July 15, 2024

Future ready

We asked seven industry experts to share their views on the future of business travel distribution

Stefan Cars, CEO & Founder, Snowfall

Stefan Cars

Distribution has been too fragmented for too long, trapped within the confines of travel’s legacy technology foundations, which have been around for half a century. This industry also seems fixated on compartmentalising distribution into separate travel verticals.

This is exacerbated by a lack of infrastructure and standardisation across other modes of transport other than air, which is only starting to be addressed by initiatives such as the European Commission’s Multimodal Digital Mobility Services (MDMS) and Open Sales and Distribution Model (OSDM).

I strongly believe that global distribution needs to be multi modal, with all travel and experience related content available through one search, booking and payment platform. This evolution is essential, especially in meeting the needs and expectations of millennials, Generation Z and going forwards, Alpha, as they become the dominant consumer segment.

These generational factors, plus the sustainable travel groundswell, will drive increasing demand for multi-modal forms of travel and seamless tech to compare and book all those options in one place – not just air, hotel, rail and car hire, but shared and micro mobility, public transport and ferry.

Gen-Z and Alpha are true digital natives and expect a consumer-grade, modern retailing experience for booking business travel.

Anything less than a great business travel tech experience, where they can book first to last mile, in one place, is going to result in significant programme leakage.

Furthermore, this much-needed evolution will give travel suppliers a cost-effective and flexible way to distribute personalised content globally, especially for verticals where no distribution system currently exists.

It will also allow TMCs and agents to access full, rich multi-modal travel content via a single, global travel marketplace, thus driving better unit economics and operational efficiencies.

Much like low cost carries in aviation and fintech companies in banking, it will be tech disruptors rather than legacy incumbents, who will drive true innovation in travel distribution.

David Chappell, Chief Strategy Officer, TripStax

David Chappell

As the connected, API-driven landscape of travel infrastructure evolves, the core priority of travel distribution right now – and in the future – is not just to bring content together. It is about making content easy, accessible, and relevant for any party to access throughout the value chain.

NDC landing with a heavy bump in the US market is a great example of how API technologies are pushing agencies to find new solutions to ever-increasing points of sale. Remaining relevant in a marketplace that now has easy access to lowest-fare pricing continues to force agencies to evolve their value proposition and leverage new content aggregators to ever-greater degrees.

Looking forward, it is not just the continued evolution of the existing technology landscape that enables change, but also leveraging the new technologies coming to market. AI will revolutionise the way we build systems’ connectivity, with its ability to create the interfaces between systems in a matter of hours or even minutes, rather than days.

Whilst this technology is not mature today, it will eventually make integrating systems a much less onerous task, with AI writing the API code directly. This in turn will remove the key obstacles of time and cost in connecting a new content provider, ultimately allowing for a much deeper and more integrated content environment across the entire travel tech landscape.

For now, distribution will continue to fragment as suppliers seek to lower their costs and gain access directly to the most prized commodity of all, their traveller’s data. But going forward, the trend will be accelerated disaggregation of content suppliers away from the traditional modes of access. This in turn will give more power to the API aggregators pulling it all back together again for a coherent point-of-sale.

It is an evolution long in coming but fast in its pace.

Ami Taylor, Consultant, Festive Road

Ami Taylor

Traditionally, the corporate travel industry has applied technology to address its own unique challenges in isolation. But tech giants are on the verge of revolutionising travel management to ensure we truly show up where executives naturally operate.

A recent wave of partnerships and integrations suggests a reshaping of the sector may be on the horizon; meeting employees where they are and bringing enterprise SaaS solutions into the mix.

Working in cooperation with leading travel technology providers, their open ecosystems are driving innovation and starting to evolve how businesses handle travel and expense processes.

Examples of this include Cytric’s integration with Microsoft, but a quick glance at the list of apps available in Microsoft Teams or Slack reveals a plethora of other travel-related names too.

Providing built-in travel management functionalities within the familiar collaboration-oriented interfaces and streamlining T&E processes aims to reduce disruption in the workday and increase productivity.

Similarly, SAP’s Task Center now enables travel and expense approvals from Concur, creating a unified experience for businesses in the SAP ecosystem. In addition, at SAP Concur’s flagship Fusion event the company unveiled a long-term vision of consolidating travel and SAP CRM data, providing the business leaders of the future with a visual, automated dashboard that would enable them to measure the return on investment for business travel.

Integrations like these begin to blur the boundaries that have historically segregated corporate travel from broader technology ecosystems.

Combining integrated AI or robotics tools with business data, leveraged in solutions like MS Teams, expands future possibilities beyond traditional silos, offering the very real potential to enhance employee productivity and improve the overall travel experience for staff.

Maybe “making it easy” through multiple channels will also be the answer to driving greater compliance too?

The convergence of technology and corporate travel holds immense promise, but if this trend continues, the implications for travel technology procurement and TMCs will become increasingly significant.

The integration of travel management functionalities challenges the standalone travel tech approach, potentially changing how and where businesses procure travel technology, reshaping the industry’s landscape.

Rob Cope, Chief Technology Officer, TakeTwo

Rob Cope

From a TMC perspective, distribution needs to be viewed fundamentally differently going forwards. In my view, TMCs must consider content as a module and extend their capabilities to servicing that content way beyond only via the GDS, and way beyond NDC.

The focus will be on TMCs treating content agnostically, caring more about value to the corporate customer, and how content can be wrapped around the transaction as a service. Initially, I see this evolving around how rail and ground transportation are incorporated as merchandising opportunities throughout the trip journey.

This will also necessitate automating how TMCs make rail and ground mobility offers bookable via different entry points, whether through a client intranet or a TMC Mobile App.

Distribution will be also much more about how we drive super intelligent personalisation through different technology solutions. Content will be seen as a vehicle, but not the engine driving the booking flow.

Clients will want a lot more flexibility towards the content they consume so TMCs will need to shift towards more consolidated content aggregators that encompass a more multi-modal experience within a singular platform.

However, I believe this will need to extend beyond the OBT, which has traditionally been the terrain for just about all TMCs to make content self-serve.

Content will begin to be seen as a micro-service, connecting with super flexible policy and rule engines that expand how policy can be applied. Policy will be about how client frictions and tensions are handled, with distribution being a key aspect of that. 

How many TMCs can message clients with personalised NDC or low-cost carrier content and make it bookable via a Mobile App, whilst retaining a frictionless experience? The ultimate goal is distribution of content in the smartest and most personalised way with automated, real-time flexibility.

Riaan van Schoor, CEO, Agentivity

Riaan van Schoor

The next five years in travel distribution will pack in more accelerated change than what we’ve seen in the past 20 years and there are three reasons why.

Firstly, leading airlines are finally understanding that taking control of their content distribution, versus merely applying different fees per channel, is key.

Secondly there is finally a greater focus among airlines on servicing via their API, and thirdly, a younger (especially corporate) traveller will be expecting a level of retailing not on offer today, and those who won’t offer it are realising they will lose out.

We will, however, continue to live with different levels of retailing maturity by airlines, and I also worry about the corporate travel environment still being so very focused on the air product, which is actually the least impacting.

As for the newer distribution option sceptics in our industry, if you believe this is all about cost (which it absolutely was at the start and for many airlines continues to be) it’s very hard to see anything else, and the airlines don’t always make that any easier with their marketing gibberish or using a stick instead of carrot approach.

To help get over this, we need to keep applying the pressure on the airlines to demonstrate the promised advantages.

For airlines, control comes at a huge cost, and they are also now realising it’s a continuous investment they will have to keep up.

Some airlines have also been walking into their new retailing environment rather in the dark, not focused on control over their API but handing that to their product-service systems (PSS) provider. This means they’ll never really be in control.

The transition to retailing is happening, like it or not. Even American Airlines scrapping decades old corporate programmes is a retailer type move, or at the very least taking back more control. It’s just common business sense, which most airlines don’t apply today, yet then moan about their low margins.

I, for one, am very excited to be witnessing this change in our industry, I just hope the airlines will keep asking: what’s the benefit to the customer? As long as we keep asking that question, we’ll be fine.

Katie Skitterall, Group Commercial Director, ATPI

Katie Skitterall

Despite the introduction of NDC technology well over a decade ago, the explanations of what it is, how it works and its potential benefits have become a convoluted and controversial matter over the years. And, as momentum continues to build following American Airlines’ most recent shake-up, there’s little sign of it slowing down. American Airlines’ decision is likely to be a catalyst as more carriers look to follow suit in the near future as a way to boost the bottom line.

Like it or not, NDC has increasingly caused a stir amongst the sector and divided opinions at every turn. But what’s the fuss all about? I believe it’s time the industry stopped making a mountain out of a molehill and ends this needless panicking where NDC is concerned.

TMCs are here to sit down with their clients, discuss their programme and how each carrier’s NDC content may or may not affect them.

However, issues tend to arise when TMCs aren’t clear themselves on their strategy or haven’t trained their people effectively.

In our business, we have had to take our staff on an NDC journey. We look at an update, map it to the market, check the GDS and the online booking tool for that market, and then push a clear message out to all our clients.

NDC assures greater pricing transparency, richer content for a better traveller experience and improved cost savings. And, in fact, when booking British Airways tickets through an online, non-GDS booking tool, we found prices were actually cheaper 30% of the time.

The reality is that we as an industry have made it way more complicated than it needs to be. As long as you have a TMC worth its salt, that has the knowledge and agility to work with travel buyers, there’s no need to stress.

It’s a TMC’s responsibility to learn, adjust and bear the brunt of any changes. And, as such, we must continue to evolve our processes and ensure that we remain agile to deliver what truly matters to today’s tech savvy business travellers.

Our strapline is ‘delivering what really matters’ and I can honestly say what really matters when you strip it back to basics is in fact, price.

Forget about the booking channel, forget about the GDS, forget the airline. All a buyer really wants is the best fare for their travel request, a programme with no noise, and to never hear those awful words “I’ve found it cheaper elsewhere”.

In a climate where all we hear about is price hikes, buyers need the confidence that their chosen supplier can give them the best fares available. Who really cares about the nitty gritty details?

Dan Norris, VP TMC Partnershsips, katanox

Dan Norris

The global hospitality market is anticipated to rise at a considerable rate between 2023-2028, expanding at a compound annual growth rate of 10.43%.However, this growth will not come without challenges.

Hotels will have to find a way to be efficient and adaptable in the face of volatility across every aspect of their business in order to reduce overhead costs and ultimately drive revenue.

In particular, distribution – from content and contracting to bookings and payments – remains a largely unoptimised portion of the hospitality business, which is highly fragmented, inefficient and costly.

Fortunately, spurred on by necessitated change from the pandemic, hospitality technology has accelerated rapidly in the past two years, leading to increased interest and usage, much like the eCommerce technological transformation we saw a decade ago.

To draw another parallel, I believe the hospitality industry is entering into a shopify stage, in the sense that it’s going to become easier and more cost effective to distribute and sell items (in the case of accommodation providers, rooms and properties) and accept and process payments.

Today’s biggest and most successful retailers, such as Walmart, were able to find such success by transforming their brick and mortar operations into digital retailing powerhouses through technological adoption.

The same will happen in the hospitality industry. The future is reserved for the entities that can free themselves from the shackles of legacy technology and old processes in favour of true innovation, which will make doing business more seamless and more transparent, while driving down costs and boosting revenue.

We are already seeing TMCs evolve from agencies providing limited technology-basic solutions into enhanced technology companies with app- and mobile-first products providing the corporates and their travellers with a greater service and booking experience.

In order for a TMC to continue to be the travel manager’s TMC of choice, the TMC will need to continue to develop the level and variety of their distribution landscape.

The travel manager’s position is also evolving into not just having to develop their travel programme and communication, but having the ability to understand and procure many different technology and distribution services to suit their travellers needs, which offer flexibility and variety but also still retain the control needed for an efficient and cost effective programme. 

Travel managers want to ensure that travel is easier, smarter and safer, all of this is currently happening with the hotel distribution evolution.

Finally, corporate travellers have known for a long time that technology in the business travel segment doesn’t always match up to the leisure space, and the expectation is that, in time, travel should be a ‘joined up journey’.

They want simple and flexible solutions providing new features to make travel easy and safe whilst encompassing their corporate travel and personal needs.

See more technology features in the latest issue of The Business Travel Magazine