More sophisticated tools make getting the right hotel simpler and travelers’ lives a little easier
Booking hotels may be the most complicated aspect of a managed corporate travel program, according to some travelers. In terms of numbers alone, the process brings a wealth of variables. While there are only so many airlines, and the universe of rental car providers is similarly limited, it’s a different story when it comes to hotels. Not only is the number of options in a given city likely to be vastly greater, but so is the range of options under which each of those properties can be booked. From how rates are determined to exactly what is included – and excluded – the experience can pose challenges to travelers and travel managers alike.
Fortunately, hotel booking tools are there to simplify the process. While such tools are not new, recent developments have included both enhanced searching and better content.
“For searching, this means a combination of more flexible search criteria and more personalized data,” says Evan Konwiser, vice president, digital traveler, American Express Global Business Travel. Examples included advanced map views and the incorporation of additional filters such as user reviews.
“Results can now be more personalized, based on location, loyalty preference, or hotel amenities,” he says. “The combination is a more powerful search experience catered to the specific user, which results in increased conversion and speed.”
Booking tools are now digging deep for many sources of content, including using multiple sources for the same hotel, according to Konwiser. This includes GDS and non-GDS sources of content, connecting directly to hotel reservation platforms, and even using not-real-time extranets to record bookings.
Hotel booking tools and agents are becoming increasingly popular in regions with a significant number of independent hotels, specifically in the Europe-Middle East-Africa, Latin America and Asia-Pacific regions, says Eric Jongeling, director of CWT’s hotel solutions group.
“Independent hotels can be an enticing option for travel managers as the model includes no booking fee,” he says. He notes that the hotel booking agent/tool economic model is to get commissions back 100 percent, and that they also offer an interesting content base with more independent hotels than the global distribution system.
“We are also seeing a trend that hotel booking agents are offering consulting services for free consulting on company hotel programs and negotiating some of their rates at no cost,” Jongeling says.
There’s also a significant trend in rate expansion payment capabilities. Konwiser points out that more content means more rate flexibility and options, from prepaid to pay at checkout and with varying rules and terms. This also creates the opportunity to offer more payment flexibility since the merchant of record is increasingly the booking tool and not the hotel.
“That also allows the booking tool itself to mark up or down rates to maximize conversion, something that is standard in the leisure world but much less common in corporate travel,” Konwiser says. “In fact, it used to be impossible. The corporate travel industry is just in the early days of taking advantage of that capability.”
The burgeoning demand for a wider array of media to showcase the property is still another consideration. “The days of a few photos is gone,” Konwiser says. “Hotels now want rich media, high rez photos, pithy and powerful descriptions, detailed amenity lists and attributes, user reviews by type of reviewer, video, location info and more. Hotel editorial will become a differentiated asset, especially as it pertains to things that increase conversion like user reviews.”
Of course the growing focus on mobile options can’t be overlooked. “The increasing use of mobile devices makes this an important functionality area of hotel booking tool developers,” says Niklas Andréen, senior vice president of hospitality and digital media for TCP supplier, Travelport.
Andréen points to the need to establish uniformity across platforms, the effective use of mobile app-style functionality, and the capacity for travelers to make changes to their bookings on the move without direct agent interaction. He also notes that today’s booking tools are responding to the demand for rich content that compares with travelers’ experiences on OTA platforms, and for structured data to enable a more tailored search which can facilitate a faster and more targeted response.
Emerging needs in some geographic areas are also driving technology change, Andréen notes. “Booking tools are increasingly relevant as the Internet becomes an integral tool for commerce in emerging economies,” he says. “These regions have limited coverage today.”Attractive Features
Jongeling says that hotel booking tools generally offer a good user experience but may not substantially differ from other online booking tools. “The real differences are cost, content and the offering of free ‘consulting’ services,” he says. “These services are mainly provided to drive increased adoption of commissionable rates and may not be in the best interest of the company’s travel program.”
Despite improvement, the corporate space still has much ground to make up to match the best tools of the leisure market, according to Konwiser. The OTAs and meta-search players have really continued to advance the hotel searching and booking experience already incorporating many of these trends, he says.
“The corporate booking tools have gradually advanced, but at a much slower pace,” he says. “We are just beginning to see the impact in the market and there is still a long way to go.”
At the same time, the increasing use of online booking tools in general means more business travelers are taking advantage of sites primarily targeted to leisure travelers. At Booking.com, for example, almost one in five bookings are now made for business travel.
To meet business needs, Booking.com now provides a free tool that allows travel managers and assistants to book on behalf of others. Through the site Booking.com for Business, corporate travel staff organizers can create accounts to pursue low rates and access specials features that help simplify the booking process. Discounts and other deals are also made available to individual travelers.
Perhaps the most attractive feature of booking tools is comprehensive content that can display both a wider selection of properties and a more accurate range of rates. “Delivering the right hotels at the right rates, and displaying the differences in rates including those sanctioned and negotiated by a corporation or its agency, is mission critical for travel managers,” Konwiser says. “After that, making sure a traveler finds the most appropriate hotel for their trip is highest priority, including right amenities, business-friendly environment and convenient location.”
From the management perspective, these tools support a greater level of both accuracy and efficiency as travel managers are able to create their own corporate workflow and policies without CBT intervention or customization. “Most CBT platforms in the mid-market and eEnterprise space are able to present least cost options,” he says. “They are able to set policies by user status, location, cost centers, projects for review, and stream-line user options and cost parameters.”
In addition, finance managers are able to report more accurately against travel budgets in real time through the use of OCR mobile technology for receipt capture. This can save time in completing heretofore tedious expense reports as well as expedite required approval and audit processes.
Not surprisingly, employees from large organizations are more likely to use a corporate online booking tool than those at smaller organizations who are less likely to have OBTs, according to a 2015 study by GBTA. Conducted in partnership with CWT, the research found that travelers also reported common practices that could restrict the ability of travel managers to monitor and enforce policy compliance. For example, 42 percent who used an alternative channel indicated they aren’t required to share travel information with their employer.Smart Selections
In choosing hotel booking tools or motivating travelers to use them, ease of use is certainly among the most important factors to consider. “Few travel programs are severe in their hotel mandates, so delivering tools that are easy and fun for travelers to use is paramount to keeping conversion or usage high,” Konwiser says. He suggests that travel managers look for integration with their TMC program for profiles and traveler data, comprehensive inventory and corporate rates. Another critical factor is multi-channel access, especially mobile.
Although keeping upfront costs to implement these HBT solutions low or even non-existent may seem like a great option, this choice can significantly affect the ability to realize strong cost savings through optimizing your hotel program and associated negotiated rates, Jongeling says. With negotiated rates that are non-commissionable it would not be in the HBT’s interest to promote them, even if they may be best for a particular company’s travel program.
“Travel managers should consider whether or not the HBT has the best interest of their hotel program or if maximizing commissionable fees is their focus,” Jongeling says.
Andréen suggests focusing on user friendliness on appropriate platforms, with effective notifications that empower travelers to modify bookings independently. Ease of use will demand less training and increase user adoption. Also important: Efficient rate and policy management with analytics of traveler booking patterns and preferences to serve up relevant content options. Another desirable characteristic is the ability to change workflow/policies parameters and customize/adjust without the involvement of CBT providers.
Travel managers need to focus on due diligence before opting to use a HBT, Jongeling says. “First assess what is going to be the impact on your hotel program compliance, usage and cost savings,” he says. “Travel managers should also remember that keeping an integrated booking channel for all parts of a trip – air, hotel and ground – remains the best option for security, reporting and payment purposes.”
Discuss what your program’s best options are with your technology and travel partners, Konwiser advises, and be sure to focus heavily on user adoption. “If your travelers don’t use the tools, it doesn’t matter how good or bad they are,” he says. “Deliver tools that are easy to use and naturally drive adoption. That will make your program that much more effective.”