the sun is setting over the clouds in the mountains

The proliferation of corporate travel technology is opening doors in improving the business traveller experience throughout the journey – easy access to personalised content, increasing options in self- and automated service and enhanced collaboration with colleagues, to name a few – although a few of those doors could be opening into dead-end paths.

Technology is ironing out the seams in the traveller experience. The danger, however, is pressing things too flat to remove the unique aspects of business travel.

Chasing a consumer-grade experience

Over the years, much of the focus on travel management technology has centered around booking tools, and for good reason. While it’s the key entry point to ensure travellers are booking in compliance and that companies have the data to track their travellers and programme activity, challenging or confusing booking experiences push travellers to find a reason to do their bookings elsewhere. As such, much of the development and marketing around corporate booking tools has sought to emphasise bringing a more consumer-like experience to the tools, mimicking the experience travellers have when booking for their leisure travel.

Ultimately, that will always be an uphill battle, says AmTrav CEO Jeff Klee. “The reality is that we, as TMCs and managed travel providers, are asking companies to use a service that can provide a lot of great things – visibility, control and duty of care – but we’re really also asking, and how severe this ask is depends on what booking tool they’re using, for the travellers to make a sacrifice,” he says. “There is no corporate booking tool, including our own, that is as good of an experience as what they get from the site.”

Suppliers, eager to enhance their share of direct bookings that in turn cuts their distribution costs and gives them more data about travellers using their services, have invested and continue to invest heavily in their own direct portals, so it’s difficult for third-party tools to keep pace, says Klee.

Solutions have arisen to capture those direct bookings, such as Concur’s TripLink and Traxo, which can scrape companies’ email servers to find confirmation emails of direct bookings to bring them into the managed realm, allowing those to be a bigger part of the corporate traveller experience.

Chicago-based management consultant and technology firm ZS has followed this path, enabling its employees to book direct, through a traditional TMC or an online booking tool in its “omnichannel” programme. Global meetings and travel manager Suzanne Boyan has been a trailblazer in her efforts to offer a spectrum of booking options for ZS’s 2,000 regular travellers. She uses Traxo to sweep up bookings made outside the TMC and OBT channels, while still connecting them to key duty of care and managed programme support.

“Our program is less ‘you must book in this very traditional way’ and more ‘I want you to book in a way that makes you happy and productive as long as I get the data,’ ” says Boyan, noting the approach supports ZS culture of cost stewardship but also trust. Her job, she says, is to offer the travel platforms that enable good decision-making, provide a seamless experience for employees but “first and foremost,” she says, “is having the technology in place to track traveller experience.”

Boyan represents a growing minority of travel managers looking for viable alternatives to the narrow lanes traditionally defined by corporate travel technology. Yet Cheryl Benjamin, North American travel and expense manager for Gordon Food Service, says the alternatives enabling direct and omnichannel booking strategies come with their own challenges. Traxo, for example, adds an additional expense, and TripLink is challenged to cover global needs, she explains.

She has seen progress in improved traveller experience from OBTs, she says. Hotels, in particular, have done a good job in getting “members only” content into the tools, as well as promotional rates for car rental suppliers, that boost the experience for travellers.

But when it comes to expecting an OBT to deliver the same experience as a direct or consumer-focused site, she has a viewpoint similar to Klee’s. “We’re not ever going have that type of service,” says Benjamin. “With online booking tools, trying to service the needs of travellers within policy, you have to lose something.”

Klee says no OBT has yet matched airline apps in overall ease with servicing, quickly and easily making changes to an itinerary, but many are working to close the gaps. For AmTrav, that has included ensuring that travellers are able to reserve extra legroom seats through the booking tool, for example, rather than having to do it with the airline later.

Travel content transformation

Content remains a key challenge in corporate booking. Travellers who feel like they can find better deals outside of their tool will be frustrated and less likely to want to use it.

The International Air Transport Association’s New Distribution Capability standard has added a new wrinkle to the content challenge. At its core, NDC is meant to provide airlines a way to distribute personalised content to travellers and sell ancillaries – extra-legroom seats, wifi, baggage space – just as they would through their own channels but via third-party providers. As different players in the distribution chain are at varying levels of adoption, however, it’s currently presenting new challenges with some airlines opting to distribute certain content only through NDC channels and NDC bookings not always as easily serviced by TMCs.

“One could argue that NDC is trying to change the booking experience, but it’s opening up a whole new can of worms,” says Benjamin. “As far as the servicing issues, does that hurt the traveller experience on the corporate side? There’s work to be done.”

In the end, NDC stands to unlock travel experience enhancement that previously was impossible through booking tools because the retailing content wasn’t there, says Klee.

“The holy grail is being able to get everything you can get in the consumer experience but with things we are uniquely able to do, like comparison shopping for the entire trip and adding savings they are eligible for,” he says. “For all the problems [NDC might introduce], with EDIFACT, we’re stuck.”

“There is no corporate booking tool, including our own, that is as good of an experience as what you get from a site”

AmTrav's Jeff Klee

AI’s potential and limitations

Airlines and travel technology suppliers often talk in general terms about NDC being the key to bringing a more consumer-like experience to corporate travel booking, but many also caution that, due to distinctive needs with business travel, mimicking the leisure experience too much could damage the managed corporate traveller experience.

Someone planning a leisure trip to Milan, for example, might be happy to scroll through hundreds of hotels trying to decide which one best fits their needs as they try to plan their overall experience, says Tripism founder and CEO Adam Kerr. Travellers for business usually have a set purpose for their trip in mind already and want to reach relevant content to that purpose.

Corporate travel industry executive Mike McCormick agrees. “In the design of the user experience, when it starts to become too consumer-ish, you lose some of that core functionality around being a business traveller,” says McCormick, who most recently was EVP of business development for Onriva. “You know where you’re trying to go, and you might be trying to accomplish ten different things, but you already have a sense of what you’re doing and what your budget parameters are.”

Several tech providers in recent years have sought to create tools that provide business travellers with only a few or even one option from a search that the tech itself determines – through machine-learning algorithms – is the best fit. Limiting visibility to that degree might not be ideal for the traveller experience.

For one, travellers might not yet be ready to fully trust the technology. Travelport’s recent Modern Retailing report, which surveyed more than 2,000 respondents globally, showed that while a vast majority don’t want to deal with too much choice, they are less trusting of personalised offers and by and large want to be able to cull those themselves. More than three-quarters said they’d “rather suffer the work of sorting choices than let the retailers choose for them,” according to the report.

The technology might not have sufficient data to take all aspects of business travel into consideration as well.

“There’s a certain reasoning level that technology doesn’t have,” says Benjamin. “I’m not saying you have to have an agent book everything, but if you have multiple commitments on a business trip, how does AI work with things that are more complex?”

Even so, AI in booking stands to improve the experience, as the Travelport study indicated consumers are more trusting of curated offers that come from vendors with whom they’ve had experience. Integrations are adding to the mix, such as a partnership between Microsoft and Amadeus to link bookings with calendar and collaboration tech.

Spotnana VP of strategy and partnerships Johnny Thorsen says he is “pretty confident” that this year Spotnana will have capabilities around the “repetitive trip environment.” If a traveller goes to New York six times per year and tends to take trips of a similar duration and stays in similar locations, it makes presenting the curated option simpler.

“We can only do that when we have a credible data story,” says Thorsen. “Is one trip enough? No. Is ten enough? Yes. We are experimenting with AI, and as we go forward, we will find the balance.”

Ten trips to a particular destination, with similar hotel stays, is not something you might typically see with leisure travel. It's a prime example of an advantage business travel may have when it comes to understanding a traveller profile, the past trip data and then delivering trustworthy personalised options. Those advantages may not stop at the booking stage.

AI has potential to drastically change the business travel experience on the servicing side as well. Still, chatbots and other automated servicing options are not fully equipped to replace live agent servicing.

In fact, Benjamin says her company’s decision to move from a large to a smaller, more regional TMC was driven in part by the ability of personal service driven by technology. Travellers have the ability to text and get a response instantly around the clock, she says, and that was the aspect that made the new TMC stand out in the RFP.

Emerging technology, such as ChatGPT, has the capability to transform servicing to tackle more complex questions, but the Travelport study showed that travellers still prefer the human touch – especially younger consumers. The survey showed 83 per cent of respondents from 18 to 41 wanted an option to chat with a live human, compared with 75 per cent overall.

“Humans are here to stay, breathless articles on LinkedIn about ChatGPT notwithstanding,” according to the report. “Live chat was rated equally useful as a phone call, indicating that people just want a human experience, regardless of whether it’s voice or text.”

Third-party tech providers shift the balance

Takeda global head of travel, meetings and events Michelle DeCosta says her company has embarked on an “innovation exchange” that recently included bringing in online booking suppliers to do presentations and answer questions about how they can be a part of that journey. The company has also turned to a number of third-party partners to ensure travellers can easily access information throughout their travel experience. Takeda recently adopted Tripkicks as an overlay in the Concur booking tool to bring visibility and attention to sustainable travel and minority-owned travel partners, and to help influence traveller choices at the point of sale.

“Our programme is less ‘you must book in this very traditional way’ and more ‘I want you to book in a way that makes you happy and productive as long as I get the data’”

ZS's Suzanne Boyan

Other third-party technology providers have arisen in recent years seeking to enhance the traveller experience in booking and beyond.

Grapevine, for example, uses AI, in partnership with TMCs, to get relevant offers in front of travellers when they are outside of the booking tool that will put a previously initiated itinerary top of mind and pull them back into it to make policy-compliant bookings within programme parameters. In terms of the traveller’s experience, that adds the consideration of time as a dimension to the booking experience, says Grapevine CEO Jack Dow. A traveller might not yet be ready to think about their hotel choice or airport parking when making an initial flight booking, for instance.

“The reality is, in any travel booking scenario, you never book it all at once,” he says. “There is a whole bunch of things you need to purchase as a part of your journey, and the attachment rates of those things should be significantly higher.”

Tripism, meanwhile, is tackling the communication side of the experience, offering technology that in essence replaces the traditional intranet site to bring “highly relevant information to travellers who don’t want to read thousands and thousands of words,” says Kerr. That can enhance the experience by ensuring travellers are informed of supplier partners and when making other decisions, such as accessing dining recommendations.

TMCs, of course, have been investing in their own tech to enhance the travel experience, including self-service capabilities, alerts and services to deal with disruptions and sustainability data, to name a few. So, how do travellers find the balance between that and third-party suppliers? Keeping in mind that expecting all technology from a single provider is “a really big ask,” according to Kerr.

Klee says AmTrav’s philosophy is to own as much of its own technology for the traveller experience as it can – a philosophy, he says, is validated by the struggles some TMCs are currently having with NDC.

“We don’t want a bunch of third parties we come dependent on; the more direct we can be with our suppliers, the better,” says Klee.

DeCosta, however, says buyers shouldn’t lose themselves as the centre of the travel experience, relying too heavily on the TMC as the single tech partner to drive the travel experience.

“For too long, as buyers, we’ve put [it] on the TMC to manage everything that happens,” says DeCosta. “The TMC remains an important partner, but we want to put Takeda at the centre of the ecosystem.”