Travel management companies have leveraged artificial intelligence and virtual services to survive during the pandemic; however, in a post-COVID world, TMCs are finding clients are looking for technology that better adapts to more multifaceted service models.

The challenge is, the TMC labor force was greatly reduced starting in 2020 and at a point where transactions were down by 80-90 percent, TMCs needed automation to fill the void left by the labor shortfall.

However, not all travelers and customers wanted to use these services. That’s why the TMC space has seen a recent trend toward a two-tier system – high-touch for those who demand it, and tech-heavy for those whose needs favor a tech solution.

Will Tate, a partner at GoldSpring Consulting, notes TMCs have faced staffing challenges for many years, with the promise of the automation savior, and many improvements have been made, including agent desktops, mobile and itinerary management. However, the two fundamental problems to be solved were handling non-value-added calls and providing a more convenient interaction method – removed from phone conversations.

“The market provided two different solutions: one from the TMCs and one from airlines and hotels,” he says. “First, the TMCs moved as much client information as possible to self-serve access – portals with itineraries, invoice details, trip alerts, etc. Some incorporated this into their mobile apps. Travelers can then handle these requests on their own, effectively migrating requests to a ‘pull’ approach, removing the TMC from the transaction.”

Second, airlines and hotels have also solved for these, driving reasons to utilize their apps for up-to-date schedule changes, check-in, special requests, and so on. This “push” approach proactively sends the information pre-empting the “pull,” Tate says. Both approaches provide information 24/7, permitting information flow with no restriction to hours of operation.

“However, the promise of AI is still in front of us,” Tate says. “Some TMCs have deployed this in the agent desktop and for hotel recommendations, and buyers want more.” From what he’s seen, “pull” does work and would be improved with simple text or chat requests, eliminating the searching currently required.

The TMC Viewpoint 
Joel Hanson, senior director, innovation business development at CWT, notes the pandemic in some ways placed a renewed premium on timely insight, because that has been critical to companies looking to navigate through the ever-changing environment. “It also reinforced the importance of traveler well-being, to ensure every trip is a productive one, and to ensure every dollar spent on limited travel opportunities generates the greatest return,” he says. “So our goal was, and is, to ensure that our clients’ travel programs are a core source of competitive advantage.”

Heather T. Wright, vice president, global product marketing for BCD Travel, notes the company has relied heavily on automation and digital platforms to help its people work smarter and find efficiencies in new places, while developing relevant new solutions for customers and their travelers to help them navigate new demands. “But because virtual service and digital solutions were central to BCD’s strategy pre-pandemic, it’s really just driven the adoption of existing processes and tools, and expedited the evolution of some solutions that we’ve leaned more heavily on,” Wright says.
Since the pandemic, GlobalStar has expanded the scope of virtual communications, according to CEO James Stevenson, and has created and deployed video as a medium for sharing intellect, thought leadership and messages from supplier partners through its centralized communication platform.

“We have seen tremendous resilience and agility from our partners throughout the pandemic,” Stevenson says. “We have witnessed brilliance from many as they leveraged virtual services to do more – to not only survive the last 24 months but to also assist their communities.”

Digital Tools
COVID-19 has accelerated the digital transformation of corporate travel, both from an innovation and an adoption perspective, proving that in moments of great challenge or difficulty people come together and ideas move quickly.
Stevenson notes that to power the new breed of corporate travel, there will also be a growing appetite for the virtual solutions that the metaverse can play in the travel ecosystem, fusing the physical and digital realms.

CTM recognized the value of virtual AI services several years ago and proactively established a dedicated AI development group within its technology hub, with the goal to integrate artificial intelligence and machine learning solutions and processes throughout the company’s entire business.

“CTM uses AI/ML within our proprietary online booking tool, Lightning,” says CTM’s chief product officer, Lehi Mills. “These AI/ML-driven features help travelers select better options during the booking process, creating a faster, more efficient experience for the traveler.”

The company is also looking to initiate other automated, virtual solutions in other areas, especially in offline transactions and self-service platforms. “There are a number of processes that don’t require human intervention,” Mills says. “Moving these workflows to a virtual solution reduces the pressure on traditional labor forces and instead provides greater scalability as we return to travel post-pandemic.”

CTM has invested in an integrated omnichannel system that provides travelers multiple ways to communicate with agents or automate self-service functions. “For us, it’s really about leveraging technology and innovation in exceeding our customer expectations across all facets of travel,” Mills says. “CTM tries to be as forward-thinking as possible, from text messaging, agent chat, and chat-bots to self-service booking and traditional service configurations.”

There are several examples of how BCD has addressed COVID-19 with its digital tools and services. “Putting control in the hands of travelers was important,” Wright says. “We made it easy to cancel and rebook a trip through the mobile app, with the click of a button. Of course, agent service was still an option, but this gave travelers a choice and made it easy. And it took the pressure off of agents on days where call volumes were especially high because of waivers or border closings.”

For example, early in 2020, when travel was shutting down, BCD sent a push notification to 55,000 travelers telling them they could cancel upcoming trips with the push of a button in TripSource. Within 30 minutes there were more than 300 cancellations from the app. The numbers continued to increase over the next several days and no technical issues or support requests were reported.

“Our COVID-19 Information Hub was developed and launched in a little over a month, aggregating essential COVID related information on a global level,” Wright says. “The single source of information includes data from more than 800 sources, providing details on destination risk alerts, airline and hotel policies, ground transportation protocols, travel restrictions and more”

With this resource, travelers no longer needed to visit numerous websites to look up specific entry/exit requirements, quarantine information, country risk levels and requirements, hotel and airline information, what to expect at airports, preparation details to consider, as well as what health symptoms to monitor.

For agents, BCD accelerated key features in AgentSource, focusing on the automation and consolidation of fragmented data sources – waivers, disruptions, COVID-19 risks and requirements, and bringing them together into a single dashboard, creating efficiencies for agents and more personalized service for travelers.

Over the past two years, many digital-first companies have re-discovered the importance of experienced advisor services, says Mike Boult, president of Travel Leaders Corporate, a division of Internova Travel Group. “Without this skillful group of unsung heroes, it’s questionable whether the industry would have survived,” Boult explains. “Our advisors became travel industry first responders, dealing with every changing rule and overly anxious customers. The entire system could well have melted down if the only outlet for refunds, general inquiries, rebooking, exchanges and more were left exclusively for suppliers to deal with.”

The Rise of AI 
AI talk used to be all about replacing people with technology, Hanson notes. But as we move into the “post-digital” era, he says, truly transformational service comes not from just the human-to-tech trade-off, but from connecting and empowering humans through technology.

“The pandemic, with all its attendant social distancing, has placed an even greater premium on the importance of human interaction. Sometimes there simply is no substitute for the warmth, insight, experience and even humor of a live travel counselor, and we see great value in that,” Hanson says. “Technology is a key enabler, unlocking existing – and creating new – possibilities. And that’s why we’ve invested significantly in a world-class customer experience platform that truly enables our people to be their best and frees them to place their focus squarely on the traveler.”

According to Andrew W. Menkes, founder and CEO of Partnership Travel Consulting, due to the complexity of COVID-19 related travel, AI is unfortunately not able to address specific requirements by destination, other than in a general sense. “At best, it can direct the traveler to the information required, which is more complex for international travel, but not provide the direct answers or recommendations,” Menkes says. “The trend has definitely shifted to mobile, and the new automation that we’ve seen out there is AI that can interpret texts and facilitate a higher amount of what would have been a manual response.”

CWT’s Counselor Platform consolidates a huge amount of content and multiple applications into a single pane-of-glass view and leverages AI and automation. “This is seamless and behind-the-scenes, enabling the traveler to benefit from the power of AI in real time,” Hanson says. “So the first example is right at the point of sale and applies no matter what interaction method the traveler prefers – chat, mobile, online, phone.”

Another example comes after the booking, as CWT applies AI to continuously monitor the price of the original booking, helping assess whether to rebook the traveler on a like-for-like basis into a lower fare when possible. This happens automatically without requiring the traveler to do anything.

Staying Flexible 
As the global emergency of COVID-19 recedes, clients have come to expect technology that does more than substitute for people. As Wright notes, customers are looking for, even expecting, flexible service options for their travelers. “They’re learning that the fastest way to program compliance and traveler satisfaction is to provide choices, putting more control in the hands of the traveler, and to make things simple,” she says. “Experience is everything. If you can give travelers the same intuitive, personal experience they get from their favorite consumer brands, they’ll continue to come back. AI and automation are foundational to the development of these simple, personal experiences.

Regardless of channel, the unifying thread is that travelers and clients want a convenient, smooth experience that enables a productive journey.”

Hanson notes it’s not enough to just have a good mobile app anymore and it’s not enough to have thousands of counselors on the end of the phone. “Our clients need an omnichannel service that give them and their travelers the choice to use whatever best serves their needs in any given situation, and to ensure that the experience is 100 percent consistent across all of those channels,” he says. “Whether a desirable candidate traveling for an interview, a team of engineers rotating through a remote industrial operation, or a banker looking to close that first big deal, clients are looking for a service that can accommodate each of these unique situations and more.”

Mills notes that AI/virtual platforms are a starting point, but the full extent of this powerful technology will manifest itself is in the extensibility of these solutions, and that relates to being able to meet the ongoing changes of dynamic service levels.

“The extensibility is where you can start to build on the core functionality of an AI/virtual solution and have that solution meet the unique needs of an agency’s client base,” she says. “As an organization that invests heavily in our technology offerings, we look far beyond what an AI/virtual solution can do ‘out of the box,’ and more what the full possibilities might be.”

It’s clear artificial intelligence, machine learning and data science are the technologies of the future, driving transformation in business travel through automation and the hyper-personalization of travel content and services.