Technological innovation is making business travel more traveller-centric than ever before. Far from creating an impersonal experience for the traveller and a usurping, job-killing force for the industry, rapid technological change has had a very positive influence on both sides of corporate travel. Not only are the tools that TMCs provide more effective in managing business travel, but it also means that people working in business travel have more time to put travellers first and therefore have more satisfying jobs. As leaders in a technological revolution in corporate travel, it is up to us to let the new generation of travel consultants know that.
A mere 10 years ago, we could only use our mobile phones to make calls, and business travel was still largely organised through contacting a travel agent by email, phone or worse - by fax! Now travellers can use mobile apps to get full-service travel booking and management, personalised hotel and flight choices, instant travel alerts, air terminal maps and directions, ground transportation options and, when they need that human touch, 24-hour click-to-call assistance from a travel consultant.
This is obviously great news for the business traveller. These technological advances mean travel management companies are not only able to give them what they want when they ask, but they are also able to anticipate their needs and offer vastly improved levels of service over what was previously possible.
Are roles really changing?
But for a new generation of workers who may be considering a career in travel and who have a passion for customer service, the good news is not so obvious. It's easy to be blinded by technology and to assume that all of this fantastic functionality happens automatically but that's far from the case. I'm sure most business travellers are unaware of the hidden human element that ensures their needs are met.
For example, the artificial intelligence (AI) which is used across industry is often good at solving niche and specific problems, ie the ones that they were specifically built to address. A good example is Google's DeepMind AlphaGo project which is a form of AI that is able to beat a person at Go. But it does not have the general intelligence that allows a child to learn an endless array of tasks throughout their formative years. As business travel management professionals, we have to consider the limitations of AI; the management of travellers requires problem-solving capabilities and a great deal of empathy. When technology fails to solve a complex problem immediately, the traveller is bound to feel frustrated.
This is where the travel consultant comes in; rather than replacing it, technology must complement the human touch. Technology enables the delivery of customer services but there is a vast army of people working behind the scenes. In the end, this is still very much a people business.
We as an industry need to better communicate how these innovations offer rewarding, customer-focused careers. Rather than replace customer service jobs with a technology platform, it's fair to say that these technological advances have only enhanced how TMCs interact with travel managers and travellers and therefore the quality of service.
The support of travel consultants, who know their customers inside and out, remains valuable. But, with automation, it's fair to say that the priorities of travel managers will change, rather than disappear. To ensure that traveller needs are met, travel managers will now manage the compliance element of using automated technology; they have to consider the trade-off between these advanced tools and human expertise. Here compliance management is an element of customer service and through this compliance the adoption of AI is actually a job creator.
We're still not seeing new people seeking to enter the industry at the same levels we have historically. This is a problem because even as new applications of technology are introduced into our industry, it will continue to be a people business, so we need to focus on the next generation of business travel employees.
Perhaps we're a victim of our own success in this regard; with the decline in new industry entrants being a less desirable outcome of the degree to which our industry has been reshaped by technology. It would be a natural assumption for people who might have otherwise considered a career in the business travel sector to think that fewer opportunities might be open to them. That's absolutely not the case.
Roles within business travel are evolving, rather than disappearing, and we need to do a better job of attracting career-minded, talented people to the sector. We need to articulate that business travel remains a people-oriented industry; this is something I feel passionately about and is also a key focus for the GTMC (Guild of Travel Management Companies) which currently represents more than 90% of managed business travel in the UK.
There's a huge amount of complexity in the world of business travel that you just don't see in the leisure travel world. That's why customer service is such a vital part of corporate travel. And I believe that will be a long time before we see change; the advances in technology only reinforce this. It allows us to manage that complexity with greater efficiency, leaving the people behind the scenes to focus on the areas where their expertise is needed most.
I have had a varied and rewarding career in business travel management and am keen to support the industry in the hope of introducing the next generation of traveller-centric, technology-savvy entrants to our sector. We must now, through more effective communication, challenge the perception that technology is a usurping force. We must emphasise that rather than replacing the human, a personalised service and automation helps the traveller have the most relevant, seamless and enjoyable experience possible. This also makes a career in such an exciting and dynamic industry not only possible, but very desirable as well.