Today’s expense technology is transforming travel processes from beginning to end
By Bryan Yurcan
Technology marches inexorably onward, and for corporate travel and expense programs, that march is increasingly away from physical plastic cards and toward virtual forms of payment. Virtual cards – card numbers generated for specific limited uses – are gaining traction but so far mostly for applications such as non-employee travel or one-off payments.
While travel programs still haven’t eliminated plastic cards entirely from the expense ecosystem, larger trends are now converging – namely mobile adoption, connectedness and artificial intelligence – which are poised to further disrupt and transform the T&E space.
“Trends show virtual cards are quickly set to become just as relevant as physical credit cards,” says Bradley Matthews, senior vice president for U.S. Bank Corporate Payment Systems. “If we stopped there, however, we’d miss a significant opportunity to re-envision the end-to-end experience.”
The innovative ways in which technology changes corporate travel payments won’t end with virtual cards, Matthews explains, noting that mobile payments continue to experience tremendous growth, with more than half of merchants in the US accepting them.
“Mobile payments have so much more potential for disruption than just removing cards from our wallets,” he says. “To achieve this new experience – and the full potential of mobile payments – it’s important to look at the convergence of technologies like artificial intelligence, chat bots and cloud computing. We have a tremendous opportunity to use technology to deliver new and innovative solutions that make daily lives easier for our clients and their business travelers, while building a bond with them that helps maintain a mutual and lasting business relationship into the future.”
Eager adoption of innovative payments technology will definitely increase since they give program administrators more control and transparency, says Andy Nicholas, vice president and general manager of global business development at American Express.
“Through virtual cards, administrators can provide multiple digital cards with specific-use virtual account numbers,” Nicholas adds “This means that employees can use digital cards to pay for certain, designated expenses on a business travel trip, according to the pre-defined controls set by the account administrator. These digital and virtual options are ideal for companies with a high proportion of contractors or short-term employees, to whom you wouldn’t usually be able give a regular plastic corporate card.”
This also improves the experience for business travelers who may not usually benefit from a corporate card, notes Nicholas. “For business travelers there are very tangible benefits associated with virtual cards. For example, if a plastic card is lost or stolen it takes time to replace, whereas a virtual card can be sent directly to a mobile phone,” he says. “Demand for virtual cards is only going to increase due to the convenience for business travelers and the wider business benefits of efficiency and savings.”
Nicholas further notes that mobile payments have become more popular as well; in the last year American Express has introduced Apple, Android, Samsung and Amex Pay functionalities to its corporate cards in several countries across the globe. Beyond this, payments innovations in the consumer space will likely make their way to the business travel arena such as wearable technology, Nicholas predicts.
Change Just Keeps On Coming Technology is not just changing the payments themselves, but the entire travel management process, notes Jennifer Petty, head of global card and comprehensive payables, Global Transaction Services, Bank of America Merrill Lynch.
“Business travel is responsible for a third of the travel and tourism sector’s contribution to US GDP, which was nearly $300 billion in 2017,” Petty says. “Continued growth in the space will force companies to change how they manage their travel relationships with both vendors and employees. ‘Consumerism’ does not escape the corporate travel industry – business travelers want a comprehensive experience that takes into account personal preferences, can make predictions, offer seamless integration and is more efficient.”
For example, the previous negotiation processes between companies and travel providers, like an RFP sent out to a list of hotel chains, is increasingly viewed as inefficient, Petty explains. “More and more deals are driven by data and analytics instead,” she says. “For example, we are actively partnering with fintechs and our own data scientists within Bank of America Merrill Lynch to develop the tools for the future that will deliver predictive analytics to help ease the pain points involved with the end-to-end booking and reconciliation process.”
Petty says that technologies like mobile wallets and virtual cards and other innovations will ultimately replace traditional central travel accounts and traditional corporate cards. “When I’m in the UK I find I can exclusively use a mobile wallet for almost everything: Uber to the airport, buying a ticket for Heathrow Express, the Tube, checking into the hotel, or buying meals,” she says. “It’s fantastic. Mobile wallet transactions are many times faster than chip, and inevitably I already have my phone in my hand.”
Certainly, with smartphones at their fingertips, travelers are expecting to be able to manage all aspects of a business trip from the road, says Diane Laschet, head of Americas for Airplus International. “Payment should be invisible to them and trip management should be simple and efficient,” she says. “Business travelers don’t want 15 different apps to manage this experience – they want it all in one place and travel suppliers are realizing this.”
Different parts of the globe have adopted these technologies in differing ways, Laschet says. “For example, in China, they have gone from plastic to WeChat mobile payments for business. Whereas in Europe you have seen the emergence of virtual payment as a substitute for walking plastic. Here in the US, virtual cards are now starting to take hold in the marketplace and we see their popularity only increasing.”
Laschet adds that AirPlus, has spent “a great deal of time partnering” with various companies in the business travel industry to hasten the adoption of tech-enabled solutions. “Partnerships will allow for solutions to handle booking, payment, expense and reporting all in one place,” she says.
Once consigned to separate silos, the functions of booking, expense and reporting are converging thanks to technology, according to Ralph Kaiser, president, chief executive and chairman of UATP. “Tech is a driving force for travel payments. We rely on it to advance and simplify the end-to-end offering for the traveler. This is important since it streamlines the payment process,” he says. “New technology offerings, whether it’s virtual payments or cards, enable better booking and expense management. It helps travel managers have a more concise management process,” Kaiser says. “Again, you’re seeing the rise of technologies building upon the need for easier, seamless journeys, and translating that to what technology is used, and how to build for the future.”
The Influence of AI Artificial intelligence has made waves in the last year or two in everyday consumer life, in smart home products and virtual assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa. But the technology also has an application in business travel as well.
“With nearly all solutions based in or moving to the cloud, all facets of our personal and business lives are accessible anywhere, which creates a vast amount of data on who we are, what, where and why we are doing what we are doing,” notes U.S. Bank’s Matthews. “That is good news to keep us organized, but it has changed the landscape from a scarcity of data to an incomprehensible amount of very rich data.”
This where AI can play a role, he explains. “AI can be trained to help pore over massive amounts of data and offer meaningful recommendations,” says Matthews. “This challenge becomes even more prevalent as data migrates online and users look for instant answers to their questions. In fact, the expectation is fast becoming that these answers will be offered up before the question is asked. That has the power to fundamentally shift the way business travelers think about and use corporate travel programs.”
Bank of America Merrill Lynch has been one financial institution investing in artificial intelligence, particularly with its chatbot, erica. While erica is a service for the bank’s retail customers, Petty says, the corporate side is still able to leverage and learn from that side of the business as it develops and creates its own products.
“There will be many different types of applicability for digital assistants and advisors within corporate travel payments,” she says. “For instance, if I travel to New York and stay at the same Marriott Marquis every other week, artificial intelligence could recognize whether airfare and hotel prices are increasing quicker than normal around a holiday, thereby alerting me that I should book earlier. That way I’m ensured of staying at my favorite hotel before it books up and saving the company hundreds of dollars in a single transaction. That’s a single example but there are almost unlimited opportunities where we can improve the traveler experience, optimize the solutions our clients are using and drive compliance with a company’s travel policy.”AI technology can also monitor a traveler’s payments to improve expense policy compliancy, says UATP’s Kaiser. For example, he points to a statement by Oversight co-founder and former CEO Patrick Taylor, noting 25 percent of employees violate expense policies, usually due to mistake. Kaiser maintains that’s one example where artificial intelligence can help. “AI can help avoid this by sending e-mails prompting employees to make better payment decisions,” he says.
However, while AI can be undeniably beneficial for travel programs, it still has a long way to go, since few buyers have adopted AI-enhanced expense reporting systems, he says.
But movement is still slowly being made to bring AI capabilities to the business travel space. For example AirPlus is currently running a pilot called DBI Intelligence where it enriches missing transaction data based on AI technology for its corporate customers. “The first reactions are very positive,” says Laschet. “We see AI technology as a way to simplify processes in the background.”
These new technologies will ultimately create smoother, more efficient expense reporting for both business travelers and travel managers, and streamline the entire ecosystem. As Laschet notes, “These new ways of corporate payment significantly reduce the effort of expense reporting for the traveler and the company, making everyone’s lives easier and providing cost and time savings.”