Back to the Future of Business Travel

Vincent shivered, the air conditioning was always at its coldest in the Singapore offices.

Teleportation took less than 3 minutes between his Paris office and the Asia-Pacific branch.  Vincent recalled the days of SBT (Self Booking Tools), when a server outage or GDS failure would have fatally dismembered him and teleported him from one continent to another in a bid to try and solve the global problem.

Luckily this is just a dream and thankfully technology had evolved since then. But we’re not there yet, the world of business travel – considered lacking in innovation since the rise of Self Booking Tools fifteen years ago – is continually changing.

According to Henry Ford*, “if I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Often cited by Steve Jobs, this sentiment works well at the beginning of a period of innovation, however, over time we need to move towards greater adaptability and a more “disruptive” type of innovation.

But what are business travellers and their companies really after today?

Faster planes and trains, certainly.

And more than that: an SBT that works, an agency that provides a real service to the traveller. That much seems reasonable.

Expectations go beyond that, though. We can see that once again; the traveller is at the heart of the discussion. After the period of ‘savings at any cost’, more analysis is now needed to ensure employee satisfaction, safety and comfort, as well as finding ways to make further intelligent savings.

Organisations are therefore examining the purpose of all business trips, their budget and how to give travellers more responsibility.

The traveller needs to determine whether their meeting is of a more emotional nature (negotiation, initial contact…) or intended to convey information.

In the first instance, they will need to travel, but, in the second, a virtual meeting would suffice.  Despite the continual progress made in this area, a virtual meeting cannot replace physical contact but can serve to complement it.  It’s always best to get to know one another face-to-face first, for a virtual meeting to be the most effective. Similarly, a meeting of a more emotional nature – in other words, one involving the complexities of human communication – can only take place in person.  Augmented reality glasses can still not replace our own sensory abilities.

Until recently travellers have, generally speaking, tended to emulate the behaviour of their elders, however this is changing.

Today’s traveller tends to be more mobile, more demanding and more impatient.

Likewise, the notion of gender is changing our perception of business travel which was, for many years, reserved only for the older, more experienced male members of the company.   The needs of the female business traveller are being increasingly taken into account. Greater initiatives are being taken to try to meet their expectations (taxis, female-only hotels, security, higher levels of comfort, as well as more feminine touches with regards to the hotel decor).

Companies are learning from their travellers and are reviewing their organisation as a result. The role of “travel manager” is becoming more streamlined and specialised. Some may be responsible for purchasing, sourcing and negotiation, whereas others may be in charge of managing the relationship with the traveller and implementing best practices to empower the end user. This is a delicate task for in the independent minded Generation Y, who within two years, will represent 50% of business travellers.

Spurred on by the growing power of service solutions and consumer travel (B2C), technology has reached an unparalleled level, whether through disruptive technology such as Airbnb or HomeAway, or simply through well thought out technology like Expedia, Booking.com or Kayak.com. In no particular order, the upcoming initiatives are:

  • Artificial intelligence that will personalise travel by guiding the traveller before, during and after his trip, according to his expectations and habits.
  • Smart cards that will store your passport, documents and running costs in a secure location.
  • Biotechnology that will facilitate security checks.
  • Optimised, real-time assistance.
  • Luggage tracking and other IoT (Internet of Things) devices.

Using a mobile phone to book a hotel following flight problems is already a well-established practice. According to the “Travel Study 2017” carried out by Phocuswright and Google, 44% of French travellers and 48% of Americans already organise and book their trips via a Smartphone, while India takes the lead at 87%.

It is all about classification, sorting, prioritisation and selection, and at the same time ensuring a good quality of service with the old GDS connections, as well as transport services, rail route integrators, hotels, payment cards…

Hub to hub has been around for a while, piling up costs and surcharges, as well as layers of technical complexity.  How can we best transform business travel into to an open, responsive and inventive system for the benefit of all and, in particular, for travellers?

So, what is restricting the reinvention of business travel, while B2C investments and innovations are skyrocketing and raising the expectations of the business traveller?

Most probably the business model; the volume of business travel is much lower than that of tourist travel and it is not subsidised by online advertising.

According to the estimates and forecasts from the World Trade Tourism Council below, the share of business travel in 2017 represented 15% of the travel industry, at 1,200 billion US dollars, against 7,800 billion US dollars for travel as a whole.  A travel industry that represents more than 10% of the world’s GDP.

 futurdubusinesstravel

And as always, we have that delicate balance between the need to innovate while constantly lowering prices within a technical and regulatory framework in full transformation. And this is where the slow development of the business travel market lies.

Therefore, we will undoubtedly need to work towards eliminating unnecessary costs by pushing for the standardisation of exchanges. If all direct and indirect business travel suppliers could move towards standardisation and data exchange standards in the same way the industrial world has done for decades with Electronic Data Interchange (EDI), the end customer would finally see a difference.

We will also need to open up platforms and adapt to new requirements if BYOD and best buy are now part of our children’s DNA.

We could therefore accelerate the changes, streamline and better serve the traveller by focusing on the added value that can be brought in, rather than doing, undoing and redoing things that are dependent on changes to API, format or distribution strategy.  The complexity of the systems, price grids and processes are no longer the differentiators that will help boost sales. Simplicity and transparency are the main assets of the disruptive model, with innovation and the ability to remain agile to follow.

The road to standardisation, harmonisation and free innovation where necessary seems long. So we should listen to the words of Henry Ford, who urged us to dare and to act:  “When everything seems to be going against you, remember that the airplane takes off against the wind, not with it. ”

*The attribution of this quotation to Henry Ford remains disputed, but it nonetheless reflects his way of working during the period of mass automobile production, between 1908 and 1920.

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