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SHOULD YOU HAPPEN TO be in the Museum of Jewish Heritage in downtown Manhattan on September 15, you’ll hear Alexandra Wilkis Wilson “lay out a vision for making retail fun again using gamified engagement techniques”.
Wilkis Wilson is the co-founder of Gilt Groupe, an invitation-only “online shopping destination” which holds “flash sales” of designer stuff at knockdown prices to the 3.5 million Groupe members. According to crunchbase.com, a free database of technology companies, Gilt Groupe, which was founded four years ago, is now worth around US$1 billion – and, apparently, ‘gamification’ will lead to a lot more profit on top of that.
This somewhat-unwieldy new word is derived from ‘game’: gamification is the process of bringing juvenile competitive activity into areas where juvenile competitive activity traditionally has no place.
Essentially, it is a form of incentivisation, inviting people to compete for prizes or rewards for adopting a particular practice or behaviour. Awarding Nectar points for shopping at Sainsbury's is incentivisation but offering a week in the Maldives if you can earn more Nectar points than anyone else – that’s gamification.
Gamification is such big news in the US that there’s a two-day conference, the Gamification Summit, at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage in September, where Wilkis Wilson will be speaking. And there are clear signs that this is not just a stateside phenomenon – it could soon be coming to a travel programme near you. According to Gartner Inc, the research consultancy that specialises in all things technological, more than 50 per cent of “organisations that manage innovation processes” will gamify those processes by 2015.
Gartner analyst Brian Burke explains: “Gamification describes the broad trend of employing game mechanics to non-game environments such as innovation, marketing, training, employee performance, health and social change.
“Enterprise architects, chief information officers and IT planners must be aware of, and lead, the business trend of gamification, educate their business counterparts and collaborate in the evaluation of opportunities within the organisation.”
It’s that bit about “employee performance” which is something of a sticking point. Britain’s travel management community is, at best, guarded about the whole concept. For Simone Buckley, founder of trouble-shooting consultancy Bouda, gamification has to be a purely tactical exercise.
“If you’re introducing something like a self-booking tool [SBT] for the first time, or you want to change travel patterns in some way, it’s potentially a great way of persuading people to try it out.
“Life would be so much easier if you told people what to do, and they just did it, but it very rarely works like that. However, if you engage with your traveller and buyer community beforehand and put in the background work, then it should just be a matter of incentivising them over the short term.
“Hopefully, once they have used the tool, they will see how much better it is, and they’ll stick with it. If you have people trying out a self-booking tool, and then going back to booking over the phone, then you need to find out why – and quickly.”
Bouda has used gamification for a launch rather than as an ongoing programme as, surely, if you need constantly to reward people for doing something, then there is probably something wrong with what you’re asking them to do.
Buckley says: “There’s a balance to be struck. If you’re offering a bottle of Champagne to bring about a change of practice that is going to save thousands of pounds, then obviously that makes sense. If you’re having to give away loads of rewards, all the time, for something that isn’t making that much difference to the bottom line, then there is no point in doing it.”
Andy Slough, IT director at Chambers Travel Management, suggests that SBTs should effectively sell themselves, and he questions whether game-based incentives have any role to play at all.
But he concedes that SBTs are not the be-all and end-all – there may be technical reasons for that, he says, such as integrating the tools with the client’s other systems, but mostly it’s because the nature of business trips requires a white-glove service. He points out: “No amount of gamification is going to change that – you cannot incentivise people to use a tool if the tool can’t do the job”.
Slough is a confirmed sceptic. “When a company says it has an appetite for moving online, you need to deliver technology that is convenient and easy to use. The bottom line is if you sit down with the travellers and travel bookers, what they want is a smarter system that is easy and efficient to use. “You need robust technology, integrated with the processes of both the travel management company and the customer, because then you have a pretty watertight system – that’s how you drive online adoption.”
And if that doesn’t work, Slough says, it all comes down to communication. “Our business travel managers are there to help influence booking behaviour, and help clients make things more efficient.
Simon McLean, managing director, of Birmingham-based Click Travel, is also bemused by the perceived need suddenly to turn corporate travel booking into the online equivalent of It’s A Knockout. “Gamification has been out there for years – I don’t know why there’s so much hype, or why it’s getting so much attention in terms of travel policies,” he says. “I can see some of the logic, but it depends on where the company is coming from – we don’t seem to have any problem getting people to move online.”
Slough agrees: “It feels to me as if the benefits that sit alongside that sort of consultative process make gamification a talking-point rather than a sensible solution. A quality travel management company – working closely with clients, and with good technology – achieves that, and gamification will have no impact on the client’s end travel cost. “It’s an added layer of technology and cost that just isn’t necessary.”
McLean says: “In the business-to-consumer arena, it [gamification] may have its uses, but that’s completely different – in business-to-business, I don’t think there’s a lot to be gained.” Almost as an afterthought, he adds: “We give people the tools to enable them to mandate, but a lot of them aren’t able to. They try to coerce people into doing what they want them to do, rather than mandating it. If you have the ability for people to ‘leak’, you have got to encourage them not to do so.
Matt Selby, sales and marketing director at Capita Business Travel, is inclined to agree. “Customer-driven gamification to drive online bookings or shape booking behaviour is not something currently being utilised by Capita customers,” he says. “We have seen online adoption success through a tried-and-tested process. This, usually, is also tied into a mandate, although some customers prefer a ‘guideline’ or ‘preferred booking method’ approach.”
Could it be the future for encouraging compliance? Selby has his doubts. “It is certainly an option for those who don’t mandate company policies as a rule or have minimal spend and/or no programme, especially given the success of tools which can effectively emulate leisure technology,” he concedes. “It would, however, be totally alien to those with a compliance culture.”
BCD Travel, with its strong US influence, has a rather different perspective. In relation to a white paper it published in July, the travel management giant said: “Corporate travel programmes can learn a lot from businesses that market directly to consumers. By harnessing widely available technologies and taking advantage of behaviour ubiquitous among private consumers, corporate travel programmes can communicate more effectively with travellers, achieve higher traveller-satisfaction levels and even increase leverage with suppliers.” The strategic direction of corporate travel, BCD says, is moving from “programme-centric to traveller-centric”.
And April Bridgeman, BCD’s senior vice-president for strategic marketing, says travel managers are – or should be – “learning to tap into competitive spirit to incentivise and motivate travellers, whether through ‘batting averages’ or online booking rewards modules”.
Gary Hance, chief operating officer at ATPI, gets back to basics. “Obviously this latest wheeze is designed to counteract travellers’ behaviour, which costs the company more but gives the traveller greater amenity, whether in lounge access, frequent flyer points or whatever.”
Hance goes on: “It comes down to the age-old conundrum of whether business travel should be seen as a perk of the job or a simple line on the P&L.
“If you want cooperative employees who are happy to get up very early in the morning, stay away from their loved ones for periods of time, and eat food that they wouldn’t have at home, then you will treat travel purchasing as an opportunity to show you put the comfort of your employees before the bottom line. If the latter, and the contract they signed when they started the job includes the requirement to travel on the company’s behalf – in a class and at a time that suits the company – then you will be looking at whatever ways exist to ensure they travel most cost-effectively.”
Corporates frequently want to drill into their management information reports to find out just who is ‘leaking’, but they rarely ask for the name and rank of those who remain in policy. Perhaps, Hance suggests, the travel management equivalent of the cheesy old low-tech employee-of-the-month system might be just as effective as something that involves “laying out a vision for making retail fun again using gamified engagement techniques”.
Should you happen to be in the Museum of Jewish Heritage on September 15, there will certainly be food for thought there; alternatively, you may well wish to not pass go, not collect your $200 and head straight for the door marked ‘Exit’