Blockchain, self-sovereign identity and decentralised marketplaces are the future of the business travel industry, say tech evangelists 

There is growing noise from a small group of technology evangelists that believe blockchain, self-sovereign identity (SSI), decentralised marketplaces and smart contracts will be key to the future of the business travel management landscape. Not only key, in fact, but fundamental.   

“There are new technologies out there that have the potential to make life better for buyers, suppliers, corporations and – lest we forget – travellers. And as with most new technologies, what the technology is shouldn’t get in the way of talking about what it does,” says Don Birch, CEO of Simard, a company using blockchain to provide a decentralised marketplace for travel and building offerings around smart contracts in the corporate world. 

“Admittedly, these are tech terms which are unfamiliar to many of us, but the point is that technology is an enabler, and what these new technologies enable is familiar.”   
Don Birch, CEO, Simard

Currently, many services on the web require you to identify yourself before you can use them and many individuals do so by signing in using their Google or Facebook credentials, giving the big tech companies a huge role in verifying identity online. SSI seeks to wrest power back from the tech giants, giving individuals power over their own identities and letting them share only those elements they wish to – for example, to secure a loyalty discount at a hotel. 

Whenever the terms ‘technology’ and ‘decentralised’ appear in a sentence together you know that the term ‘blockchain’ cannot be far behind and so it is here. 

Many of the discussions around self-sovereign identity focus on blockchain, the cryptographically secure digital ledger of transactions or assets that is owned, managed and verified not by a single corporation but by everybody in the chain. Provide a digital passport or loyalty card to a trusted player in the chain and then everyone in the chain can rely on it. 

The appeal of blockchain, however, is that it offers immutability. “Once you have established the record it can’t be changed and you can determine the chronology of the record. You can determine that it hasn’t been changed or, if it has been changed, when it was changed and who did it,” says Nick Price, chair of the Hospitality and Travel Special Interest Group of the Decentralized Identity Foundation. 

Ownership of the chain – or the fact there is none – is also key. “The nature of the public blockchain is that no one person controls the chain and no single person can take advantage of it,” says Birch. 

Blockchain isn’t the only game in town. Other technologies for SSI do exist – one such is called Keri or Key Event Receipt Infrastructure, which is based on secure chained data structures, minus the ledger. 

Regardless of the platform itself, TravelScrum co-founder and chairman Gene Quinn believes SSI functionality offers travel companies tantalising opportunities to know their customers better and recognise loyalty, but the individual controls access to their personal data and preferences.  

“What this technology allows us to do as individuals is to mete out portions of who we are and create a bidding process – bidding for us.”
Gene Quinn, Co-Founder and Chairman, TravelScrum

Price agrees. “Loyalty programmes today are clumsy things that are typically available for everyone: from the customer who shops once a day to the customer who shops every day. And that [one-size-fits-all model] is effective for neither of them,” he says.  

“If I have just bought a Tesla it would make sense if a hotel might want to give me free car charging with my next six months’ hotel bookings. They can’t do that today because they can’t see that interaction,” Price explains. 

He cites another example of a frequent traveller who in one year stays 50 nights with Marriott and just one night with Hilton.  

“Hilton would look at them and not give a discounted rate,” says Price. “But if Hilton knew [there were] 51 nights [at stake], they would surely have a different view. They would want to win their business.” 

Price says the answer is for suppliers to flip the model and consolidate multiple relationships under the ownership of the individual rather than the businesses. We are in the early stages of this, believes Price, with most companies just learning about the terms being used (see panel below). 

“I think there are impediments to progress in travel and hospitality because of a lack of awareness at the travel provider level of the technical opportunities; [travel and hospitality] are typically late adopters – they will only move when they feel safe to move ahead,” he says. 

Despite being at an early stage of development, Price says there are already “a few hundred” startups looking at the infrastructure around travel – wallets, chain, biometric enrolment – and are targeting these against specific use-cases.  

“To my knowledge nobody yet has fully appreciated the opportunity around loyalty which is one of the significant areas that could fundamentally change the dialogue for hospitality and travel with respect to customer interaction.” 

Birch foresees a future where those searching for flights, for example, won’t just have to take one of the options on the first page of the GDS. Rather, airlines will be making their best offers to the individual based on the information that the individual chooses to share with each air carrier on the chain. 

SSI could also help suppliers identify their most valuable travellers within a corporate programme, for example.  

Quinn took that concept even further, envisioning a world where the individual, the supplier and the corporate entity could integrate their wants, needs, limitations and opportunities via the chain. 

“If a loyalty programme is already giving a status-holding corporate traveller a particular benefit, like an upgrade, why should the corporate buyer negotiate any cost of that benefit into the product they want offered to that individual? That’s buying something the traveller is already getting,” says Quinn. With a networked chain that understands who the traveller is, as well as the parameters and policies set by the corporate, that level of fine-tuning with loyalty could be possible within the blockchain environment.  

Another example: If there were a benefit that corporates did not want extended to their business travellers – perhaps a frequent traveller perk that pushes the traveller to sample a supplier in the ecosystem in lieu of a corporate preferred option – there should be the ability to programme that policy limitation into the three-way integration. And, if for some reason such a benefit was extended to the traveller, the chain would have a record of that offer, which would be easily auditable by the corporate. 

It’s the latter example that raises the eyebrow of an industry consultant, who wished to remain anonymous in discussing this topic out of concern for potentially damaging their supplier relationships. 

“I think you can play nice in the first example, but it’s a slippery slope when you go deep into personalisation,” they believe. “This is where [the suppliers] don’t care about a corporate deal. It’s a safety net and they’re going to bet on their loyalty programmes every single time. If they can’t get them through the loyalty programme, then they’ll try the safety net of the corporate deal that will hopefully pick them up.” 

The consultant gave as an example, an almost identical scenario to the Hilton/Marriott traveller that Price also referred to above.  

“Let’s just say that on that particular route your organisation has a deal with airline A. Airline B sees that traveller flies that route a lot but never with them, so Airline B puts an offer together on that particular route or offers an upgrade. They’ll offer whatever… but now that offer is potentially at odds with what the organisation might want because the personalisation has gone deep to an individual level as opposed to corporate. You’d have to have safeguards and there are so many purchase decisions that it would be really difficult to decide which ones.” 

Supporters of SSI and blockchain solutions hold up the auditable nature of the platform in such scenarios, but detractors see it as a proverbial game of whack-a-mole that travel managers shouldn’t have to handle. But supporters also say it can’t be stopped.  

“This is the way the world is going,” according to Quinn, and not because of loyalty innovation but because of data security. “The blockchain economy can create an immutable level of security based on cryptography and that fundamental change can be of great advantage to suppliers in the travel industry, particular those companies which have experienced data breaches,” he says. 

Travellers grant access to data and then pull that access when they wish to do so. Therefore, personal data would never need to sit with a supplier – a hotel, for instance, which is a category particularly vulnerable to hackers.  

Some travel managers are beginning to look at the possibilities offered by SSI, says Price, who is working on a large-scale proof of concept around seamless travel in the corporate world which has elements of loyalty within it. 

TravelScrum’s Quinn says SSI-based loyalty is only a matter of time, and travel managers should be thinking about how it will impact their programmes. “It is not only feasible, it is going to happen.” 

Defining your terms


A digital ledger or database consisting of a list of linked records, known as blocks. Each block contains information, such as details of a transaction or other event, such as the verification of an identity document, and a timestamp showing when that information was recorded. It also includes a cryptographically secure reference to the previous block, creating a chain. Crucially, the blockchain does not rely on any single organisation to keep it secure and accurate. 

Decentralized identifiers (DIDs)

Identifiers of people, devices or organisations that can be used to secure access to resources, sign and verify credentials, and facilitate data exchange. DIDs are owned and controlled by the entity itself, existing independently of external organisations and intermediaries.  

Non-fungible token (NFT)

A digital asset stored on a blockchain which proves ownership of a real-world or digital object, including, for example, an artwork, a piece of music memorabilia, the original version of an internet meme or a booking in a specific hotel room for a specific night. 

Smart contract

An automated peer-to-peer agreement written in computer code and stored on a blockchain. When certain pre-conditions exist, a computer will carry out various actions which could include transferring funds, sending notifications, or issuing a ticket. The blockchain is updated when the agreement is completed.