Will new booking solutions finally bridge the gap between a satisfying user experience and effective policy controls?
By Mark Rowh
No matter who you ask, expectations for travel booking tools are running high. For business travelers, it only seems natural to expect the kind of user-friendly features found when shopping for leisure travel. Providers, for their part, seem optimistic about the continuing evolution of these essential elements of the travel equation. At the same time, travel managers are seeing an expanding array of options for efficient booking.
“Advances in technology have made booking travel easier with immediate access to information using a one-stop travel platform,” says Mike Remedios, chief technology officer for Onriva. “Machine learning and artificial intelligence continue to transform how people engage in travel.” And business travelers have come to expect more data, more immediate answers, and better personalization from a travel platform before making a purchase decision.
“As the digital transformation of travel continues at pace, there’s been a proliferation of capabilities that businesses can leverage for their travel programs,” says David Zimmer, global head of travel experience and optimization for CWT. That represents a marked improvement in the booking process, where a long-standing challenge has been reconciling the desire for a great user experience with effective policy controls, two goals which have tended to be mutually exclusive.
“The old way of doing things was your travel management company had one set of rules for booking requests and then you had to do your best to match that in a separate online tool,” says Mike Kubasik, the global CTO of Corporate Travel Management, Ltd. “Today that information should be integrated into a single platform for ease, efficiency and compliance.” This includes dynamic rules that work across all modes of booking with the flexibility to suit a company’s size, number of locations, destination risk, tiered policies for VIPs and more.
It’s true that historically, the user experience with corporate booking tools has lagged behind leisure platforms. But corporate online booking tools by leading providers now promise to replicate the consumer booking experience with intuitive features more capable of driving greater adoption and user efficiency, with additional features on the way. “There are a lot of exciting topics on the horizon regarding booking tools,” says Joe Ascanio, VP, marketing and digital strategy for nuTravel. He points to price-watching, book-and-hold and blockchain capabilities, as well as advances in push technology. He also sees a general adoption towards more user-friendly and user-centric products designed with the end user in mind.
Progress does seem to be speeding up as more “normal” times return. Travel buyer research has identified risk management, change management and budget control as top priorities post-pandemic, explains Tony D'Astolfo, SVP of North America for Serko. Recently his company has introduced integrated destination health and safety information, dynamic approval workflows and automated ticket credit management to meet these priorities.
"More and more, there is a recognition that the user experience matters," CWT’s Zimmer says. "It’s not just about the functionality." In an environment of technology saturation, he notes, people have developed strong preferences about the kinds of digital experiences they will and won’t adopt, and employees are bringing these preferences to work and to business travel.
When it comes to meeting user expectations, perhaps the most important factor is flexibility. In a 2021 Wakefield survey sponsored by SAP Concur, 72 percent of respondents ranked flexibility as a top consideration for business travel. This even exceeded vaccination demands, a key factor at the time, which was rated at the top by 62 percent of survey participants. Survey results also revealed a strong preference for allowing travelers to select their preferred accommodations and mode of travel.
Ease of use is another top concern. When CTM surveyed customers last year on what they valued in OBTs, they ranked an “easy-to-use, intuitive experience” as the most important feature, Kubasik reports.
“Our customers are using technology across their business more than ever, so a great user experience is table stakes today,” he says. “What makes a difference is when those solutions are tightly integrated together so the whole experience from researching to booking to in-trip notifications all align with what the traveler wants, while still working within a company policy on cost, risk and data aggregation.”
Despite such improvements, some still see a need for more consistent progress. “I would class this as evolution rather than revolution,” says Julian Russell, executive director of IT and supplier relations, GlobalStar Travel Management. He notes that the principles of streamlined and user-friendly solutions are firmly in place, with a focus now primarily on enhancing the user interface, workflow, usability and consistency across devices, and most importantly the content available through all products. But more work remains to be done. “There is a school of thought among user groups that the development of these products has stalled recently,” he says. This may be attributed in part to the pandemic and recent geo-political challenges that have brought a focus on policy and risk management to the detriment of usability.
But going forward, more widespread upgrading is a must, according to Russell. "Too many legacy tools are still based on outdated workflows and user interfaces," Russell says. He adds that this isn’t the case with the best new tools, though, which take the user experience into account, reduce the complexity around policy management and approval, and ensure that the content is rich and clear. They also include a simple comparison between fares, fees, ancillaries and brands. Ultimately, this makes users feel that the tool provides a simple one-stop-shop for their booking requirements.
Healthy Investments If resource commitments are an indicator, the future looks bright. CWT, for example, is investing more than $100 million in technology, the majority of which is focused on mobile and web applications. Steps to enable full-trip content include adding New Distribution Capabilities (NDC), along with car and rail content to existing air and hotel content. Other measures focus on extending coverage of the journey and improving traveler well-being with on-trip support for trip disruption, team travel capabilities, and enhanced safety and security options. Integrating sustainability and carbon impact and improving personalization are still other focus areas.
“We’re seeing developments related to user interface, access to content, in particular NDC, and interoperability with external solutions,” says Zimmer, who notes that these evolutions reflect a growing need for OBTs to resolve the divide between simplicity of use and increasingly complex expectations. “Whether it’s new players or legacy vendors who have renewed their platform, OBT solutions are aiming for scalability, agility and interoperability.”
Another development is the incorporation of greater risk and safety information included in OBTs. CTM’s dedicated COVID hub, for example, provides guidance on restrictions and requirements alongside other travel risks such as natural disasters, weather and terrorism. All can be quickly accessed from the company’s “Lightning” online booking tool.
A greater focus on overall traveler well-being also seems a given. “Capabilities that support travelers on the trip will be more and more important,” Zimmer says. A key will be making it easier for travelers to connect to the people, places and things that are critical to their journey, such as easy team travel or IoT connectivity. Enhanced capabilities might also include natural language processing as well as improved real-time, dynamic messaging to travelers relevant to where they are in their journey.
Kubasik notes that while airlines hit the brakes on their push for NDC development during the last couple of years, they’re forging ahead now. This should bring a huge variety of choice in fare types and bundles onto the market. “The online booking tools that will make this a benefit to corporate travelers are the ones who are well positioned to smartly filter and sort different content types, and also gather and act on traveler preferences and behaviors.”
Zimmer says it's clear that artificial intelligence, machine learning and data science are the technologies that will be driving transformation in business travel into the future through automation, geolocation and the hyper-personalization of travel content and services. "Being able to deploy and manipulate these technologies across both the traveler journey and the travel program will be critical to helping businesses get the most out of each travel opportunity," he notes.
A case in point is CWT's recent partnership with Zytlyn to leverage their AI platform to make data-driven predictions about travel demand. “AI, at the end of the day, is the ability to more quickly and effectively bring to bear the right service, the right content, the right recommendation at the right time based on the consolidation and analysis of a huge amount of information in near-real time to quickly make or suggest the best possible decisions both for travelers and for their companies,” Zimmer says. As companies seek to tailor the travel experience for the particular needs of their business or industry, it will become increasingly important for travel platforms to be able to exploit AI to keep improving and personalizing the travel experience.
Another indicator of future directions, Russell points out, is the recent focus on blending agent booking platforms and traveler booking tools. This provides the potential for TMCs and travelers to manage the travel program and booking through two iterations of the same platform with a single content source. It should also support consistency in content, policy management, approval flows and risk management.
"As disparate content sources continue to raise challenges, buyers have a right to expect these platforms to become the norm over time," he says. "But there are still challenges to be overcome before this happens. Aim for the stars though!"
Evaluating Tools The future is about choice and abundance of options, Remedios says, with suppliers wanting the ability to dynamically merchandise their product offering. “Companies need to re-think their approach to travel policy to both accomplish their business goals and maximize employee satisfaction,” he says. “The provider that can facilitate all of those needs simultaneously will be tomorrow’s industry leader.”
Ascanio adds that particularly in a post-COVID market, the lines between business and leisure travel are going to get even blurrier, and perhaps be eradicated altogether. “Booking and administrative tools need to embrace this shift if they want to stay relevant and successful,” he says. “Any tool that insists on the status quo will not have a future.”
In considering options with booking tools, Kubasik advises asking travelers what they need for a confident return to travel. “Travel buyers should make sure they can get access to both local and international content in their booking tool alongside guidance on airline and hotel health and cleaning measures, greater flexibility on fare types and other information to make them feel comfortable,” he says.
Remedios notes that it’s critical to not only evaluate the functionality of the booking tool, but to understand fully the depth of the content in the marketplace that the tool is relying upon to deliver recommendations to travelers. The ability to consistently integrate all negotiated, wholesale, retail and private supplier content into one display is a major differentiator. “In short,” he says, “you must look beneath the surface to make sure you’re accessing all of the options without any bias.”
This means moving forward while asking plenty of questions. “Poor adoption of booking tools and low compliance have eroded the effectiveness of travel programs for years despite technically competent OBTs”, D'Astolfo says. “So travel execs should investigate the root cause of this and check with their travelers as to what they need from their booking tool to address this issue.” In evaluating OBTs D'Astolfo suggests asking: Is the tool going to offer the full breadth of content, such as NDC and non-GDS accommodation, that your travelers need? Does it have intelligent policy application and dynamic workflows so you don't need to go to manual approval and booking? And does it deliver a user experience that your travelers will actually want to use?
Travel managers should also opt for tools that provide an omnichannel experience, according to Zimmer. Today, booking tools should seamlessly connect across online, messaging and offline channels. "Business travelers change channels at will to find information, book their trip and solve problems on their journey," he says. "What guides them is their own task or goal, and they expect to be able to go wherever it leads them." That means travelers must be provided a truly omnichannel experience, where they can fully self-serve across the entire journey on mobile or web, but then easily transition to interacting with a travel counselor without having to start over.
The flow of contextual information between channels has become essential, including the traveler’s history, previous trips and searches, current location and preferences. And the fact that travelers expect this information to follow them from one interaction to the next will help drive future enhancements to already robust booking tools.