As commerce becomes ever more global and technology continues to evolve, business travelers are increasingly taking center stage in the decisions about their own journeys. Whatever the value proposition travel contributes to the strategic goals of a corporation, certainly any realistic assessment of the current state of travel would conclude that it’s a demanding proposition.

“I think there’s a growing understanding, within business and themes of talent acquisition and retention, of just how taxing business travel can be,” says Bob Neveu, CEO of expense solutions provider Certify. “Today’s businesses need to be empathetic and really understand the long-term impacts of business travel on an employee’s personal life.”

Travelers are expected to be at their very best when it counts most, during critical interactions that can mean the difference between winning or losing for their mission – all while dealing with challenges ranging from jet lag to erratic schedules, not to mention being away from their families.

“By crafting sensible corporate policies that take into account not just the costs, but also the benefits of having well-rested and nurtured employees, your team can thrive and really deliver their best in and out of the office,” Neveu says.

As CEO of Zeamo, a company offering an app that lets users access gyms around the world, Paul O’Reilly-Hyland has faced the frustrations experienced by other business travelers.

In complaints O’Reilly-Hyland says he has heard about corporate travel programs, the most frequently cited issue is the lack of available options. “There’s limited upgrade availability and not enough opportunities to add perks like airport lounge access, expedited airport security programs, or access to fitness/wellness facilities,” he says.

Efforts to cater to professionals should focus on flexibility and freedom. “When traveling, there are a lot of things that can fall out of your control,” O’Reilly-Hyland cautions. “Having flexible options is important.”

Riding the See-Saw
Obviously it's one thing to argue for change in corporate travel culture, but quite another to achieve it. An ongoing challenge, according to Travel Leaders Corporate president Gabe Rizzi, is that businesses are seeking a balance between service and cost.

"That’s not an easy see-saw to ride," he says. "The procurement teams want savings, while sales and service teams want wellness and experience." He notes that when cost reduction comes at the expense of employee satisfaction in business travel, the benefits may not outweigh the savings.

Rizzi argues that employees who are satisfied with their company’s business travel policies and suppliers are going to be happier on the road and more productive. They're also going to represent their brands in a more impactful way.

For a more consistently positive travel culture, a user-centric mindset is a must, says Anique Drumright, head of product at TripActions. “Ultimately, a company's greatest asset is its people,” she says. “Corporate travel products need to reflect this people-first, user-centric mindset.”

By putting the employee at the center of business travel experiences and programs, she notes, companies set a tone of caring about their employees. They communicate their longer-term investment in employee experience and productivity.

At the core of such an approach should be technology that is easy to use and personalized, she says, making it easy for any employee to book business travel. The ability to offer multiple bookings across many different providers is also essential, as is proactive 24/7 support while travelers are on the go.

Real improvement means adjusting to the needs and expectations of travelers, says Simon Ferguson, president and managing director, Travelport Americas. “The only way to further improve the entire travel experience is to go where the consumer is and to build on these behaviors to engage, enhance and inspire them,” he says. To ease planning burdens by providing the best options, system engagement through social media channels, office e-mail and calendar systems will greatly impact both leisure and business travel booking experiences.

Shifting Expectations
“Changing the business travel culture means embracing change,” says Andy Abramson, CEO of Comunicano, Inc., a Del Mar, CA, communications firm. As a traveler who has averaged 200 days a year on the road since 2005, he sees embracing technology and less traditional providers of accommodations and transportation as a key in adapting to a changing culture.

“This may be more of a challenge for some older travelers who are not as accustomed to ride-sharing, communal dining, or staying in smaller but more efficient lodging,” he says.  He says younger business travelers are more likely to travel in groups and be more at home at an extended stay, limited service property.

Abramson singles out air travel as one area where prospects for a change in culture seem limited. “Unfortunately, the airline travel culture mindset found in the US has few alternatives to cover great distances,” he says. He compares it to his experiences in Europe, where rail and other options allow for more relaxed travel and greater productivity while traveling.

Some hotel services could also stand improvement, according to Jeff Feuerstein, SVP of commercial products for Mastercard. He says the “digitization” of the hotel experience is long overdue. While some hotels have enabled mobile check-in/out, many still require steps for face-to-face engagement, and rely on paper during the process.

“Making it easy to check-in and check-out can reduce lines, while improving customer experience,” he says. “And why do I need to fill out a doorknob hanger for room service? Isn’t there a better and faster way to handle the basics?”

Flexible, Agile, Intelligent
An overall focus on adaptability may be a key. “Flexibility is becoming critically important in business travel and corporate policy,” Neveu says. He notes factors such as volatile weather and geopolitical events continue to cause travel disruptions, so travel policy and booking tools need to be more flexible, agile and intelligent.

Among other developments, artificial intelligence will bear watching. As the features made possible by AI continue to evolve, they seem destined to play a central role in a changing travel culture.

“AI can unlock insights that businesses need to create the personalized, tailored and customized experience that travelers want,” Ferguson says. “It enables businesses to get better insights and predictive capabilities and become more proactive and strategic, thus providing a more tailored, unique experience to the traveler.”

One such application is an improved capability for predicting how quickly an airline’s inventory changes and decreases. This in turn fosters more efficient communications between airlines and customers.

It’s important to take into account that these and other advancements may appeal differently to different travelers. Generational differences, for example, may be significant.

These travelers prefer choice, he says. They value flexibility and experiences, and dislike strict corporate policies and mandates. And many of them are adding leisure elements to their business travel so they’re making the most out of the opportunity. In response, corporations are starting to think more about their travel programs and the impact they have on talent recruitment and retention.

His own company helps reward business travelers for making cost-conscious travel decisions that improve their employer’s bottom line. For instance, if internal policy allows it, a traveler can select the business class flight, or choose to travel coach and earn rewards targeted to a designated charity or cash that can go toward extending a business trip for leisure.

Neveu says that it’s important for travel programs to build a culture of trust.  “Set up strong communication channels and foster an environment that’s respectful to travelers,” he says. “Carefully set expectations, so that any policy restriction makes absolute sense.”

He also advises keeping travel policy, bookings and expense process in a centralized platform, which allows employees to add the necessary contextual data alongside their expenses. This can help travel managers understand the bigger picture and relieve them from micro-managing employees, at the same time empowering travelers in the process.

Being open to change is also a must. “Technology is disrupting how people travel,” Neveu says. “The lines between personal and business travel continue to blur, which means that employees’ expectations are also changing.”  The result? Companies need to be fast to assess, react and adapt to new trends.