March 1, 2024

Back online

Travel complexity and user frustrations are forcing TMCs to refine online booking tools, whether in-house or from third party providers, says Gill Upton

Functionality issues with online booking tools are nothing new but have been exacerbated by the shift back to online booking as business travel resumes and is more complex than before.

The number one priority for buyers this year is booking tool optimisation, up from fifth place in 2022, according to an ITM 2023 buyer priorities survey conducted last November. 

Specific OBT shortcomings highlighted were functionality around sustainability and traveller wellbeing, UK and European rail content, and NDC content. Overall, OBTs were deemed not fit for purpose, with providers not listening to needs and unresponsive to requests. 

“If anyone thought NDC was complicated, try doing European rail”

NDC content is challenging as airlines look to different ways of distributing their content this year, starting with American Airlines in April. Any booking tools that have NDC content will be able to access AA, including Atriis and Vibe Corporate.

“Most airlines are taking different approaches from each other so there are different formats,” explains ITM’s Scott Davies. 

The big improvement will happen when non-GDS content – including NDC content – starts to flow through the GDS. 

See our 2023 TMC Guide and Directory

Improved sustainability and traveller wellbeing content centres around guiding travellers to greener options and carbon emissions at point of sale, the latter essential as long as it is backed up with policy rules to drive behavioural change.

Off track

Rail is another frustration. The need for individual train company licences is arguably the main complication but Trainline, for example, has a global API which skirts arounds the Deutsche Bahn licence, so things are improving.

The legacy providers in particular have been singled out for being slow to update, in particular SAP Concur. Paul Dear, the company’s Senior Director Supplier Management, says he understands the comments that have been made and points to the huge undertaking of moving the legacy system to the public cloud “so we can move quickly”. The last customer moved across at the end of 2022. 

“Our platform is now state of the art,” claims Dear, with a good base of UK rail content, but European rail content is limited when it involves multiple countries as multiple licences are required.

“If anyone thought NDC was complicated, try doing European rail,” says Dear. Concur is working with aggregators who are turning into a GDS of rail. 

Concur has partnered with Travelfusion and will provide American Airlines content from April. Dear points to the Evolution of Concur Travel, with a car hire release in Q1 which offers searches for hybrid and electric cars, pick-ups from home and office and carbon emissions from partners CHOOSE and Thrust Carbon. Q2 will see a hotel release offering searches for green properties, CO2 calculations per room and so on, but an air release has yet to be confirmed. The green messaging will be at point of sale and be more graphical.

Another legacy provider, Sabre’s GetThere booking tool is also getting a makeover to add more accurate and granular carbon emissions data.  

“For years and years we’ve heard that the legacy OBTs should step up but much of the issues are outside their control, so you can’t always blame the technology”

TMCs with in-house tech capability have speedier solutions as the OBT can be configured to what the client wants but the flipside is that the buyer is locked into a contract for three years.

CTM re-wrote its OBT during the pandemic with a focus on sustainability, wellbeing and risk. New features include carbon budgeting, limiting same-day travel and risk alerts.

Brian Sheerin, Chief Technology Officer, CTM, explains: “OBTs are only as good as their suppliers and there are sometimes issues on European rail with providers not always having the full content available. In these instances we are working not just with our suppliers but also directly with the rail companies to integrate direct API connections.”

Sheerin reckons NDC content would improve if only airlines and the GDS worked more closely together. The TMC work-around is direct connections and links to the GDS and other aggregators.

Customisation

It is arguably more difficult for those TMCs locked into third party tech, particularly if it’s a contract with one of the legacy OBTs but Guy Snelgar, Global Business Travel Director at Advantage Travel Group, presents a different picture. “For years and years we’ve heard that the legacy OBTs should step up but much of the issues are outside their control, so you can’t always blame the technology,” he argues.

He says most OBTs are not being used to their full capability and advises buyers to check the configuration. “The buyer may have the standard, vanilla, out-of-the-box configuration and it hasn’t been tweaked and customised for you. TMCs can over-promise so it’s the duty of the buyer to ask the right questions, get a live demo, put the time in and undertake a detailed analysis.”  

Nonetheless, buyers can’t get everything they want in an OBT so need to need to decide what’s most important. “Get an account manager, buyer and IT guy in the same room together – all of whom understand the programme – and that will make it fly,” advises Snelgar. 

“The buyer may have the standard, vanilla, out-of-the-box configuration and it hasn’t been tweaked and customised for you”

Many TMCs offer multiple OBTs to offer flexibility. FCM, for example, offers clients both Amadeus Cytric and SAP Concur but is going one step further by rolling out its own booking tool, FCM Booking, over the next six to 12 months, which will sit on the FCM digital platform as the live interface. 

”It’s designed for the digitally-savvy workforce looking to make decisions based on CO2, but we’ll utilise all three OBTs,” says MD Andy Hegley. “We want to control the content and tailor it to our customers and provide consistency as it’s not possible to have the same OBT in every country.”

In the first phase UK rail will go live, followed by European rail in phase two.

Artificial intelligence

Meanwhile the big hope on the horizon is AI’s capability to power OBTs to do more and improve the user experience. SAP Concur is already using machine learning on its expense product so has the technology but Dear reckons it will happen in the leisure space first and much later for business travellers

Open AI’s launch of the ChatGPT chatbot content platform last November could be transformative. Johnny Thorsen, VP Strategy & Partnerships at Spotnana, reckons ChatGPTs ability to optimise the service delivery is almost unlimited.

“By the end of 2023 it is likely we will stop talking about a shortage of staff and focus more on how we can improve the overall business and service model. ChatGPT can evolve into the world’s first AI-powered travel assistant capable of answering 95% of all questions within seconds,”  he says.

“Chatbots currently are more sophisticated versions of Alexa so think three or four years away”

TravelPerk has integrated AI into its platform to improve the user experience while Navan (formerly TripActions), is utilising ChatGPT in Ava, its virtual assistant  to offer what it claims is human-grade support and delivering succinct answers to questions, a conversational booking experience and data. 

But not everybody agrees on how quickly or effectively it will transform the corporate space. “It’s really exciting but there is no benefit for the corporate user yet,” says Advantage’s Snelgar. “Chatbots currently are more sophisticated versions of Alexa so think three or four years away. Chatbots can only learn from the data they have but there are definitely opportunities there.”

ITM’s Davies also voices a word of caution. “A savvy traveller will work out when they’re not talking to a human as there are only five different responses,” he says. “Under-developed chatbots drive dissatisfaction.”

It’s steady as she goes for now as tech applications mature into the game-changers we hope they will be and buyers and TMCs go back to the drawing board to finesse what they already have.