The shrinking of travel teams was already happening before the pandemic but Covid has accelerated it. At the same time, the world has been forced to digitise because of remote working, and some analysts say the pandemic has accelerated tech development. One McKinsey study, for example, says that digitisation has been accelerated by as much as seven years in just a matter of months.
At the same time, travel suppliers and intermediaries are having to do more with less and, for some, servicing existing clients and survival have taken precedence over innovation. So what is the business travel sector missing? We asked a number of buyers, intermediaries and consultants for their tech wishlists for the sector. Technology providers take note.
“Knowing your traveller” looks ripe for a better technological solution. Oil Spill Response travel manager Alice Linley-Munro says, “I think my biggest bugbear would be around traveller profiles and having to go to their ‘home’ TMC office to be able to book or make changes. In an ideal world every office would have access to every traveller profile and be able to make and amend bookings. It’s the one thing that my higher-ups can’t fathom, that it isn’t something that is already done, and has caused numerous headaches for us where the TMC systems interface with our finance systems.”
Independent consultant Chris Pouney agrees on the need for better knowledge. “To me the requirement is to know my travellers, know my travellers’ previous travel history and use that knowledge to talk to them and show them content which is relevant to them,” he says. “Travellers picking up the phone or opening a chatbot should have their booking history readily available to booking agents. This requires across the board coordination of telephony, mid- and back-office systems and people.”
TripStax CEO Jack Ramsey also believes profiles need a shake-up. “We have our profiles for business travel in systems like Umbrella Faces or the GDS but at the weekend doing leisure travel, just look at the amount of applications with Google or Microsoft profiles that have just as much information about me. What is stopping us adopting the same concept?
“It is ridiculous that the two giants of technology run our entire lives and people think they can’t accommodate travel. I sit on the fence slightly. There is an argument that certain corporates want certain data in a certain way and there are compliance and ethical issues so maybe you do need an isolated profile. On the other hand, are we becoming stale as an industry by not adopting those centralised systems?”
TMCs, which have been hit by a perfect storm of low revenues and loss of staff, are desperate for more innovation. David Bishop, chief operating officer of Gray Dawes Group, says, “We are also looking for technology that will help TMCs automate a lot of the email tasks we do, such as when a client emails to go ahead with a booking. We are looking for tech to read an unstructured email and then process the booking without human intervention.”
Bishop is also looking for better connectivity between disparate systems. “If you go onto an airline’s own website, performing changes after the ticket has been issued is easy, but not in the TMC world. The issue is down to the connectivity between the airline’s passenger service system, the GDS and the online booking tool having the functionality to manage this process.”
Adoption of IATA’s NDC may solve some of these problems but it stills seems some way off in the business travel sector.
The processes in airports, which have struggled with long queues at security and lack of ground handling personnel, are certainly in need of disruption of a different kind. Daniel Tallos, former travel buyer at Nike, says, “I am seriously concerned by how several touchpoints of the consumer journey of a business traveller are compromised by the lack of personnel or effective processes in place. I am thinking especially about the air consumer journey: long queues at airport security, ineffective check-in, boarding like hordes, disembarking taking ages because there are no technical personnel providing arrival services.”
He adds, “Hotels, which do not have to comply with so many security and admin rules as airports, have been leading innovation when it comes to automating and eliminating human efforts and turning them into self-service at key touchpoints. I would think that the current labour shortages and increased labour costs in frontline roles will probably produce more favourable ROIs for innovators in this space.”
Gray Dawes’ Bishop believes that “in general, there isn’t enough flow from the ‘internet of things’ into both the TMC’s, bookers’ and travellers’ hands. For example, is the airport or train station congested… should I get there sooner? Is the security line long… is it better to buy fast track and then help them do that?”
“We also need better disruption management, like integration with publicly available information about flight disruptions, so we can then automate an action. So if we can see you’re going to miss your connecting flight as your inbound is delayed, we can automatically book you onto the next best flight.”
A recent two-day hackathon by aviation technology company SITA shows the sort of thing that airport users want right now. Developers with an interest in various areas of airport and airline tech hooked up with other interested parties and put together a number of working technology solutions.
Winning ideas included Passenger Eye, an airport navigation app which acts like a visual assistant to help the passenger reach the right destination with minimal time and efforts; LetsFly, an app that lets users shop at the airport and have items delivered to their location, even on the plane; and Flist, an app designed for airports lacking adequate resources for passengers to ask questions about gates, check-in points, luggage and various airline policies, and offering translation services to help with the language barrier.
Bishop at Gray Dawes add a couple of other items on his tech wishlist. “Looking at hotel billbacks, a lot of the process is still reliant on faxes… that is crazy,” he says. “People want to be able to securely send card data to pay and then get the invoices back securely so we don’t need to chase and in a format that allows ease of reconciliation and the ability to send to customers.”
Anecdotally, travel buyers are saying that they need to automate their internal travel processes more as their teams are shrinking and they have far fewer resources. This could be having a bot that can make sure travellers book a hotel through an approved channel if they book a flight or automated surveys to make sure their programmes are delivering for their travellers and stakeholders.
What this shows, and events like it, is that even the smallest part of the travel experience can be automated and made smoother. Stretched corporate travel buyers could do worse than identify the pain points in their own programmes and ask for help, from their own IT departments or from the tech world at large.