As the pandemic subsides, now is the time to explore what’s out there and take control of the booking experience
By Mark Rowh
Ideally, booking tools for corporate travelers should offer equal advantages both for travelers and the companies footing the bill. Certainly, they provide important opportunities for the travel program to impose policy limitations while also offering robust traveler information.
Yet while virtually everyone concerned would agree that a more consumer-like booking experience is desirable, that's easier said than done. Invariably, meeting the needs of businesses adds more restrictions than travelers would prefer. While progress in closing this gap has been ongoing, recent events – particularly responses to COVID-19 – may be accelerating change. At least temporarily, the pandemic has had a substantial impact on booking policies.
In a recent GBTA survey supported by Deem, more than 86 percent of responding travel managers reported that stricter pre-trip approval processes have been implemented. Nearly half also reported adopting a more restrictive requirement to book through an OBT/TMC. Of these, a full three-fourths (75 percent) said they anticipate that this change will become permanent.
If nothing else, such moves indicate that companies have taken a closer look at booking-related policies during the pandemic. Such analysis, combined with developments previously under way, may bode well for meaningful refinement of booking practices.
“Organizations are facing many changes and challenges that have emerged from the pandemic, and most importantly a shift in traveler needs across both leisure and business travel,” says Alex Kaluzny, SVP and chief product and technology officer for Egencia. While business travel remains reduced, there is an increased appetite for, and confidence in, traveling. At the same time, travelers now seek flexibility at every turn, from rescheduling to canceling.
“With that comes a more complex travel management process for travel managers,” he says. “The need for booking tools that support flexibility has never become so integral.”
For travelers, this may include more freedom to book where they feel most comfortable, whether through the online booking tool, the employer's TMC or directly from a supplier. This in turn may boost the compliance that managers seek.
Jason Toothman, global head of agency sales at Travelport, agrees that booking solutions offering flexibility, as well as those that help travel managers become more efficient in their day-to-day workflows, will play an essential role in revitalizing travel programs.
“We know that business travel will return, and that programs will look much different as companies prioritize health and safety for traveling employees and monitor changing restrictions,” he says. For some, this will include corporate commitments to sustainability initiatives that will affect decisions involving ground transportation and accommodations.
Growing Potential Booking tools offer the potential to make a genuine impact by providing more information to help travelers plan and prepare. This applies, for instance, to letting them know about the latest COVID-19 restrictions in place at their destination, as well as the policies and procedures they should anticipate with their flight, hotel stay or car rental, says Joel Bailey, chief technology officer, North America, at Corporate Travel Management. “Travelers still need to know what to expect as a result of COVID, and that can vary significantly by destination and is constantly evolving.”
Even as the pandemic subsides, travel managers will benefit from tools that support better decision-making as well as the ability to adjust to revisions in corporate travel policies. Equally important will be the ability to respond to changes in travel plans, automate time-consuming processes and readily compare the best options for travelers.
Since the pandemic, the travel manager has emerged with a business-critical role to play in employee well-being, Kaluzny says. He notes that Egencia’s Travel Advisor platform offers critical information such as entry restrictions, quarantine policies, health and hygiene standards and travel safety requirements. His company has broken new ground by offering advisories for travelers and travel managers directly in the booking tool.
Similarly, CTM has integrated rich content sources into its proprietary CTM Lightning booking tool so that travelers and arrangers can see information about their journey and destination. It offers access to key details for making good decisions about travel options, and for keeping up to date before and during travel as protocols, restrictions and procedures change. With a pre-trip approval tool, approval of online reservations as well as traditional agent reservations can include risk level.
An important next step for business travelers is for TMCs to provide real-time chat and virtual support functions within booking systems, Kaluzny points out. This will allow travelers to get information on their bookings, enabling them to cancel if they need to or request changes through on-demand support any time of the day, rather than waiting for their travel manager to be back online. Such functionality should help build traveler confidence by providing round-the-clock access to a fully integrated on-demand virtual agent.
Toothman points to increased collaboration that enables travel managers to gain needed capabilities, while minimizing the complexities that come with investment in disparate tools and solutions. One example is Travelport’s partnership with Southwest. Going live with full GDS participation gives TMC customers more visibility into the content they need to book and manage Southwest business flights from Travelport’s platform. The company has also partnered with HelloGBye, a tool that simplifies itinerary management, a move that was made ahead of the pandemic last year. “We’re seeing more of our TMC customers getting value from the ability to automatically derive itinerary intent from traveler e-mail requests and respond appropriately,” Toothman says.
SAP Concur has just introduced new controls for Concur TripLink, bringing more of a managed travel feel to direct bookings, according to Brian Hace, vice president of global travel strategy. The administrative controls provide travel managers and programs added flexibility to manage policy around supplier direct bookings and the messaging that travelers see. The end goal, not surprisingly, is to improve traveler satisfaction while delivering policy compliance.
Waves of Change Despite the advances being seen, evolution continues to be slow in other quarters. “Dynamic and continuous pricing is a development which travel managers should be aware of, but not many airlines have made progress in this area,” says Nancy Delgado, director of product marketing at Accelya.
Delgado notes that Lufthansa Group is seeing customers travel closer to the time of booking than before the COVID-19 crisis. With its continuous pricing strategy, Lufthansa Group can accommodate this by offering more attractive pricing closer to time-of-departure than can be implemented via fare filing/RBDs, supporting the spontaneous nature of some executive travel.
Even though business travel will return, Kaluzny says that progress comes in waves as restrictions, economies, companies, and the whole travel industry rebounds. “Business leaders today face a challenge of balancing business growth with employee risk,” he says. “What we do know is business conducted face-to-face improves customer relationships and accelerates business.”
Moving ahead, effective communication may be more vital than ever, especially when adjustments have been made in travel policies. “Effectively communicating those changes is critical for both traveler satisfaction and policy compliance,” Hace says. “The online booking tool is one opportunity for travel managers to present and communicate policy information to travelers.”
Increased demand appears on the horizon for sustainable travel options and other deep search attributes that help to identify the best options for travelers’ unique needs, Toothman predicts. Just one example might be meeting the needs of travelers with disabilities.
“The industry will continue to shift in a direction that will enable travel managers to easily personalize a trip beyond booking a seat on a flight and a hotel room,” he says. At his firm that means accelerating innovation in multi-source content for an improved travel retailing experience that delivers the best value.
A greater focus on compliance is also to be expected, according to Hace. The reality is that employers are dealing with an expanded set of compliance considerations. Just some include offering additional traveler flexibility while staying within policy, needing to analyze an influx of work-from-home expense reports from employees and ensuring compliance with shifting tax policies. This means organizations should look for technologies and partners which can help them deal with complexity related to compliance issues.
Perhaps the overriding demand will be for even more flexibility. “If there is anything that the pandemic has shown us, it’s how to be flexible,” Delgado says. “Prices fluctuate based on many factors such as economic, social, climate, etc., so travel policies need to adapt to all of these external influences.” She anticipates the rise of more dynamic travel policies where the travel policy adapts to specific criteria, and where with machine learning, managers can create a travel policy that adapts to current market conditions. One result could be an emphasis on travel purchase value more than simply price.
Although flexible booking solutions and online technology will play an important role in helping the travel industry scale back up, challenges remain. “We’re optimistic about the future, but predicting demand and the resources required to support it with a high degree of detail will still be difficult, certainly over the next few months as booking start to increase,” Bailey says. On the plus side, online technology will provide significant help for corporations, travelers, and TMCs as business travel resumes.
“We’re going to continue seeing corporate booking tools evolve, as technologies are applied to improve the travel retailing process,” Toothman says. As the industry continues to move in the direction of simplification, more resources are being invested in making it easier to search, shop, compare and manage travel. “This is vital for our industry as NDC content options accelerate and more diversified content emerges, presenting companies and travelers with more choices than they’ve ever had.”