The pieces are coming together in corporate online booking technology. Is it time for a breakthrough?
By Mark Rowh
Business travelers straddle the shore, with one foot on the dock of corporate travel policy and the other in the consumer-experience boat. For them, the solution is often not what’s offered by their company’s travel program, but rather, what works in the moment. And more and more, consumer experience wins out, which presents providers of corporate booking tools with a challenge – and an opportunity.
“Corporate online travel booking tools historically have not been terribly user-friendly,” says Bob Neveu, CEO of Certify. “However in the past several years, more providers are updating their user interface to reflect a consumer-type experience.”
This as an essential development, according to Will Pinnell, vice president of digital and product strategy for BCD Travel. “If you expect a traveler to use your tool, it needs to be designed in way that’s effortless on day one,” he says. “Not only that, but the experience needs to be seamless across different devices.”
A recent survey by TripActions of more than 1,200 business travelers found 50 percent of corporate employees go rogue and book outside their booking tools. "This poses a huge problem for companies who need visibility into traveler spend," says TripActions CTO Ilan Twig. "The tension here is due to the fact that consumerization trends are changing traveler expectations."
Given this reality, providing the best possible experience for travelers seems to be a goal shared by everyone in the value chain. That means going beyond a nice user interface and easy booking flow, says Lydie Charpin, vice president, customer solution, corporate at Amadeus. “A responsive experience on any device is key to ensuring greater efficiency for the business traveler on the road,” she says. “In addition, having the relevant content available and personalized will make it easier and faster for travelers to book content that is of interest to them.”
Embedding the travel booking process in familiar business environments such as the employee’s e-mail, CRM or through a chat-bot will bring greater efficiencies both for the traveler and for the company, she adds.
Of course traveler convenience is just part of the story. The real impediment to a consumer-level experience has been the ongoing need to provide features attractive to travel buyers, says Tony D’Astolfo, senior vice president, North America, for Serko.
“The corporate OBT space has historically lagged in providing a consumer level booking experience because the systems have been built to serve two masters, the travel buyer and the traveler,” he says. For travel buyers, it’s tremendously important that the system applies current corporate policy, negotiated rates and preferred suppliers. It must also capture information such as the reason for travel or specific client project codes.
Yet features buyers consider enhancements add a level of complexity that consumer tools don’t need. While this continues to present real challenges, prospects for meeting both priorities look promising.
“Business travel has an opportunity to still deliver a great – albeit slightly different – experience,” says Brandon Balcom, senior director, open innovation, Carlson Wagonlit Travel. He notes that mobile capabilities and smart devices have accelerated the rise of a consumer-level booking experience.
This represents a move away from the long-standing focus of desktop-based corporate booking tools on replicating the agent action, which shifts the emphasis to policy control and not the end user. “Mobile allows for an opportunity to start over with the end user in mind and build corporate policy in conjunction with that experience,” he explains.
At the same time there is still room for improvement, according to Mike Benjamin, CTO of air travel intelligence company OAG. Results of a recent OAG survey indicated that consumers would feel comfortable booking directly through Google Flights or Amazon, if it were an option. That might mean voice automated systems such as Amazon Echo and Google Home could eventually work their way into the market.
“With the increasing prevalence of AI, we expect such devices to learn customer preferences, eventually giving the option to book a trip without review,” he says. “As airlines and hotels now offer self-service check-in, it’s only a matter of time before pre-booking based on historical data is possible.”Closing the Gap Recent developments show promise in meeting the expectations of travel executives as well as travelers.
Serko’s new Zeno platform, for example, is billed as consumer grade while still being able to manage a travel program in accordance with travel manager edicts. D’Astolfo describes it as taking a “no compromises” position, offering an improved traveler experience without asking travel managers to compromise program components such as the application of policy, negotiated rates and preferred suppliers.
Among its features are integrated approval workflows, intelligent shortlist options and access to negotiated rates, integrated expense functionality, and a chatbot booking engine that eliminates the need for user training. Express check-out functionality and a user configurable dashboard are also offered.
Antoine Boatwright, global IT director for Reed & Mackay, says that consumer-grade tools are typically characterized by an experience that’s available across desktop, tablet and smartphone with such ease of use so that training isn’t needed. Moving business travel booking toward such characteristics has been the goal in the development of the company’s R&M/Book. “A unique shopping paradigm, highly visual displays and the ability to switch between desktop and mobile when making a booking all play a part in this,” he notes.
Progress is also being made in enhancing the ability of travelers to adjust to unexpected changes. Earlier this year, Egencia introduced post-ticketing online air exchange. This allows travelers to change flights themselves on either mobile or desktop after they book, with instant visibility on any potential fare increases or penalties.
Another focus is product enhancements that put the emphasis on keeping travelers safe. Doug Anderson, SVP of travel at SAP Concur, points to a recent GBTA Foundation survey that found more than one-third of travel managers don’t know how long it would take to locate employees during a crisis.
“We see this trend in our own products as well,” he says, noting that in the first half of this year, the customer base for Concur Locate grew 122 percent year over year. This solution leverages both online and agency bookings as well as those made directly at supplier websites, along with spend data, to provide a comprehensive view.
The solution has recently been made available via mobile app, making it easier for employees to receive and respond to security messages within the app. API support is also being added so employers can quickly find the location of a traveler if an incident occurs. Uber for Business is one of the first partners to use this integration to make traveler coordinates available, according to Anderson.
Benjamin notes that online travel agents have started capitalizing on the prominence of social media and mobile applications by allowing users to booking flights and hotels directly through social messaging applications such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. At the same time, OTAs are starting to personalize travel booking experiences using artificial intelligence.
“This is especially noteworthy because it de-stresses the booking and scheduling aspect of business travel,” he says. “It shows each individual the options most relevant to them, based on company policy, personal preferences and overall travel effectiveness.”
Looking forward, Balcom projects that the incorporation of natural language search capabilities will be an especially significant advancement. Messaging-based search will allow easier access to booking through any channel that’s convenient for a traveler.
“A big pain point with the corporate OBT is merely the time it takes to access it,” he says. “Mobile has solved this to some extent, but app fatigue seems to continue as a trend, so it may be harder in the future to rely solely on apps.”
However search using natural language and messaging is only one half of the equation. “Whether it’s a predictive itinerary or chat-based search features, perfecting algorithms to balance corporate policy and individual user preferences and make choices simpler and faster, will be the key to a breakthrough,” Balcom adds.
And increasingly smarter tools loom on the horizon. “We’re starting to see elements of artificial intelligence make their way into the corporate travel space,” Pinnell says. He notes that one of the more significant advancements to come in the next twelve months is related to predictive analytics.
“Using machine learning, we can start anticipating what travelers will want or need,” he maintains. “So rather than showing someone that a flight is canceled, we’ll see that there is a good probability that a flight will be canceled and can be proactive with what we display to travelers.”
Another feature to anticipate in the near future is greater use of blockchain for travel. “This technology has already shown significant potential in transforming how the travel industry operates in the long run,” Charpin says. “This includes areas such as simplifying passenger identification, improving baggage tracking, developing more user-friendly loyalty schemes and simplifying payments between travel agencies and airlines.”
Balancing Act Obviously, employing booking tools that appeal to travelers is in the best interest of travel managers. “It’s all about simplicity,” Pinnell says. “Solutions that travelers are going to adopt need to be easy-to-use and offer a more frictionless experience.”
Otherwise, travelers will look outside the managed program and that will drive friction for the corporations that are trying to keep travelers safe, control costs and manage an effective travel program. The need for simplicity and consumer-grade booking experiences has prompted BCD to expand booking capabilities within TripSource to include air, with ground, rail and car booking soon to follow.
At the same time, it’s not necessary to give in entirely to demands for ease of use, according to D’Astolfo. “You don’t have to compromise key travel program components to satisfy a more demanding traveler demographic,” he says. “Find partners on the TMC and tech/OBT side who are investing in the traveler experience without asking you to compromise.”
The right relationship is as important as the technology itself, Boatwright points out. “Don’t just look at today’s tools and capabilities, focus on choosing a flexible partner who has a vision in synergy with yours,” he says. “Know that in three years you’ll have what you need and not yesterday’s technology.”
Staying on top of usage patterns is also a must. "Traveler satisfaction with your booking platform and adoption rates are two key metrics to pay attention to," Twig says. "High traveler satisfaction means high traveler adoption, which result in company visibility and savings"
Some feel adopting the right tools is only part of the solution. “Our consumer hats don’t fall off when we travel for business, and frankly, most companies don’t fully force travelers to use the OBTs they put in place,” Balcom says. He notes that most companies still reimburse travelers for purchases made outside the corporate travel program.
“While this freedom may yield a better experience, to achieve improved compliance, travel programs need to focus on simplicity and enforcement along with innovation and design,” he cautions.
Charpin agrees. “Companies should work with their technology partners to find the tools that will support them in meeting their travel management objectives and help grow adoption with employees across the organization who travel for business,” he says.
Certainly, change in this direction is inevitable. In a London School of Economics study commissioned by Amadeus, approximately 60 percent of executives interviewed were considering changes in information technology and travel and entertainment solutions in the next one to three years to facilitate better T&E spend management as opposed to cost control strategies.
A key point to remember is that travel is personal, Neveu says. “Even though a company may have its preferred vendors, travelers will generally gravitate towards a personal short list of providers,” he notes. “Travel managers should do their best to help accommodate the travelers’ preferred vendors while also keeping the travel budget in check. Doing so will result in happier travelers while staying in budget.”