers and employees while giving them more choice and transparency, and granting employees more flexibility in their travel experience, can go a long way in incentivizing a return to business travel.

“End-to-end digital spend management is an emerging concept that harnesses a number of innovations to reinvent decades-old travel and expense processes,” Mahoney says. “It presents an opportunity for transformation and clear economic benefits gained through productivity improvement and more efficient management of travel spend.”