As any marketing maven will tell you, positioning is a major factor influencing purchasing behaviors. That’s especially true of your travelers as they consider their booking decisions. Putting your preferred suppliers in the right place at the right time can have an enormous impact both on program compliance and traveler satisfaction.

Content positioning strategies start with the fundamental question of who controls the online booking tool.  The more control travel managers have over how the content of their booking tools is presented to travelers as they are deciding on flights, hotels, cars, etc., the more likely those travelers are to book in-program.

Some of the techniques include tactics like “visual guilt,” bonus loyalty points and special promotions. But the best content strategies are ones that deliver value for the corporation and satisfaction for the traveler, says Caitlin Deegan, director of offer and pricing management for Egencia at Expedia Group. That’s why data is the key to a personalized booking experience for business travelers.

“Egencia’s business travel platform uses machine learning to sift through the travelers’ past data and preferences like loyalty memberships, their colleagues’ past data and their company’s travel policy to offer the most relevant air and hotel content,” she says. “By understanding their purchasing behavior and the company’s travel policy, we’re able to serve up hotels that their colleagues recommend, like those that are close to the office, and are in policy too.”

Most corporations recognize their travelers need to stay agile and competitive on a global scale, and that’s seen a huge shift in how business travel is viewed. “It is no longer a cost to be cut, but an important way of competing and adding strategic value to a business,” Deegan says. “We still need to drive the best cost savings that we can through policy compliance, but traveler satisfaction is equally critical.”

In online travel tools just as in marketing, content is king, notes Lesley O’Bryan, vice president and principal of Advito.  If there isn’t a wide array of content available in the OBT (the right type of flight/hotel content, but also ancillary services) in a user-friendly interface, it can drive leakage. Travelers will tend to book outside of the tool and then ask for forgiveness later.

The solution, O’Bryan says, is to identify and properly segment your audience. “Different traveler profiles need to see different content in the OBT. Travelers expect personalization in the digital age,” she explains. “The strategy must also reconcile what the travelers need with what the travel manager or procurement team needs. You shouldn’t fixate on cost saving to the extent that the tool isn’t user-friendly.”

Therefore, she says, the best strategies are dynamic – changing with market fluctuations and corporate policy. They must also align content across various channels in the program, because if travelers see different options in the mobile vs. web-based tool, it could hurt the program’s credibility, and they’ll go elsewhere to shop.

“The best strategies optimize content and adjust the sort to drive the most value to your program, and then support the optimization with merchandising,” O’Bryan says. “It is important to use messaging to anchor travelers to the right value and leverage the ‘power of free,’ by showing what’s included in rate (WiFi, free breakfast, etc.). Program managers can also use merchandising strategies to educate travelers on policy changes, and influence travelers at the point of sale to book with preferred suppliers and drive program compliance.”

Three Pillars of Validation
Michael Strauss, CEO of PASS Consulting Corp. and head of business unit travel worldwide of PASS Group, says in business travel it’s important that the booking tools validate the desires of (a) the individual business traveler as well as (b) the requirements of the company and (c) influencing factors from the environment.

“Obviously, the system should not offer me as a traveler an airline which I don’t fly. It might be that I try to maximize frequent traveler miles on one specific alliance, might also be that I don’t like the airline or their configuration or its amenities or ancillaries,” he says.

“If I cannot get to my final destination with a direct flight, I don’t need every possible combination of feeder flights to the hub to fill up my results – just give me one option; but once I narrowed my results to one or two airlines, let me change the feeder flight without having to start all over again.”

Strauss notes a traveler might also decide that a longer flight overnight suits him or her better so they can get some sleep. He says he has decided in the past to fly from Miami to Germany over Houston instead of New York or a stopover in Europe just to be in the air for a full 10 hours which ensures that he didn’t have to wake immediately after he finally fell asleep.

As for the companies’ requirements, Strauss says it’s multifold since the company has invested a lot in its workforce and has an obligation to provide for employees’ safety.

“Travel risk management should have an influence,” he advises. “One of our clients who decided to use a build-to-order booking tool for instance has a clear mandate that only a restricted number of employees of the same unit can be on the same transportation vehicle,” he says. “But that’s not all. Travel patterns may have to be mixed up from time to time just for corporate espionage reasons. The trips should always be for the benefit of the company, so the employee should be rested when arriving to a meeting.  Otherwise a video conference would do a better job.”

Another individual component to consider is class of service and schedules.  Some employees can sleep perfectly fine in coach overnight, but prefer business class on a day flight to use the time to work. Others may need business class to get some rest, while they can easily deal with restricted space on a day flight, when they only watch a movie because they cannot work in the air.

“Another desire of the company should be that no employee wastes paid-for hours to extensively search for their trip,” Strauss says. “It’s not a family vacation, so choosing a business trip should be like taking a bus. Many times, business trips are booked and then changed and changed again along with associated rebooking fees, before they become an unused ticket. The company may want to add intelligence gleaned from previous trips to understand the cost of changes and better manage such risk of added costs due to changes.”

While cost is an aspect the company cares about in general, it doesn’t mean the cheapest option is the best. The company may have procurement goals to meet (number of flights with a certain airline or room-nights with a hotel chain).

Then too, other factors play into the total trip cost. For instance, sometimes a hotel where you can walk to your destination instead of renting a car might be the better option, but sometimes an Uber could do the job instead of the expensive hotel in the city center.

“Hence there are numerous aspects which may go into an offering which the company prefers or mandates,” Strauss says. “Most importantly, the company should be able to collect all the data, so that it can learn and improve their offering for the future.”

Finally, the tools could also include influencing factors from the environment.

Strauss remembers when he was located in Europe and had a meeting in “New York,” which was actually in New Jersey, 20 minutes from Newark. “Back then, the travel agent sent me to JFK airport and I had a three-hour cab ride at rush hour into Manhattan and out of it,” he says. “How irritating after an eight hours flight along with jet lag.”

Other environmental factors may include weather information, likely flight disruptions, safety, traffic information, strikes, etc. which may be taken into account at the time of booking or thereafter. No company can afford employees who get stranded or arrive too late to their destination.

“The booking tools today all provide a one-size-fits-all approach. The assumption is, what is good for most travelers and/or most companies must be good for me as a traveler or my company as well. But this is not the case,” Strauss says. “We are not all the same companies and not all the same travelers.”

Influencing Outcomes
O’Bryan notes if you manipulate your content and display at just the right time through the right channel – whether it is an online booking tool, mobile application or wherever your travelers prefer to shop – you can influence travelers at the point of sale.

“Advito uses merchandising techniques that you typically see with online retailers that push client specific- to travelers in real-time and educates them along the way,” she says. “You also need to determine whether or not your strategy is driving bad purchasing behavior. Is the path to purchase clear to your travelers? Is it driving them to make the right choices against other program goals (savings, supplier performance, etc.)?”

Strauss believes business travel should be mandated and a happy traveler creates a happy travel manager.

“I don’t want the road warriors, where you don’t know what they do and when, and this is simply from a risk management perspective,” he says. “Once the company can communicate to the employees that based on various aspects, the company will determine the ‘best’ option based on traveler interest, company interest and environmental impact, traveler satisfaction should come by itself.”

A challenge of all this is keeping the relationship with suppliers from impacting the program’s interests. “If the company controls based on their and the traveler’s interest what is booked and collects all the data, the company should be in the driver seat to tell the provider what they need,” Strauss says. “With new distribution capabilities, the industry should be able to react to certain wishes and requests triggered by usage.”

Deegan notes this is an open conversation that Egencia often has with its customers and suppliers. “Working with us gives travel buyers access to exclusive rates and amenities,” she says. “For example, by selecting a packaged air and hotel deal, our customers benefit from a lower overall trip cost while their business travelers are able to unlock access to more top-rated hotels that may otherwise be out of policy – it’s a win for customers, suppliers and business travelers.”

Adapt & Adopt
According to Advito’s O’Bryan, there are challenges that come with the booking relationship, starting with content fragmentation, where there are too many choices for today’s travelers, and an ever-increasing number of digital tools and platforms means that the booking process can be overwhelming and unclear.

Then there’s personalization, as travelers want to see the content that is relevant to them, not spend time sorting through content to find the right options.

“About 78 percent of travelers search a consumer site before the corporate OBT, and even if the two tools have the same (or similar) options, often times the corporate OBT isn’t configured to provide travelers that they perceive as positive,” O’Bryan says. “This can hurt your program if the OBT doesn’t meet the expectations set by the comparison-shopping experience.”

Content strategy can have significant influence on the adoption rate of the OBT. If the right content is not there, travelers will shop elsewhere, causing leakage in your program.

With all business travelers need to worry about today, Strauss strongly believes that decisions such as travel should be made – or at least broken down to manageable components – by a tool rather than each employee challenging the job of a travel manager. However, a feedback loop should be integrated in case the tool or the travel manager overlooked an aspect. And in case of a valid concern, the tool should be capable of adopting those additional needs.

For Egencia, Deegan notes, the most important element of a travel policy is the people. “A travel program should support your employees when they’re away and an extreme weather incident happens, and give them access to direct flights so they can arrive alert for their meeting to deliver their best for the company. It is vital to balance traveler satisfaction against cost savings when choosing a supplier,” she cautions.

“Consumers are also shopping in an increasingly visual manner, which is why implementing a merchandising strategy   in the OBT can help shift traveler behavior,” O’Bryan says. “Incorporating simple policy-related messages into the booking  process – like booking their hotel at the same time as their flight for duty of care purposes – is just a small example of this strategy.”