BTN Europe presents an overview of business travel and MICE predictions for this year
ExCeL London - 24-25 February 2021
The current recession demands more flexibility and rail is using technology to rise to the challenge, reports Dave Richardson
Rail travel is suffering like the whole of the economy, but on longer routes in Britain this is partly mitigated by a large-scale corporate switch from air and car travel, driven by cost and productivity savings and the carbon agenda. Evolvi, the Capita Group-owned rail booking system delivered via travel management companies (TMCs) as an online booking tool, saw a 47 per cent rise in revenue last year to £220 million. The increase will probably slow down this year, but the switch to rail could accelerate as businesses become more aware of cost savings.
Rival system, thetrainline.com, has produced figures showing that in January 2009, corporate internet customers paid an average of 12 per cent less for tickets than 12 months previously, despite a general increase in walk-up fares. Transaction volumes were up 17.5 per cent. Business customers are increasingly buying restricted, cheaper tickets previously bought only by leisure travellers, reflecting more flexible working patterns.
As with the switch to low-cost airlines, a major change in corporate behaviour is under way which will probably outlast the recession and become permanent.
Adrian Watts, sales and distribution director of thetrainline.com, says: "The old barriers are breaking down, and gone are the days when business travellers fitted neatly into a box marked 'maximum flexibility rail tickets'. In January, 37 per cent of the tickets issued to our corporate account base were advance tickets, compared to 23 per cent 12 months ago." UK businesses spent £1.3 billion on rail travel last year, and thetrainline.com claims an average saving of 39 per cent on tickets bought in advance (up to 6pm on the day before departure) compared to buying at the station on the day of travel.
Features of its website include Best Fare Finder, highlighting the cheapest tickets available around a customer's preferred journey time and date; Ticket Alert, enabling customers to sign up for email alerts when advance tickets for pre-selected journeys become available; Business Expense Report, using an easy-to-use, downloadable format; and a Carbon Calculator.
Watts reckons advance tickets will account for 50 per cent of corporate ticket sales within a year, as customers adjust meeting times or buy restricted tickets for at least the outbound journey, in order to save costs. Another factor he thinks will increase advance ticket purchase is developments in e-ticketing. This is now universal for scheduled air travel, but has been slow to arrive for rail travel because the industry is very different. It may not become prevalent in the medium term, but could be a useful alternative to the current range of ticket delivery options.
Apart from old-fashioned (and expensive) courier or postal delivery, the most favoured option for Evolvi and thetrainline.com is the network of ticket machines at stations, usually branded as FastTicket. Roll-out has increased tenfold in the last three years and the total has now reached over 500 stations, including many in relatively small towns.
Larger corporates can afford to install their own ticket kiosks or printers, with Evolvi having almost 1,000 deployed. Plain paper ticket printing using bar codes is now being developed, but only for certain train operating companies (TOCs) and only for tickets requiring a seat reservation. There is a risk of fraud if people print or photocopy numerous e-tickets not linked to a seat reservation.
Also under development are ticketing via mobile phones, when the bar code is read by a ticket inspector's hand-held device, and smart card ticketing. Travellers could carry a piece of plastic like the Oyster Card in London, but loaded with specific long-distance journeys, or smart card technology that could be embedded in a mobile phone with the ability to open even electronic ticket gates.
These developments are dependent on individual TOCs having the necessary technology, including electronic ticket gates (increasingly prevalent in the fight against fraud) which can read bar codes. Even plain paper tickets printed with bar codes are not available on many routes, such as cross-London journeys including the Underground.
Evolvi can deliver tickets via walk-up kiosks or desktop printers in a company's offices, through self-booking linked to a desktop, or through station ticket machines. But it cautions against having too high expectations of non-paper ticketing. Evolvi trade relations director Jonathan Reeve says: "Smart card ticketing is too far off to talk about.
Even with plain paper ticketing there are issues, as there is no industry standard, but at least a standard has been agreed with mobile ticketing."
Raj Sachdave, strategic business development manager for Capita Travel's Railooto booking system, says: "We have done a trial using mobile phone ticketing with corporates, but it didn't work. A phone has to be WAP-enabled to do this, and that is often switched off on corporately owned devices to stop people looking at Google, Facebook and so on. I don't think there's demand for it. For many corporates, 85 per cent of ticketing is done through station ticket machines, which are very simple to use."
Some TOCs, including National Express East Coast, East Midlands Trains and Chiltern Railways, offer a business travel booking service covering all train operators, which is of particular use to SMEs. First Great Western has launched a Business Direct scheme for companies spending at least £5,000 a year, including carnet and corporate season tickets which are transferable between travelling colleagues.
The priority for most corporates is to save money when booking rail, andpressure by Hogg Robinson Group (HRG) has forced the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) into making a valuable concession.
The flexible 'anytime' return ticket is now valid outbound for five days from the outward date of travel shown on the ticket, whereas for the last 12 months ticket holders were restricted to travelling on the outward date shown only. If travel had to be changed, passengers had to apply for a refund which could take up to 28 days, and in the meantime had to purchase another ticket.
TMCs have welcomed growing involvement in rail booking by global distribution systems (GDS), with Evolvi now being integrated into Amadeus e-Travel Management (AeTM). This makes UK rail content available to the corporate travel market without having to log into multiple online booking tools. AeTM provides a single log-on facility for content that combines the display and booking of rail, car, hotel and air travel.
TMCs can also now book Heathrow Express as a stand-alone ticket through Amadeus, using locator code 9G, and fares on the GDS are 10 per cent cheaper than through other channels. More airport rail links worldwide are becoming bookable through GDS, with Arlanda Express in Stockholm also available on Amadeus, and Gatwick Express due to be added.
Travelport UK Rail is a white label of thetrainline.com's B2B system, allowing TMCs and corporate customers to use Travelport-branded and enhanced versions of its booking tools.
Work is continuing on Sabre's Rail Platform in close collaboration with SNCF in France and DB in Germany, with UK rail services already being available on this system.
Corporates are increasingly interested in booking rail travel within Europe. Eurostar already offers through-tickets from 150 points within the UK to 75 stations in France, plus any station in Belgium and Holland, as well as Cologne and Aachen in Germany. Eurostar is a member of Railteam, an alliance of European high-speed operators making integrated ticketing a development priority.
Eton Travel has become the first TMC to implement full SNCF rail booking capability through Cliqbook Travel, the online corporate travel booking tool from Concur. It aims to add Cliqbook links to DB in Germany and Evolvi for UK travel, and the French and German systems can be used for booking rail travel throughout Europe.
But booking rail travel to Europe, beyond Eurostar, remains problematical for many corporates, who prefer to use a specialist agency such as Rail Europe. Online company responsibletravel.com recently put together a panel to try booking airline and train tickets online to cities including Barcelona, Rome and Munich. Although 98 per cent of airline tickets were booked successfully, only 33 per cent of trips were successfully booked by train.
Dave Richardson is author of ECO-nomics, an Industry Report on saving costs and saving carbon to be published by the ITM in spring 2009.