Competition is the soul of innovation – at least that’s what they say. And with corporate booking tools that seems to be more than a truism, given the widespread agreement that closing the gap with the consumer experience is a must.

“The expectations of our customers are being shaped by consumer experiences,” says John Mourhous, chief experience officer for Flight Centre Travel Group. “We either have to adapt to that, or watch those customers gravitate to solutions that do.”

Distribution and Booking Tools

Fortunately, key improvements are well under way. Looking to next year and beyond, travel managers can expect a more satisfying experience for all concerned. “You could argue that we’re already there with some of the new tech disruptor entrants into the market,” Mourhous says. At the same time, he adds, those products may not provide the full services needed for a managed travel program.

However, some corporate booking platforms that are driven by consumer principles are making considerable headway into various global markets. One example is TripActions; some of the recent steps by the business travel technology provider are indicators of the trend toward improved booking options.

In June, the company launched an enhanced platform with United Airlines designed to offer a fully scalable, end-to-end flight shopping and booking experience. Delivering on IATA's New Distribution Capability (NDC) standard, it offers expanded levels of visibility into airline offerings while also allowing travel managers to customize content received by their employees. Just last month, it announced a similar partnership with Southwest Airlines.

Danny Finkel, TripActions’ VP of booking experience and supplier strategy, says bridging the gap between the booking experience for business travelers and that of leisure travelers has been a focus of the company since its founding four years ago. To that end, improvements have included innovations with AI-driven personalization, global inventory and 24/7 live human support.  

"New technologies that support more seamless supply integrations beyond airline inventory are enabling a three-hundred sixty-degree traveler experience," he says. "Lodging, for example, is ripe for reinvention to become much more supplier-friendly, with a rich layer of intelligent personalization that will make it infinitely more traveler-friendly too."

In that area, Egencia now offers Hotel Conversations, a feature enabling two-way communication between business travelers and their hotel in an instant messaging form. The traveler can ask questions, confirm details, and adjust travel at any step of the journey.

To add new dimensions to the traveler experience, Egencia’s Smart Mix feature applies machine learning-powered capabilities to historical data insights and business needs to customize offers for individual travel. For example, the platform can serve up hotel options based on a previous stay, proximity to company offices and consumer ratings.

[bf] The Personal Touch [end bf]
As booking tools become more sophisticated, they're becoming more personalized for users while also benefiting from partnerships that help to create an end-to-end traveler experience.

A major factor in personalization for travelers is to have booking tools that provide a transparent view of all the options an airline offer, Finkel notes. Through the Next Generation Storefront (NGS), clear comparisons and rich content create a shopping experience for travelers that's more similar to the way people are accustomed to booking other goods or services. As a result, users have the ability to see and easily consider company policy, along with details such as branded fares, inflight amenities, seat photos and flight performance statistics.

Ease of use is another important consideration. “Nobody would ever use a consumer tool that they needed to be trained to use,” says Nick Whitehead, head of marketing for Serko. “So getting a business tool to be so intuitive that it needs no training is our benchmark.” With Zeno, his company’s travel and expense platform, the concept of providing training content or videos has been replaced by an interactive function that walks users through the process.

Not surprisingly, the industry continues to put a priority on developing mobile options. Advances in mobile technology are shifting buyers and travelers away from relying on desktops and laptops when they search for travel options and make transactions.

"With the future of machine learning, we’re able to personalize the booking experience to transform AI and customer service on our smartphones. I feel that very soon corporate travel will be mobile-first," Finkel predicts.

“Despite most organizations doing business on laptops, mobile phones and tablets, there is still more to come in this area for business travel,” says Stephen Puente, global sales manager, corporations for Amadeus. Puente says he foresees a completely seamless experience with full mobile integration in the near future. Travelers will be able to start a booking on desktop and complete the booking later on a mobile device. This should include the capability for managing other bookings such as transfers or restaurants on the go.

Only the Beginnin
Innovations now in development include virtual assistants embedded into mobile devices and messaging apps to reduce the amount of time spent on planning. “A virtual assistant could create a booking once a meeting request is accepted, including flight, hotel, and car hire details, and then help with re-booking in case there are changes,” Puente says.

Furthermore, companies will continue to adopt and invest in natural language understanding, Puente says. “Supported by advanced data, artificial intelligence and cognitive technology, companies will be able to build chatbots that can help with travel inspiration, search or booking a flight or a taxi, on-site support and much more.”  

Whitehead says user choice is a key. “When it comes to the user interface, we believe firmly in giving the user choice,” he says. This might mean booking on a laptop, mobile device, via chatbot or in Serko’s case, by talking with a digital human virtual assistant the company has just prototyped. “We're using AI to remember what display preferences the user has chosen in the past to present information in a way that best appeals to them.”

Another development is the introduction of virtual cards into travel booking workflows, reports Omar Qari, head of corporate strategy and business development for Certify/Chrome River.  

“It's breaking down the centralized card tied to a managed booking solution,” he says. “That's enabling business travelers to take their payment process with them to whatever consumer travel site they want to book from.” The virtual cards include built-in controls allowing travel managers to apply necessary policy constraints, while also offering flexibility for travelers.

“Now that travelers have tasted this, there's only going to be more investment in this space and more flexibility around the types of controls that are possible,” Qari says.

While progress is evident, challenges remain before corporate tools can match the consumer experience. “Despite the hype, I don’t think we’re as close as some people think,” says Mark Ziegler, senior travel manager, global travel services for data services provider NetApp. He says from a practical viewpoint, this isn’t likely to happen until late in 2020 or early 2021.

Even with significant improvements, it may be unavoidable that travelers will tend to expect more and more. “We're heading in the right direction, but as business booking solutions try to play catch-up with consumer booking options, traveler behavior and consumer expectations continue to evolve even faster,” Qari says.

As a result, while part of the answer is a better managed booking solution for business travelers, it will also be important to bring business controls and payment capabilities to the unmanaged consumer solutions where business travelers are increasingly gravitating.

Look Before You Leap 
Adopting the right booking tool can bring its own set of challenges. “Technology isn’t always smooth sailing,” Whitehead says. “Changing up your booking tool can bring significant short-term disruption, so travel managers need to assure themselves they are choosing a system they can rely on to future-proof their program and deliver long-term benefits.”

With NDC, content fragmentation, AI, mobility, chat and data security changing the way we think about business travel, Whitehead notes that a corporate program needs a partner that has a focus on innovation to stay relevant.

For any booking tool, factors to consider might include usage and adoption, net promoter score, carbon impact data, average time booking a trip, and – of course –savings. "One of the biggest success metrics we look for is adoption," Finkel says. High adoption rates indicate that travelers willingly comply with the company’s travel policy, leading to better spend visibility and control for travel managers while also supporting duty of care commitments.

Perhaps the most important driver for traveler acceptance is rich content. “The best experience in the world won’t mask a lack of content that your travelers need,” Mourhous advises. “You should always primarily focus on those content needs, and once satisfied, look next at user experience and how the tool performs through the full traveler journey.”

Puente points out that content has a wide range of possibilities. “Content is not only airfare, hotel rates and car rental details,” he says. “It’s also trusted reviews, photos and video that inspire and create a richer travel shopping experience.”

With the right content and a positive experience, travelers are more likely to cooperate with company expectations. “You're not going to be able to shoehorn every employee into using your travel booking solution,” Qari says. What’s more essential is creating an environment where controls can be uniformly applied across whatever method they choose to use to book.

Buyers and travelers alike know that business travel is a continual balancing act between the corporation’s objectives and its employees’ on-the-road requirements, Puente notes. “Companies are looking for greater return on investment and assurance that employees will be cared for,” he says. “At the same time, travelers are looking for a personalized travel experience with ultra-responsive technology.”

For the traveler to book through the provided online booking tool, Puente cautions the corporation must ensure it offers the best possible experience. This should go beyond a nice user interface and easy booking flow so that travelers don’t want to book anywhere else.

“Travel managers and their TMCs must anticipate their travelers’ needs, understand previous challenges, and proactively address these using data, analytics and business intelligence,” Puente says. “All three will play a big role when it comes to personalizing the offerings.”