In any managed travel program, access to full-featured technology is a must. So naturally when choosing a travel management company, the tech side should be a major consideration. But just how can you be assured of making the best choice?

The first step is assessing the company’s underlying technology, says Heather Wright, VP global product marketing for BCD Travel. Is it scalable and flexible enough to serve your unique program needs? Does it support future developments in travel innovation? Can it accommodate unforeseen disruptions in the business? “This foundational technology will drive every application and experience you and your travelers have going forward,” she cautions.

Travel Management Companies

The TMC’s ability to deliver modern digital experiences also ranks high. Wright notes that attractive and intuitive digital tools that are accessible anywhere, anytime are critical to today’s business travelers, who as consumers have become accustomed to a baseline of proactive personalization.

“Know who they are and what they like – don’t make them tell you every time,” she says. “The best way to gauge the quality of tools is to hear straight from travelers themselves.” Since the right digital tools can drive the desired outcomes in traveler behavior, the results can be both reduced costs and happy travelers.

To that end, look for a TMC’s track record with technology innovation, advises John Mourhous, chief experience officer for Flight Centre Travel Group. “The industry is moving so quickly that you can easily fall behind if you don’t make a consistent effort to stay ahead,” he says.

Accessibility should be another key focus. “Whether you choose to leverage the TMC’s online booking solutions or a third-party solution, travelers should be able to have access to a tool in as many ways as possible whether it’s their desktop, tablet or phone,” says David Kaufman, managing partner of Acquis Consulting Group. He notes that leveraging technology makes it easy for travelers to book, modify and manage their travel, or to get in touch with the right people in a specific situation. It also increases compliance, strengthens traveler tracking and helps keep costs down.

Since TMCs have different levels of involvement with technology, Kaufman points out that travel managers should think about how much control over tech decisions they prefer. He notes that online TMCs often dictate technology options, including online booking tools, agent engagement, and mobile applications. Conversely, some global or mid-size TMCs may have their own online booking solution, but don't mandate it and are happy to work with others in the marketplace.

“The level of control that your organization desires over the travel booking technology can guide the decision toward which TMCs make the most sense to work with,” Kaufman says.

The ideal TMC match should also be based on flexibility. Keep in mind that TMCs often have their own technology preferences that may or may not be compatible for you, advises Mark Ziegler, senior travel manager, global travel services for NetApp, a provider of data services.

“They will have economic advantages for their preferred tech suppliers or their in-house tech,” he says. “You want to make sure that any technology you choose is the best for your program and not based on what’s good for the TMC.”

Forward March 
A number of promising developments bode well for TMC tech in the near future. Charlie Mitchell, technology engagement manager for GoldSpring Consulting, is optimistic about traveler recognition software that some TMC's are showcasing for agents.

“The industry has built plenty of hype around the idea of personalization without the results travelers need – particularly with offline bookings – for too long,” Mitchell says. But effective traveler recognition that will in fact make the traveler feel known may yield a breakthrough in traveler satisfaction. “My concern is that true scale and rollout appears to be a couple years away,” he cautions. In the near term, he anticipates transformation in guest booking experience with the likes of Pana, solving a difficult-to-manage pain point and meeting traveler satisfaction all in one fell swoop.

The so-called ‘platform TMC’ also shows interesting potential, says Caroline Strachan, managing partner at consulting firm Festive Road. This refers to the TMC that accesses inventory from a variety of places into a single repository, overlays dynamic control mechanisms and can then service the client and booking via many channels, including phone, OBT, mobile and chat.

“Because the channels all get content from the same repository there’s always a single source of truth and service consistency,” she says. “We would extend this to include the Next Gen Storefront style of booking interface, what we previously would have called consumer grade, new platform UI’s having the chance to go beyond consumer grade.”

Kaufman says that emerging partnerships also offer potential. “Some TMCs are partnering with innovative solutions to put the traveler back at the center of their technology strategy while keeping the core travel management tenets of safety, compliance and cost front of mind,” he says.

One example is Gant Travel, which recently announced a partnership with Tripkicks in which services will be resold to clients. “This type of partnership encourages travelers to stay compliant, and they also share in the benefits of a technology partner.” Kaufman believes such arrangements represent the future of travel as they allow TMCs to focus on what they do best, while bringing in third party benefits to travel managers and travelers.

Some other developments are still over the horizon. “We’re seeing lots of great things come from the start-up world for traveler experience,” Mitchell says. “It will be interesting to see how the TMCs manage this world, and how quickly they can bring products to market.”

Making Comparisons 
Gaining a clear picture of technology features requires a focus on genuine needs, according to Mitchell. Too often, the “nice-to-haves” and the bells and whistles distract from the “need-to-haves,” he says. “It’s easy to find a partner that will mask lack of solution with pretty ideas. It’s much more difficult to find a partner that will focus solely on your needs.”

Mourhous suggests creating a matrix of the most important technology components that matter to your program, and asking each TMC to explain its offerings. “Get beyond Powerpoint decks and get into real demos, and if possible, ask for a test login to try it yourself,” he says. “Also ask what products they have built themselves versus resold from others.”

Different approaches can be effective, but the key is understanding the core technologies that each TMC offers, Kaufman says. Depending on the company’s complexity and the decision makers’ familiarity with the TMCs, a more or less structured selection may be put in place using a combination of interviews, demonstrations, scoring matrices and reference checks.

“Also, look into additional offerings that a TMC may have,” Kaufman adds. As an example, he points to BCD’s creation of SolutionSource, a marketplace that allows travel managers to select applications that make sense for their program.

Such evaluations will only be effective when framed within the needs at hand. “Technology means little if it can’t meet your unique program goals,” Wright says. “The best way to assess the capabilities of a TMC is to speak in terms of problems and solutions.”

This means discussing challenges not yet overcome as well as desired program changes. “Let the TMC tell you how their technology can solve your unique problems,” she says. “And let them tell you what industry changes lie ahead and how their technology can scale to accommodate those changes as well.” She notes that BCD has a dedicated research and innovation team looking out three to five years that forecasts changes to the industry, and supports technologists and customers with relevant information.

In the process, be sure connect with the right reps. “Talk to operations people at TMCs before making decisions,” Zeigler says. “Sales people often don’t have the entire picture. They’re trying to make a sale.” Operational people, on the other hand, are more likely to explain the pros and cons of a new technology.

Proceed with Caution 
In evaluating TMC technology, several basic mistakes should be avoided.

It’s wise to steer clear of the “We don’t do things that way," mentality which precludes travel managers looking into some of the more forward thinking TMC technology in the marketplace, Kaufman says.

He notes that the landscape of content distribution is changing with the introduction of NDC, direct supplier connections, and various content acquisition channels beyond traditional rate loading into the GDS. In order to keep all options open to them, the breadth of technology a given TMC supports should be considered, even if the decision hasn’t been made to move towards the emerging technology right now.

At the same time, moving too quickly can be problematic. “While it’s nice to have options, it’s important that an organization adds functionality to their program at a rate that the travelers and management can consume,” Kaufman says. “It’s important to have a long-term strategy, but a big bang approach can be risky.”

The same principle can be applied to the emergence of new products. “Don't buy vaporware,” Mitchell warns. “Too often I see blind adoration for products that have yet to be released. It requires vigilance – ask to see case studies of the respective technology solving for your respective issues.”

When the need seems compelling, do the necessary research, speak to trusted experts and take time to understand the best approach for a concept that’s still on its way. “Probably the most common example I see of this at the moment is in chat technology,” Mitchell says. “It’s something that everyone seems to have an idea for, but still seems behind in terms of where other industries are with this technology.”

Mourhous cautions against being wooed by sales presentations and not actually seeing the products in action. “Be leery of TMC’s overly relying on third party resold or referred products,” he says. “All that means is that their technology offering is not a key strategy for them, and should be a warning sign on how they will perform over time.”

Caveats aside, the future looks bright on the tech side of travel. As TMCs continue to up their game, travel managers can anticipate access to new technologies supporting both the traveler experiences and improved program management.