Booking tool providers will be upping their game in 2023 but will it be enough to allay buyers’ concerns and meet growing expectations?

“2023 is going to be an interesting year in the online booking tool market,” said Philip Michie, director of account management at Sabre, who provides the GetThere booking tool, at the BTN Group’s recent Tech Talk summit in London. He was alluding to a range of notable developments that perhaps can’t come soon enough.

Having been widely switched off when the Covid pandemic hit, OBTs were often left unused and unloved for two years. As some semblance of normality returned, more were switched back on and suddenly expected to not only help travellers navigate post-Covid complexity but also take the load off an industry blighted by staff shortages and disruption. 

Even before Covid came along buyers’ criticisms of OBTs had been well broadcast, but two surveys conducted this year shed further light on their perceived shortcomings. In a summer survey of UK-based ITM’s travel buyer members, 45 per cent said their booking tool was not “fit for purpose” for their current needs, while three-quarters said their current provider is not listening to their needs. Respondents were largely happy with some functionality, with 90 per cent indicating they are satisfied with policy configuration capabilities and 80 per cent saying that their tool is user-friendly. However, only about half were satisfied with functionality around sustainability, traveller wellbeing and rail travel content. 

Similar shortcomings were identified in a BTN Europe survey of more than 150 travel buyers conducted in the spring, where only half were happy with the rail content provided in their booking tool. However, the survey also found that most buyers were either satisfied or very satisfied with their current OBT (74 per cent) and only 8.5 per cent were either unsatisfied or totally unsatisfied. 

“As travel resumes at scale and buyers look to support their TMCs’ resource challenges, it could be argued that the online booking tool is more critical than ever,” said ITM CEO Scott Davies. “Yet, during numerous conversations with ITM’s buyer members, it became evident that for many there are challenges with OBTs being able to deliver on today’s post-pandemic needs for both the travel manager and the traveller.” 

Despite various frustrations, 75 per cent of respondents to ITM’s survey said they have no plans to change booking tools over the next year, but some said contractual obligations or limited internal resources were barriers to change. Could new developments coming to fruition in 2023 prompt more movement? 

One of the most keenly anticipated developments in 2023 is the roll-out of Concur Travel’s new-look booking tool. With an estimated 50 per cent marketshare globally, the tech provider has received the lion’s share of user criticism over the years for a tool that buyers in the BTN Europe survey said was “not modern” and where booking takes too many clicks. 

The company took the opportunity during Covid to hire 150 engineers to accelerate the development of its new platform. A car rental module is expected to launch in January, when it will be rolled out to Amadeus users predominantly in Europe. That will be followed by hotel in Q2 and air in the summer of 2023, each of which will be rolled-out progressively by GDS and by region. 

“It’s been totally overhauled,” Charlie Sultan, president of Concur Travel, told BTN Europe recently. “There’s a lot of code [in the current iteration of Concur Travel] that was written 15 or 20 years ago. That’s been adapted along the way but what we’re rolling out now is a complete rebuild.” 

“It’s not just the user experience or the air module, it’s rebuilding everything from the ground up. It’s all in the cloud and so we’re setting ourselves up with a platform that allows us to be a lot more flexible in the future.” 
Charlie Sultan, President, Concur Travel

Sultan has previously described the new platform as “one of the most significant development investments ever made in the history of SAP Concur” and will offer “a revamped user experience, enhanced content and better ability for travellers to compare amenities across products”. 

Paul Dear, senior director, supplier management EMEA, at SAP Concur, adds: “We can be a lot more fleet of foot. Everything we build we can now change and amend very quickly. We put in a huge amount of investment. We work with multiple GDSs and TMCs in multiple countries. To connect to a GDS is fairly simple but to connect to three GDSs is a little more difficult. Then to connect to three GDSs’ NDC paths is another step. And then you’ve got third party aggregators and direct connects, and that’s just air. We’ve been investing for two or three years and now we’re all going to see the fruits of our labour.” 

One of buyers’ biggest concerns regarding booking tools surrounds the provision of sustainability related information. Concur’s new car product introduces the ability to search for electric and hybrid vehicles, and the company has partnered with Chooose and Thrust Carbon to “work on bringing carbon emissions information in at a more granular level”. 

Sabre’s Mitchie, meanwhile, said his company is working on the interface of its GetThere booking tool and is partnering with Google on a “significant initiative around sustainability” that could help address “vast discrepancies with the [current emissions] numbers [provided by different platforms]”. 

He continued: “It will be more granular. General numbers are [currently] provided but the anticipation is to look at it at a very granular level – per cabin, per load – and being a bit more specific.”

Netherlands-based travel management company ATG is turning to artificial intelligence to set its Baldwin booking tool apart. CEO Tammy Krings says Baldwin, launched last year and available to other TMCs, uses “AI and big data to offer a dynamic user experience, not static like current OBTs, so it evolves as you evolve.” 

The tool “captures the behaviour” of users’ choices so that “it knows everything about you – where you go, when you go, how you go”. Baldwin uses that information to serve tailored, policy-compliant search results and trip itineraries. If a user has no trip history it will serve results based on their colleagues’ travel habits. “If you don’t like the itinerary presented to you, you can modify any element of it by searching as usual or simply start from scratch,” says Krings. 

“We call it an IBT, not an OBT – an intelligent booking tool. You’re going to see huge productivity gains with Baldwin, especially with the repeat bookings functionality. It takes literally 15 seconds to re-book a trip that you’ve taken [in the past].” 

Sustainability has been built into the newest version of the platform with green leaves – from none to three – attached to air, hotel and car options, as well as the whole trip combined. 

Atriis, meanwhile, is focusing on dealing with disruption, preventing leakage and presenting personalised add-ons through the integration of retravel.io which the company acquired earlier this year. 

“There is a lot of fragmentation of the travel booking process. When you book travel you think first of your transport – your flight or your rail journey. You don’t necessarily think about where you’re staying or how you’re getting downtown.”
Kai-Gordon Weiland, SVP Sales and Customer Success, Atriis

The technology uses machine learning to understand historical and contextual data and interpret what is “the right product to push to the traveller at the right time in the right channel, all within policy”. That could be the overnight hotel stay, transport or a dinner reservation, for example. 

Such messaging can be delivered via SMS messages, email and chat systems. “We’re a bit hesitant about [using] WhatsApp but we are looking at the typical business chat platforms,” says Weiland. 

In a major coup for the company, Atriis was recently appointed by the Government of the Netherlands as its preferred online booking tool for an initial term of eight years. 

The incumbent partner, Amadeus Cytric, has most notably been hard at work integrating Cytric Easy with the Microsoft Teams environment, enabling users to plan, book and share trip details within the collaboration platform. “With Cytric Easy, we have tried to create a light version of the search,” said Graeme Milne, head of corporation sales UK, Ireland & Nordics, Cytric by Amadeus, at the BTN Group’s Tech Talk event.  

“So instead of getting every single option you only ever get in-policy options and only three or four: the greenest, cheapest and shortest. It’s to make the decision-making process easy,” said Milne. 

He said Amadeus consciously began rolling it out “before it was perfect” so it could learn from early users and build on the platform. “Our customers using it already are part of the innovation. We’re asking them what it is they need and we go off and build it.” 

“What’s coming down the line is really exciting and one of the products is car sharing. When you make a [trip] booking it shows you all the people [within your organisation] also arriving at the same airport within 15 minutes or half an hour of you.” 
Graeme Milne, Head of Corporation Sales UK, Ireland & Nordics, Cytric by Amadeus

Elsewhere, travel technology provider Vibe announced in November the launch of Vibe Corporate, an off-the-shelf booking tool that can integrate complex travel policies and multi-level approval with content “from all major GDS connections” – including hotel, rail and ancillary connections – and, according to the company, was “built specifically to drive online adoption”. 

TMCs can offer the tool to users under the Vibe Corporate brand, while a fully customisable Vibe Corporate Plus tool will also be made available for corporates via existing TMC clients. Both services will be available on a pay-per-transaction basis and are currently being rolled out in the UK, Australia, New Zealand and North America. 

The future of widely praised booking platform PSNGR1 was secured in the summer when travel tech provider Snowfall stepped in to acquire the company, though few details of the company’s plans for the tool have been issued since the rescue deal. 

Stefan Cars, CEO of UK-based Snowfall, told BTN Europe at the time that his company had to date largely built its own technology offering but that he had been an admirer of PSNGR1. “We’ve been very interested in what they’re producing and we think it’s a great product. From a continuity perspective, the platform will look the same and we’re going to be integrating people and staff as one company,” said Cars. 

Further afield, New Zealand-based booking technology provider Serko will be expanding into Europe in 2023 having already made a move into North America. “When we launch into a new market we’re careful not to do it too quickly,” said Alison Carpenter, head of customer success EMEA at Serko, also speaking at Tech Talk. “We haven’t launched into Europe just yet – we’re doing a soft launch with a couple of customers in the UK at the moment. There’s work to do on European and UK rail, so we don’t want to launch too fast.” 

Despite frustrations with their booking tools, buyers are often reluctant to change providers due to the complexity and risk of disruption. 

“For a company like ours – we’re in 50 countries and we’ve got nearly 20,000 travellers – for us to change our booking tool... it would have to be incredibly compelling because we’d have to train all our employees on the new site.”
Stuart Bartholomew, European Travel Manager, ITW 

There are endless considerations involved in selecting a booking tool but one path often advocated is to focus on three Cs: content, customer experience and control. BTN Europe’s buyer survey revealed two more: cost and customisation. 

“Attend events, network with peers, ask them what’s good and what’s not, and get impartial insight,” are Areka Consulting’s Natalie Barfield’s words of advice for those going to market. “Understand your business requirements, your people’s challenges and what they’re trying to overcome. If you don’t, it makes the evaluation process very difficult.” 

Speaking at Tech Talk, one buyer said that speaking to their peers “is the most valuable thing you can do”. They added: “A good indication for me is when you ask a supplier what their limitations or issues are. If they say ‘none’ then I’d be cautious. If they talk about past issues and how they overcome them it’s a bit more real.” 

How you contract your booking tool is also important, with Barfield warning that some OBT features may only be available direct from the provider but not on a reseller contract, for example. 

As for promises about forthcoming developments, don’t hold back on your questioning, says Barfield. “Really quiz the supplier. Is that feature really live or is it in beta? Who’s it live with? Can you get me some references? When can I have it? Don’t be taken in by the really cool features at the top of the marketing collateral.” 

Getting implementation right can set the tone of the ongoing buyer-provider relationship, so don’t skimp on input and effort, advise all parties. 

“Have your TMC involved and be sure they know what your expectations are. Will you be mandating the tool? Will you be expecting them to pushback on travellers or put a hard stop in place? You need their support,” says Areka’s Barfield. Internally, make sure IT, finance, HR and security departments are all onboard and committed. 

“A lot of problems that corporates encounter are not necessarily due to [user] resistance. It can be down to not doing due diligence or testing properly. Strong communication and support is crucial from the top down.”
Natalie Barfield, Areka Consulting

Vicki Williams, country manager UK at TravelPark, suggests creating a pilot group as part of the implementation and roll out. “Have them make live bookings. Get your most vocal people involved in that group because if you can overcome that and get a good few weeks of solid performance they will become your champions and your advocates,” she advises. 

Once up and running, creating a group of influential ‘super users’ is another recommended tactic, as well as opening chat channels on company communication platforms like Slack and Teams. “A one-pager on setting up your traveller profile right at the start can really help,” says Williams. 

Do things ever unravel at the implementation process? “I’ve had experiences in the past [at previous jobs] where it didn’t always work because there was a disconnect between the sales and the implementation teams,” says Williams. “Here we have sales teams on implementation calls and vice versa. It’s about getting the customer to love the platform and wanting to use it.” 

She adds: “An honest and transparent sales process is critical because it shouldn’t be about the short term. Anyone can win a customer, but it’s about taking the customer, nurturing that customer and keeping them.”