COVID-19 has shifted priorities, making health and safety prime considerations for booking platforms
At the advent of the COVID 19 crisis, airlines and airports began cleanliness wars that aimed to quell the traveler fears which have devastated both the travel industry and global economies.It didn’t work as advertised because quarantine chaos ensued. Countries imposed travel restrictions and testing requirements which changed with head-spinning rapidity. Corporations and their travel managers had few options except to suspend travel. But now technology is being deployed designed to get travelers to pull the trigger on trips.
“The travel ecosystem today is probably the most complex it has ever been, with government, airline and hotel policies in every country constantly changing,” says Travelport global head of customer strategy and marketing Kyle Moore.
Now, as the COVID-19 crisis drags on, companies are trying to return to travel with 70 percent of respondents to a CTM survey saying they need information to get there. That is just one of numerous studies showing there is pent-up demand; another from Travelport reports the majority of travelers are now ready to get back on the road if they are sure airlines, airport, hotels and car rental companies are implementing 10 different safety measures throughout the trip.Rising to the Challenge
Serko CEO Darrin Grafton suggests the new complexity will drive greater dependence on travel management, although for the large percentage of unmanaged travelers, booking platforms have adopted universal signs to give travelers the information they need at a glance.
“As business travel resumes, we believe that cost, risk and change management will be top-of-mind priorities for every organization,” Grafton says. “‘Cost management’ because most organizations will be returning from a near zero dollar spend, and each dollar will be reviewed with a greater level of scrutiny. ‘Risk management’ to ensure traveler wellbeing is certain and that duty of care obligations are met. And ‘Change’ to support an organizations’ travelers as they navigate a much more unpredictable landscape of disruptions and also to ensure that credits are effectively tracked and used.”
Of course, Grafton cautions, the key to managing these priorities will be data gathered during the booking process. “Underpinning these requirements is a pre-requisite for corporate travel to be booked through a managed sales channel, as flights or hotels booked directly on airline or supplier websites make it near-impossible for the organization to effectively address cost, risk or change management. Adoption of the corporate booking tools and the subsequent corporate travel policy compliance has never been more important, and we've rapidly adapted our offering to support travel managers and their travelers.”
Maureen Brady, CEO of CTM-North America, agrees. “Travel managers have a huge opportunity now to review key program objectives, policies and technologies against shifting business initiatives,” she says. “Proactively ensuring program stability and the ability to deliver critical information, services and systems reinforces the travel manager role as a key stakeholder to organization.”
CTM’s survey shows regaining traveler confidence is more than a cleanliness issue: it must include information on quarantines and restrictions, social distancing rules, mandatory use of face masks, and ready availability of sanitizing gel or wipes, masks and gloves.
“Our teams have been proactively engaging with customers throughout the COVID-19 travel ‘downtime’ to provide essential training and resources to build knowledge, confidence, safety and efficiency as they prepare for a return to business travel,” she says.
“Travel managers should be looking to current or new providers to secure or refine tools related to health and safety information, boosting traveler confidence, and ensuring overall traveler wellness. For example, CTM’s Lightning online booking tool includes health and safety initiatives from airlines and hotels as part of the booking process to enable more confident traveler buying decisions.”
Travel management companies, she explains, will need to provide businesses with seamless, integrated travel insights and intelligence spanning government health and travel advice, quarantine measures, and sophisticated risk management tools including traveler tracking and emergency communications, to enable businesses and their employees to travel more safely, efficiently and cost effectively.
That’s also the finding in research from SAP Concur, according to senior director of global travel Ralph Colunga. “Travel managers can expect increased emphasis on duty of care functionality in the future booking tools,” he says. “Our study found that ensuring personal health and safety is most important to business travelers, and 65 percent place it in their top three considerations. Travel providers are reworking their duty of care strategy to accommodate this reality. For example, we’re expanding SAP Concur’s duty of care partner network to give travelers assurance that their safety expectations are being met.”
But, as a SAP Concur Webinar revealed, perhaps the most important ingredient is flexibility.
“The travel manager panel revealed that visibility and flexibility are important,” Calunga explains. “As companies plan the return to travel, pre-approval requirements help monitor all business travel and ensure duty of care. Online booking tools that display unused ticket credits also are valuable as travel budgets tighten. Additionally, flexibility is an OBT differentiator to accommodate changing travel restrictions and health and safety concerns.”Battle Lines
Today the battle is on two fronts. First, testing is rolling out as an antidote to wanderlust- and business-crushing quarantine rules, although they remain cumbersome, slow and costly. The second is cutting through the confusion. To meet that need, Serko, CTM, Travelport and other travel companies have tools to make order out of chaos, enabling road warriors once again to roam about the planet.
For example, CTM adopted ATPCO’s Reassurance Universal Product Attributes (UPAs) gathered from more than 100 airlines globally displaying UPA data on relevant health and safety measures within the flight search results.
To aid the universal recognition of these different attributes, ATPCO/Route Happy developed icons signaling what is available during a given trip.
“This includes information for travel suppliers, state and country level risk information, as well as border requirements and travel restrictions,” Brady explains. “This information is critical to establish traveler confidence and inform confident buying decisions. CTM has been able to create global visibility on risk, health and safety information within our existing proprietary CTM Portal and Lightning online booking technology within all applicable markets, including information for countries which publish state level restrictions.”
Likewise, Serko adopted globally standardized information covering airline mask requirements, pre-boarding temperature checks, adjacent seat blockages, reduced passenger capacity and enhanced cleaning protocols, putting essential information at users’ fingertips at the time of booking, Grafton says.
“Zeno, our personalized booking tool, also supports many hotel cleanliness rating systems based on the content provider (i.e. GDS, Booking.com, HRS, Expedia, etc.) that includes information on enhanced hygiene standards, cleaning protocols and social distancing practices,” Grafton explains. “The content is dynamically updated so travelers and travel managers can immediately understand what they'll be facing. The data makes it easy for travelers to compare different airline measures and helps travel managers to determine which providers meet the safety and traveler well-being standards of their travel programs. This enhanced information is in addition to the illustrative graphics and messaging around flexible booking, food and beverage hygiene, clean air circulation and more that were previously released into Zeno in April this year.”
The new technology, says Travelport’s Moore, is designed to ease workload. “We’re making sure our agent partners no longer need to constantly leave their workflow to search for accurate and up-to-date information – greatly improving their efficiency in servicing their customers,” he says. “We sit at the heart of the industry, both aggregating and enabling the merchandising of travel content from all corners of the world. We are in a natural position to bring this information into a single place and deliver it to travel agents and travelers.”
Travelport was the first travel technology company to launch a COVID-19 Resource Hub, including regularly updated airline, hotel and car policy trackers as well as direct links to support services and guides on the best ways to use the technology during the crisis, Toothman says.
The company followed with its downloadable COVID-19 Smartpoint plugin, detailing government restrictions, lockdowns and safety measures – updated on a daily basis by global travel safety intelligence provider, Safeture. Itinerary-specific information is available at the click of a button. The free Airline Health & Safety Traveler provides updated information on the safety initiatives of more than 80 of the world’s largest airlines.
Recently, the distribution provider rolled out the Travelport Guide to Travel Recovery report designed to give travelers the information they say they need.
Similarly, SAP Concur and app developers have partnered. “Travel apps have launched new tools to help navigate specific issues tied to COVID-19 because there’s a lot of uncertainty about travel restrictions, health and safety guidelines and supplier policies right now,” says Calunga, whose company launched several new resources and enhancements to its TripIt from Concur platform. These tools and resources help travelers navigate the “new normal” and stay vigilant and informed when it comes to their health and safety.
These include Traveler Resource Center, which provides online resources on public health and safety advisories, booking cancellation policies, travel guidelines and restrictions. Tripit’s Neighborhood Safety Scores checks on safety conditions and risk in 65,000 cities and neighborhoods and give them a health and medical score that factors in COVID-19 data.
Nearby Places is a search feature for hospitals, clinics and pharmacies close to travelers’ hotel, rental car, activity or restaurant, should they need medical assistance while traveling. Finally, Widget for iOS 14 Update helps travelers access their most relevant travel details without having to open the TripIt app, allowing for more touchless travel options.
Travel managers will also likely be key to contact tracing although that does not address independent travelers. Serko and CTM have already worked such information requirements into their systems and Travelport indicated the technology requirements for such efforts will only be hampered by privacy concerns. Ultimately, the technology could also include vaccination information. With the information needed to re-launch travel at hand, the task now is to let travelers know about it.