CHOOSING an online booking tool can feel as daunting as buying a new car. Do you go for the sporty number that will get you from A to B quickly but only has two seats or do you go for the SUV that has plenty of space for the luggage and extra passengers that you need on occasional journeys? That is without even thinking about whether you want an electric or petrol-powered vehicle, the specification of the interiors and whether it should be in white or sky blue.
With so much choice, many buyers and consultants recommend focusing on a limited number of pillars. One successful approach focuses on the three Cs: content, customer experience and control.
Content – the air tickets, hotel rooms, car rentals and more – is now pulled together from a wider range of sources than ever before.
Tools offered by technology companies that are also global distributions systems will naturally offer content from their parent company. These days, that content is nearly always supplemented from other sources. Providers often have agreements with companies that can consolidate air content from low-cost carriers and other non-GDS airlines. This may also be supplemented by direct connects with airline groups, which can be an API created by the airline or content fed through using the NDC standards.
Content in categories other than air is often provided by third parties – online travel agencies like Booking.com and Expedia for accommodation, for example.
All these different content sources also mean a user might be offered numerous different rates for the same room in a chain property from different sources but then not getting rates from the smaller, independent properties. “Content is more important than ever but it is not only about having the most content and two million search results coming out,” said Festive Road consultant Aurelie Krau.
Online consumer applications in spheres other than travel, such as Amazon in e-commerce and Netflix in streaming, have spoiled us. We now demand a slick experience whenever we are online and this includes when using an online booking tool.
This is reflected in BTN Europe’s research for this report. The survey showed that user-friendliness was the most important criterion when choosing an OBT, with almost two-thirds of buyers saying it was one of the reasons they chose their particular tool, more than any other consideration.
Yet there is clearly a long way to go on customer experience. Research from Festive Road has also underlined this. “In our own research, OBTs scored better than 50 per cent in only five out of 32 user experience areas,” said Krau.
Independent consultant Chris Pouney said, “We know in travel we are all very familiar with the consumer sites out there and therefore people are looking to implement that style of system, both in terms of look and feel as well as process flow. But there has to be a caveat. There is a fundamental difference between booking travel in a business and booking for leisure. If I go on a dot-com to buy an economy ticket to Dubai, [the supplier site] is going to try to upsell that. Within a business environment, we don’t want to upsell. We often want to challenge people as to why they are going in the first place.”
Having the ability to apply the company travel policy to bookings made through the system is imperative. Since their inception, OBTs have typically been fairly blunt tools in the travel manager’s armory, allowing for the broad implementation of travel policy rules, like class of travel and flight duration and the promotion of preferred suppliers. More nuanced control has been added as companies have demanded more precision in their policies.
Krau says that many buyers want this control to be even more dynamic than is currently available on the market. “Many wanted a tool that is so intelligent that the control layer is controlled by AI. You could automatically approve some trips based on the ROI of the trip. They want to trust the technology and there is a gap in the market as many providers are still thinking like the old policy with old-school profiles,” she says.
The problem with control is often that if users do not like how they are being controlled, they will step outside the system, leading to leakage.
IS IT ACTUALLY SIX Cs?
While a consideration of the three Cs above can help corporates make a choice about their online booking tools, they are not everything. BTN Europe’s buyer survey revealed a number of other Cs that should be considered when choosing an OBT.
Cost has always been top-of-mind for corporate travel managers and this is no different when it comes to online booking tools. The costs of implementing an online booking tool come in three major areas: initial set-up costs, ongoing costs related to the technology – such as training – and the costs of making a booking through the tool.
Different online booking tool providers offer different financial models. Some tools, particularly the online travel management platforms, have no set-up fees at all.
Providers are offering a growing number of ways to pay for transactions. Flat fees have always been the most popular but providers will also discuss subscription models with a number of bundled transactions or fees that operate on a sliding scale depending on the volume of transactions in any particular billing period.
What is certain is that the bigger the travel programme, the more leverage there is to negotiate with an online booking tool provider – whether that is a technology company or a TMC.
“Cost saving is something we are moving away from,” says Chris Pouney. “You can save [using an OBT], but it is not the be-all and end-all. You can save money by making better choices, but success is about efficiency and satisfaction. Efficiency might mean cost savings, but it could also be about booking times, turnaround times, handoff of data and integration of systems.”
Customisation is also perceived to be important when choosing a tool. At its simplest, this could be making it look and feel as though it is part of the organisation. In the early days of OBTs this might have meant putting the company logo on the front page but now might involve integrating the tool directly into a company’s travel intranet.
It now also goes beyond these cosmetic factors and into areas of policy and content – the ability to add content filtering by sustainability rating if this is important to the corporate customer or the inclusion of content that is particularly relevant – the small bed and breakfast location next to the company headquarters, for example.
Another C – Covid – has also changed what companies want from their online booking tool. At first, many companies shut down the use of their tool as they shifted to a zero-travel policy or at least to essential-only travel, which often was served by live-agent bookings in an effort to deal with the sudden and intense complexities introduced by the pandemic.
At the same time, the pandemic created new requirements for OBTs themselves to deal with such complexities, and many have done so, introducing Covid-tracking data at the point of sale, but also more messaging and communication integration to educate users about shifting policies, entrance documentation or health requirements and risks associated with their travel.
As business travel restarts in earnest, companies have said they are intensely focused on traveller health, wellbeing and risk management. They may look to mandate the use of their OBT to better understand where their travellers are and to ensure the risks of travel have been properly communicated. But managing risk that way also means the importance of keeping users within the tool will be at an all-time high – and that consideration may need to go back to the policy discussion, said one US-based corporate travel consultant.
“The online booking and policy strategy will be shockingly different as travel comes back,” she said. “You can really over-engineer these tools to the point where travellers can’t find what they are looking for – especially now when [airline] schedules are decimated. Nobody wants to absolutely require the preferred carrier, even if the flight times are inconvenient for the traveller and even if the carbon emissions are more. The whole idea of balancing wellbeing, sustainability and buying close, logical fares is huge. So for 50 per cent of companies buying booking tools now, the policy buttons of all these tools may actually be less important.”
That said, what is less important now may become more important later, so finding a booking tool with granular controls may still be a priority for a purchase with long-term commitment.
WHO IS YOUR OBT PROVIDER?
When you have decided on your priorities – whether that is content, cost, control or some other combination – then the question is where to find that tool.
OBTs are brought to market in many different ways. There are technology companies, such as Amadeus and Sabre, who create their own tools, namely Cytric and GetThere, which act as storefronts for their own GDS content. These tools represented a way for companies that were primarily in the market for travel distribution revenue to keep hold of their customers when internet shopping became commonplace.
Today, corporates can choose whether they go direct to these providers if their volume is significant enough to warrant it. Or, more commonly, companies choose to get access to a booking tool through a reseller agreement with their TMC. The former gives the corporate most control but adds complexity in relationship management.
Corporates can also take an OBT built by their TMC. Corporate Travel Management, FCM, Reed & Mackay and others promote in-house-developed tools, while others offer a smaller or larger selection of those from the market. Some larger TMCs have developed their own travel portals, such as BCD's TripSource, which offer proprietary booking technology in the mobile app but in which a range of other online booking tools can be integrated into the desktop version.
Other TMCs instead have preferred relationships with online booking tool providers. Corporates must recognise that TMCs will usually work better with their preferred OBT providers. Imposing another choice on them may be counterproductive. Buyers should also understand there are commercial relationships between TMCs and tool providers that may distort what is presented as the 'best' tool.
More recently, online travel management platforms that combine the role of the TMC and the online booking tool have come to the market. Egencia was the notable first in this but more recently the industry has seen the emergence of disruptive alternatives such as TripActions and TravelPerk. Using one of these platforms potentially offers one-stop-shop convenience since there are no issues about the integration between the online booking tool and the TMC’s own systems – they have been designed together from the ground up.
Krau said companies like TripActions and TravelPerk “are tech providers before being a travel provider,” she said. “The question whether it is a fit or not depends on company strategy.”
There is an emerging option to consider, as well. The rise in the availability of direct connects means a growing interest in developing what some call a BYO or 'build your own' model. Corporates could conceivably design their own tool or platform using their own preferred partners or in-house technology development resources and get content and other services, such as risk management, from whoever is best placed in the market to provide it and is happy to offer open access.
Newcomers like Spotnana – backed by travel and expense veteran and Concur co-founder Steve Singh – are looking to develop demand and corner this market, offering a modular microservices concept, both directly to corporates and to TMCs. Some industry innovators have said this is the future of travel.
Festive Road’s Krau said, “This is related to the huge explosion in APIs and the capability to connect different services – microservices – to make whatever integrated online booking experience you want to create. This will empower travel managers and buyers like they have never been empowered before.”
The US-based corporate travel consultant, who plays in the enterprise space, told BTN Europe “all my clients” are looking at these options. Theoretically the choice isn’t limited to large companies. Indeed, it might be simpler to construct for the midmarket, but it would require a travel manager with true expertise in content, distribution and tech, which SMEs may not have invested in yet.
CUTTING DOWN CHOICE
A request for proposal – and increasingly a prior request for information – will help corporates decide on a selection of providers, whether they are tech companies, TMCs or online platforms.
“From a procurement perspective, you might run an RFI exercise in advance of an RFP,” said Pouney. You wouldn’t want a full tender with 10 OBTs – you want to get that number down to three or four.”
Corporates need to consider what elements are most important to them and their strategy and to design the scoring for their bids around those priorities. Corporates must also recognise that with technology changing so quickly, what might be right today may look outdated tomorrow.