BTN Europe presents an overview of business travel and MICE predictions for this year
ExCeL London - 22-23 June 2021
Whether it's videoconferencing, gaming, online chatting or a plain old face-to-face meeting, the future of business travel is global, according to Chris Crowley, president of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives (ACTE). Opening the annual Global Education Conference in New York in April, he spoke of his desire to re-awaken and re-enliven business travel: "Our industry stands at a crossroads," he said.
Government and regulatory bodies are paying closer attention to the travel industry than ever before, and companies want more from their travelling staff, which means the role of the travel manager has never been more challenging - ACTE's programme of seminars, panel discussions and presentations sought to encourage businesses to look at how they can make best use of emerging technologies and trends to better manage business travel.
Social media was among the hot topics at the conference, with many travel managers talking about using social media, and even geo-location sites such as Foursquare, to communicate with travellers while they are on the move. As one global head of travel for a multinational company put it: "Travel managers need to take their heads out of the sand. Use social media to communicate - it's quick and it's central. If we communicate more with our travellers it means they feel engaged and it is going to be a more successful programme."
Keynote speakers from broad walks of life, including gaming, technology and economics, aimed to inspire delegates to look at travel in new ways. Stephen Dubner, the author of Freakonomics and Superfreakonomics, challenged travel managers and suppliers to be more innovative, while making the data they have work harder, with close analysis a must.
Meanwhile, Jesse Schell, CEO and creative director of Schell Games, challenged the industry to "pleasurise" business travellers' experience (see panel opposite), and David Pogue, personal technology columnist for The New York Times, took the audience on a whirlwind tour of how apps will revolutionise people's relationships with airlines, hotels and travel managers.
Crowley summed up the lessons by saying: "Our industry is on the move and we must respond by delivering initiatives."
The Global Education Conference kicked off with a gala dinner, ACTE's first annual Black and Red Gala, attended by 150 people. The event, which will become a yearly feature in the calendar, included a charity auction and was sponsored by American Airlines, British Airways, Starwood and American Express, and US$100,000 was raised for charity with about one third of this sum donated to the Red Cross for its work in Japan.
ACTE's president, Chris Crowley from BCD Travel in London, said watching the events unfold in Japan was "devastating", but he also found inspiration from the resilience of people. He said the business travel industry needed to "have confidence" in Japan's ability to recover, and should be supporting the country's airlines and companies by booking business with them. "Japan is an integral part of the global economy.
We work in a global industry and we are a global community. We can help... If we do not pull together then we all fail," he added.
The rest of the money raised at ACTE's Black and Red Gala will go to the ACTE Centre, the association's global centre for education and research. AirPlus also showed its support to the Japanese by buying a pair of socks for everyone who attended the conference (some 1,000) to send to Japan to help with the relief effort. The payment solutions firm then sent the packages to local charity Socks For Japan, which is distributing the socks to those in need and translating messages of support into Japanese. Spencer Hanlon, executive director for marketing at AirPlus, said he hoped the socks would give a little comfort to people affected, and let them know that the global travel community cares. "Apparently, in Japan, having a clean pair of socks is a critically important part of their culture," he said.
At one of the discussions on the future of business travel, managers were told they shouldn't be afraid of engaging with social media. While hotels and airlines are increasingly using channels such as Twitter and Facebook, some say travel managers have been slow to adopt them as communication tools. Miriam Moscovici, director of strategic marketing and technology planning for BCD Travel, used the example of a negative comment about a hotel on a company's blog or social networking site.
For a manager, this is a "great opportunity" to engage with the traveller, said Moscovici. Negative comments should not be removed or ignored, she warned, as this will damage the credibility of the programme - travel managers should, instead, post replies. Travel managers can also use social media in more inventive ways, for example, by using location-based software, a traveller could find out where the nearest in-policy restaurant is at dinner time, and if there are any colleagues nearby.
During a keynote speech at the conference, Stephen Dubner told corporate travel buyers and suppliers that they are "perfectly placed" to experiment. The Freakonomics and Superfreakonomics author said travel executives should follow a trial-and-error system to find better ways of working. And for the travel manager, for example, this includes improving traveller compliance.
Addressing employee behaviour, Dubner said, the key to changing the way people act is with incentives, but it is vital to consider the options.
"The incentive that you think will work might be brilliant but it might also backfire, which is why trial and error in small, experimental settings is so important - you are set up to do this beautifully," he said. "Especially with the internet, you can divide it up and experiment as much as you want." Dubner added that incentives aren't all about money - "never underestimate the power of free," he said - although money can be a flexible and powerful tool.
However, he also warned that while incentives are incredibly useful, they can backfire, citing how a bid to reduce the rat population in a South African town by offering cash rewards for carcasses resulted in rat farming among the residents.
Gaming expert Jesse Schell, who is CEO and creative director for Schell Games, predicted a "pleasurable travelling future" where everything comes with points, during his keynote presentation. He introduced delegates to the concept of gaming and how it can relate to the world of business travel. "Real life and games are starting to connect with each other in surprising ways," he said - for example, Fantasy Football.
In particular, Schell suggested that loyalty programmes could be seen as an existing form of gaming - a points-collecting exercise involving actions and rewards. "Thinking about frequent flyer miles, you have to get into the psychology of the business traveller. One of the things we know is that the business traveller is very status oriented," he said. Because of this, "it's totally natural to have systems where there is a platinum level," he added.
Travel management, however, is more problematic in terms of making it pleasurable, or more like a game. With corporate travel, people are restricted in their choices and without autonomy, it's difficult to create a game-like scenario.
But he did suggest that there are opportunities for improving the experience of travel itself by making it more like a game: "You have more opportunity than other industries to create some of these systems because you are tapping into things that are a richer, more dramatic, dynamic part of the human experience." Creating some sort of travel management game, although unlikely, might just be possible, he concluded.