As we near the end of 2019, it’s an interesting time to look back at the impact that data has had on managed travel programs. Has it really changed much or are we still struggling to gain traction in this space? Having interviewed and spoken with many buyers and suppliers over the last twelve months, I have found that this industry still seems to be challenged by several factors when it comes to understanding and managing our data.

First, from the buyer’s perspective, it’s all about having the time to truly tackle data challenges. “How do I even start building out my data strategy when I can hardly find time for lunch?” “I wear so many hats, and my leadership hasn’t asked for anything new in the data space, so I haven’t prioritized it.” “Although I want to create a better value proposition for my program and certainly better data would help, that’s long-term: I’m just staying ahead of today’s crisis!” I can sympathize: It’s not easy to bring new life into your data when we as buyers are busier than ever.

But here’s the thing: It is important, and it can change how you managed your program. More thoughtful conversations can be had around policy, supplier relations and the traveler experience. You just have to make it a priority.

Take an hour a day – or even just 30 minutes if that’s all you can fit in – to focus strictly on your program’s initiatives. Shine a light on how a Phat Data strategy can support your overall objectives and whether you are even focusing in the right direction. Just a hour a day, no e-mail, no phone calls, no Facebook. It may be all the time it takes to build out your strategy, and before you know it, you will have your data plan of attack ready for 2020.

So why does it really matter anyway? Not to be too harsh, but as buyers we need to continue to evolve so we don’t become extinct! Suppliers are using all sorts of big data to influence our travelers and to improve their experiences. For 2019, the “traveler experience” was all the rage, but we are still quite far away from really incorporating all that experience in our programs. However, when we think about the impact developments like machine learning and artificial intelligence can really have on the traveler’s experience, all that is built on big data.

This is why the focus on data in our programs is becoming more important: The more we feed the machine, the more we can get out of it – and at some point, the more we can control it. Big changes are coming in our ability to offer the right products at the right time to the right travelers, and we need to be prepared. Having a solid data strategy will help the travel buyers of today be prepared for tomorrow.

Can You Handle the Truth?
The second really important focus for the future is the impact of the buyer-supplier relations and whether it is all about the data or all about the relationship. In reality it’s probably a combination. The industry still is challenged with this: Do we select suppliers based strictly on cost? And is that potentially in conflict with our desire to create a better traveler experience?

In the midst of that debate, let’s not forget that we probably aren’t really sure if we have accurate data in the first place to make these decisions. Why are we and our suppliers still coming to the table with two entirely different data sets? Can we as an industry arrive at the truth, or do we have to agree that the truth is simply unattainable?

I say we should be able to come to a truth, a truth that is acceptable to both parties. It may not be perfect, but it is an acceptable data set that is the same for buyers and suppliers. Yet even now in 2020, we still face the question of meeting this challenge.

We must have a better understanding of what data we really do need in order to create successful partnerships and successful negotiating. It isn’t just about transactions and pricing, but the entire value proposition. This may look very different from one organization to the next, so we need to have thoughtful conversations with our suppliers to determine what types of data are available and what is useful in the context of a particularly company’s business goals and travel program objectives.

Tech Questions & Answers
The last area of focus that we need to explore in 2020 is the technology that buyers have available to assist them not only manage massive amounts of data but provide unique and different data sets that are actionable and impactful to their managed travel program.

This past year has brought us technologies such as Ansero’s Smart Hotel Rate, which gives the buyer real time actionable data showing how their hotel programs are performing. It’s Phat Data for sure, unlike anything we have seen in the marketplace before. Additionally, we are seeing the GDSs expanding their data offerings, and who has more information about our travelers than the GDS?

Data aggregation suppliers give the buyer the opportunity to take huge amounts of different data sets, combine them to provide real answers to many questions. Some of those questions haven’t even been asked yet, but having these tools prepares the travel buyer to answer when they are asked.

It’s no longer just about reporting; it is about actionable analytics. We continue to see new technology players enter the travel space, and as buyers we need to be keenly aware of how they can truly impact our programs. As new entrants make their way into the marketplace, each of them brings opportunities for buyers and suppliers to capture new data elements. This creates new conversations.

This Phat Data series is turning six years old. Over the past half-decade, we have seen many improvements, but we are still faced with a lot of challenges. We need to bring our data out from siloed environments to a collaborative cloud-based world where buyers can pick and choose the data that creates actionable answers to their program challenges. This will enable us to build world-class programs specifically designed for the uniqueness of our individual companies and cultures.

Travel buyers have a big voice; we can drive the changes that we need. But first we must understand what those needs are for our individual programs, hence the importance of having a Phat Data strategy. Then we just need to ask! Talk to your travelers, talk to your suppliers, talk to your internal stakeholders, talk, talk, talk! The conversations are so important to building the strategy – buyers can’t build it in a vacuum.

Advice for 2020: Buyers, focus on your strategy; take just a few minutes a day, have the conversations, think about your objectives and use the tools and technologies to help deliver on that strategy.

Suppliers start the conversations with your buyers. Ask them about their strategies, their data wants and requirements, and find out how you can support their initiatives and deliver just what they need. It may very well be the best conversations you have in all of 2020.

Happy Holidays to all the BTE readers and may your 2020 be full of Phat Data!!

Jennifer Steinke is Global Head of Travel for PPD, Inc., and an industry thought leader with over 30 years experience managing corporate travel. She holds an MBA plus Certified Corporate Travel Executive (CCTE) and Global Travel Professional (GTP) certifications from GBTA. Jennifer strives to deliver innovative and thought provoking ideas to the corporate travel industry.