Technology touches almost everything in travel management, but has Covid accelerated new developments or put up barriers to investment?  

Technology has always featured within the business travel ecosystem but today it permeates every corner of our industry. Even back in the early days of airline reservations, carriers turned to technology to cope with its enormous complexity.

Seventy years ago that technology was a Lazy Susan of punched cards to see whether a seat was available on a particular flight. These days, it could be an NDC connection into the heart of an airline’s reservation system with the ability to choose a particular seat, and soon, who knows, it could mean the arrival of smart contacts and decentralised marketplaces.

Technology has not just revolutionised airline booking. During the pandemic, and even before, it has enabled everyone to work from home through videoconferencing and virtual contact centres.

Covid has brought travel tech into even sharper focus. Even when travel was largely banned, companies knew they had to digitise fast, partly because of the need to keep servicing their customers, even as revenues plummeted.

But there was a problem. Travel companies needed to slim down to survive. As a result, many, many good people were forced to leave the industry. Those who were able to stay on through furlough schemes were not able to work. And much important work could not be done.

As Covid restrictions have eased, there is now a need to get tech people back working on the next stage of travel tech evolution.

Many of those who left the industry have not returned. The WTTC, for example, says that 130,000 jobs in the sector remain unfilled. In the UK, Brexit means that recruiting in certain industries has become much harder, while the appeal of working in travel has also faded, it seems.

In travel tech, the situation is worse as the supply of skilled people has been soaked up by other, better paying, industries. In its 2022 State of Tech Salaries report, recruitment company Hired said the average tech salary in the UK increased from £76,000 in 2021 to £83,000 in 2022 and the time taken to recruit to a tech role had increased from an average of 50 days to 68 days.

Emilie Dumont, managing director of B2B travel tech group Digitrips,  says: “During the peak of the Covid... we saw a clear trend for tech talent wanting to leave travel due to the uncertainty and instead go to ‘big tech’ firms, or at the very least other sectors… What we see is that in tech teams, and especially amongst developers, they are more interested now in working on projects that they find exciting or interesting.”

So has travel tech innovation atrophied? Jack Ramsey, CEO of business travel tech company TripStax, says that some have been fortunate. 

“TMCs have been in survival mode,” he says. “Some were lucky and they had just finalised fundraising before the pandemic. Others were good businesses who were making good profits but even if they had the most innovative CEO or CTO, they didn’t have the capital or resources to act on it.”

Some TMCs are driving innovation through boosting existing partnerships with tech providers. At the beginning of November, BCD Travel and Sabre announced an extension of their existing technology partnership.

“By extending our long-standing partnership with Sabre, we’ll streamline our distribution technology footprint and simplify our operational, technical and future development infrastructure.”
John Snyder, CEO and President, BCD Travel

As well as giving a nod to NDC collaboration, the companies said the partnership would look at migrating services to the cloud, enabling microservices and using innovations such as artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Despite all that, innovation has continued, particularly among start-ups, which always seem to emerge in times of turmoil.

“Investors know this industry is ready for fundamental change and there is an appetite to invest,” says Ramsey. “You see a lot of people bringing out innovative technologies and now if you have the money and right direction you can build something in six months.”

He feels that some may struggle to make their mark due to the huge number of different systems that need connecting and the fact that some are hard to communicate with.

“We see a lot of small start-up tech firms trying to solve problems such as commission collection in hotels, ground transportation and carbon offsetting. They are interesting problems but they need to provide their service in a legacy environment that was built on for 60 years or so.”

TripStax has one answer to this issue, an ecosystem of 250 microservices – lightweight apps that focus on particular problems – sitting around a core database, meaning complex solutions can be built up but require only a single connection. Others are also banking on a microservices approach, notably the travel-as-a-service platform Spotnana.

Blockchain is cropping up more frequently in conversations in the sector, even if cryptocurrencies based on blockchain have taken something of a pasting with the recent collapse of the FTX exchange.

It is still some way off but companies are setting up dedicated travel blockchains and areas such as self-sovereign identity – where an individual keeps control of their own data and only releases the necessary parts of that to those they want. Loyalty programmes look ripe for innovation through such technology.

As we see in this report, the area of profiles is another that the corporate travel sector want disrupted. People in all parts of the value chain are fed up that data and profiles are guarded so jealously by others elsewhere in the chain.

Better data is also on the wishlist of the business travel sector. It is coming, some believe. Gavin Smith, director of Element Travel Technology, says, “Business intelligence (BI) has come a long way in a short period of time. With extract, transform, load (ETL), BI and other analytics tools, gone are the days of waiting two months for data.”

“You can get it quickly from source, aggregate it easily and provide BI to your business. Most imagine a world where they can combine all their data needs, and deliver to traveller, managers, key personnel etc... and believe that day has not come. It has come, it’s here and you can achieve so much more than you thought is possible.”
Gavin Smith, Director, Element Travel Technology

The aftermath of Covid has also meant that those who are travelling need it to be a frictionless as possible to make sure it really does deliver return on investment. Contactless technologies that emerged in an effort to limit the spread of the virus look certain to remain and grow. Mobile apps that can provide more information, particularly when it changes at the last minute, have proved invaluable and travellers will not want to see that disappear.

Technology has come a long way since those Lazy Susans of old, but it has never been more integral to business travel.