ONLINE booking tools are changing. The changes are too fast for some but may not be fast enough for others. Recent developments like the launch of online travel management platforms, the emergence of new machine-learning driven profile engines, the nascent rumblings of transformative omnichannel booking ecosystems… what does it all mean and how do travel buyers making decisions today justify the purchase of newer, better, faster booking tools? The truth is, they often don’t.
Some travellers may yearn for a better business travel booking experience and they may complain that their corporate booking tools look and feel old, or don’t have that consumer experience of going to Amazon and finding recommendations or going to a travel dot-com site and being asked if they want to book that same itinerary again or a new one. They want that feeling of being remembered and valued during the shopping experience – and their current corporate tool may fall short.
Other travellers may say they want that, but when it comes time to change, they just want to know how the new tool is going to force them to learn something new that isn’t core to their job. And travel managers will have to argue that a new option would be worth it.
And it’s not just travellers that programme administrators need to convince. There’s executive leadership, procurement, finance, HR… the list goes on. Yes, definitely IT gets involved. In many cases, finance may be calling the shots – and they want a tool that’s compatible with their current expense and enterprise management systems, something that will help them reconcile, something that helps smooth payment processes. Travel booking tools intersect with all that technology and that can definitely slow down the change process. But even when a travel manager gets a chance… some may hesitate.
One experienced travel manager speaking to BTN Europe on background because they didn’t want to announce they were going into a Q2 OBT request-for-information process put it this way: “I’d love to say, ‘Just trust me. This is going to be worth it.’ But I need to make sure that I bring a product that when I say, ‘trust me,’ I can put my reputation on that, internally. That’s a little scary sometimes. I’m willing to do it. But I have to have a tool that someone will look at and go, ‘Oh my goodness, I don’t know how I did my job before this.’ And I don’t know if there is [a booking tool] out there right now that offers that.”
That said, the buyer is ready to find out more, and plenty of established travel technology companies (think Amadeus, Sabre and others), start-up technologists, travel management companies and even stealth-mode players are trying to capture that business – even after corporate travel went into silent mode during Covid-19.
These players want to be ready when the market awakens and demand returns with new requirements for individual travellers who have new concerns about business travel, like health and sustainability. They want to be ready for new types of clients and potentially smaller and midsize companies who want to manage travel and centralise the booking process for the first time. They want to be ready for enterprise clients who’ve realised in the downtime that changing workplace configurations and digitisation is the future, and their travel booking tools should be ready for new types of content like New Distribution Capability and increased demand for team meetings. But how many travel managers are ready to pursue and implement that change?
BTN Europe’s 2022 Essential Guide to Online Booking Tools is based on two surveys conducted between November 2021 and February 2022. The first survey covered the major online booking tool providers in the market – and the result of that information gathering effort informs the booking tool profiles within this report.
The other survey covered 150 travel buyers reviewing current online booking tool experiences. Respondents were permitted to remain anonymous so they would speak candidly about their online booking tool without risking professional relationships.
BTN Europe extended the survey process through deeper interviews with expert travel buyers and consultants throughout Europe and the United States.
Survey results showed a dynamic market with a powerful range of tools. It also showed that users of OBTs are not completely satisfied with what is currently on offer in the market today from a functionality standpoint but also in terms of support and service.
Asked why they chose their current tool, 65 per cent cited user-friendliness. Travel buyers and procurement managers are keen to ensure travellers are satisfied, and in a world where individuals are accustomed to user-friendly technology in their home lives, it is no wonder travel managers are trying to emulate that in the workplace, despite the challenges of doing so.
Compatibility with travel policy was a priority for 55 per cent of survey respondents, signalling the critical need for travel managers to drive compliance through the travel booking workflow. A close relative – customisation – came in right behind it at 52 per cent as buyers look to deliver their company’s branding and messaging to travellers as they walk through the booking journey.
Cost is nearly always a driver of corporate decision-making, but the BTN Europe survey indicated this was only the fourth most important reason overall when choosing a booking tool relationship.
Other reasons for choosing tools are shown in the chart below.
Our survey showed that travel buyers are largely happy with their online booking tools with almost three-quarters of buyers saying they were satisfied or very satisfied. Just 2 per cent said they were totally unsatisfied with their chosen tool.
This result may point to a market in which companies that already have an established booking tool may not be looking to change. However, some buyers that BTN Europe talked to were willing to go out for RFIs either to use as leverage to influence their current provider to innovate or to see how the market is shaping up and what they need to be thinking about for the future.
On the other hand, the SME market could be heating up to partner with booking tool providers or TMCs for the first time as Covid peeled back some information and safety gaps in unmanaged travel environments. Those types of buyers are more difficult to identify and survey, but they are highly coveted by booking providers – whether independent tools or those that come joined with a TMC relationship.
CONTENT WITH YOUR CONTENT?
There’s nothing more exasperating for a travel manager than the phrase: “I found it cheaper online.” The culprit in these scenarios is often the booking tool or booking partner’s limitations in gathering travel content. More than 40 per cent of buyers said breadth, source and appropriateness of content is important when choosing a booking tool. Here’s what we found when we asked users of these tools to dive into how comprehensively their booking tools provided content in four major categories.
The chart below shows the breakdown into air, accommodation, rail and car content. Buyers were convinced that air and accommodation content were comprehensive or very comprehensive. A lack of rail content or relevant rail content was a clear problem for many travel buyers. While in the US this can be chalked up to a lack of options overall, in Europe it more likely reflects the huge fragmentation in the market for rail travel between countries and even within countries.
New Distribution Capability – or NDC content, as it’s known in the industry – is an emerging content channel to which booking tools can forge direct connects or access through an aggregator or some GDS providers that have opened their strategies accordingly. NDC’s relative nascence makes it difficult to assess in a survey in terms of how comprehensively booking tools are set up to receive it. But it’s a channel and capabilities that buyers assessing booking tools should be looking for in 2022.
WORTH THEIR WEIGHT IN GOLD?
BTN Europe asked the travel buyers in its survey how their company paid for online booking tool usage. Slightly more than 53 per cent said they had not paid any set-up fees when implementing their tool. About 43 per cent said there were ongoing fixed costs related to using their tool, such as maintenance fees or training costs.
When we looked at the cost of making a booking, a strong majority of users (68 per cent) reported that they pay a flat fee per booking. A range of other booking fee methods were available, as shown in the chart below.
HOW DO THEY RATE?
BTN Europe also asked corporate buyers about how they ranked their providers on a collection of key measures seen in the chart below. Of these, many users said their online booking tool providers were not responsive to change requests while others felt the training they received was not as good as it could be. On a more technical note, most corporates said their tool enjoyed good uptime and few were left unable to make bookings at important times.
ALWAYS ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
Overall, the survey reveals that many corporates are happy with their online booking tools and the key features – content, user-friendliness and the ability to customise to a company’s travel policy – meet the expectation thresholds set by the travel manager. There is still room for improvement, however, and the arrival of greater competition in the market will mean providers will have to innovate faster than ever in both product and services to win clients over and capture new customers coming into the market. You’re reading this for a reason – where do you fit into the mix?