June 13, 2024

Great expectations

Online booking tools in business travel are falling short of what today’s travellers expect, but will they ever match the consumer experience? Bev Fearis investigates

I’ve found that hotel cheaper elsewhere.
I can’t see all the fares.
Why is it so complicated?
Why isn’t it giving me the option to book a train?

These traveller frustrations with online booking tools will be all too familiar to travel managers and arrangers, who will have frustrations of their own with the technology. The fact remains that the user experience when booking a business trip does not yet match the experience we’re becoming accustomed to in other aspects of our lives.

“Having booked travel experiences for leisure, travelling employees are hyper aware of the options and keen to replicate the same level of flexibility in their professional experiences within the boundaries of business policies, like choosing inbound and outbound flights or layover locations,” says Paul Dear, Regional VP Supplier Services EMEA at SAP Concur, which is set to launch its next generation, cloud-based OBT later this year.

“In this new era of travel, to encourage travelling employees to use travel managers’ preferred channels, it’s important for OBTs to have consumer-grade user interfaces which provide managers with oversight of all the business travel bookings and the option to delegate flexibilities within business policies for employees to personalise their business travel experiences.”

If the online booking experience doesn’t live up to expectations, travellers will simply look elsewhere, causing the policy leakage that every travel manager strives to prevent.

“In our latest survey, nearly a third of travel managers shared that travellers booking directly is one of the biggest threats to company business travel as it underscores the balancing act of travel managers,” says SAP Concur’s Dear.

“If AI can combine relevant suggestions with a frictionless user experience, this will significantly improve traveller adoption”

Expectations on both sides are already high and are set to get even higher.

“At some point business travel OBTs will need to get to an Amazon model, where you just add any products into a basket and have it shipped,” says Stefan Cars, CEO & Founder, Snowfall, which acquired a user-friendly platform previously known as PSNGR1 last year and has since merged it with its own OBT product, Junction.

“The next generation of travellers won’t want separate tickets coming from different suppliers via multiple emails. On Amazon, you can add anything to your cart – from candles and hairdryers to cat food and phone chargers – in one single order, payment and receipt.

“OBTs, particularly, will play a role with providers in making ‘one order’ a reality, especially for booking multi-modal travel as a true end-to-end flow,” he explained.

“But in order for this to happen, the underlying infrastructure needs to be modernised, which is something that most OBTs aren’t addressing, as they’re simply building on top of what already exists.”

Experience driven

Travellers want a rich shopping experience and personalisation that is comparable to how they book leisure travel, Cars adds, on any device, without hidden fees or add-ons, and with the ability to build trips collaboratively with co-workers, clients, friends and family.

He argues that just because OBTs require more layers of complexity than OTAs – with more stakeholders involved in the planning, booking and approval process – this doesn’t mean UI and UX should take a hit.

“Modern travellers should be able to say ‘wow this corporate booking tool is on par with Expedia, it’s so clean I could actually book my personal travel on here!’”

It’s not an easy task, however, especially with cultural differences to consider.

“At Snowfall, we have markets, such as India and Israel, where buyers and corporates want to be extremely rigid in policy, application and even restricting content,” says Snowfall’s Cars.

“In other markets, like the US, we see a huge desire to give the user the most comprehensive and enjoyable experience without feeling the application of policy.”

I don’t think anyone in my lifetime will be able to come up with the ideal OBT that meets the requirements of all users, situations and markets”

The approach can also vary client to client, with more lenient travel policies giving gentle nudges rather than mandating choices, particularly in relation to sustainability.

“Legacy OBTs have almost over-engineered the corporate travel process, whereas, in fact, many newer businesses have a lighter travel policy because they have adopted the mantra that ‘we’re all adults here’ and travellers will make appropriate decisions,” adds Cars.

Fine balance

Scott Wylie, CTO, TripStax, says the dated look and feel of OBT user interfaces is largely because in the corporate space, function has historically been prioritised over form.

“But as the workforce genuinely gets younger, and is used to the likes of booking.com, there is a general push in the market to move towards a consumer-like experience,” he says.

“It’s going to have to be a very creative tech provider who can marry the consumer-type experience with the feature-rich experience that corporate buyers and bookers need in order to make an informed decision.”

It’s all about balancing the wants and needs of all parties involved, including the suppliers, who have their own agendas.

“Ultimately suppliers are looking to distribute their content as efficiently as possible,” says Wylie.

“They want to get their content out there and into the OBT. However, the OBT channel isn’t necessarily working for all of them. For example, rail in particular faces challenges with distribution via the OBTs. Ground transport also isn’t incorporated into many OBTs.”

TripStax is currently looking at how to bring rail content into its technology stack, in a similar way to how it recently partnered with Jyrney to incorporate ground transport.

Snowfall’s Cars says suppliers want the ability to personalise their content offering and better understand their customers’ buying behaviours.

“They want to be able to give corporates a better retailing, e-commerce experience but business travel has been lagging in this space for a long time,” he says.

SAP Concur’s Dear believes suppliers want transparency from any channel they put content through.

“They want transparency as to how their products and offerings are being displayed and communicated,” he says.

“Travel suppliers also want to be able to retail and merchandise to travellers. In other words, they want flexibility for travellers from OBTs as they are keen to provide personalised experiences so that travelling employees can get exactly what they are looking for, whether it be baggage and seat selections or lower pricing.

“Suppliers want to be able to market the customisability of their travels to business travellers.”

Scott Davies, CEO at ITM, says industry-wide collaboration is required to make sure an OBT meets the requirements of all players in the business travel eco-system.

“It needs to be a three-way discussion between the corporate, their TMC and their OBT provider, and not a siloed approach,” he says.

The perfect solution

So, in an ideal world, what would constitute the perfect OBT, one that keeps all sides happy? SAP Concur’s Dear narrows it down: “One single ticket, one purchase, all secured at one price point.”

“Regardless of the trip’s technicalities, like rail licenses or the number of stops, the ideal OBT would simplify booking processes for business travel managers and/or travellers, allowing them to focus on their preferences for travel and leaving OBT providers to figure out the details behind the scenes,” he explains.

“Additionally, the ideal OBT would offer complete flexibility in payment options allowing business travellers to pay directly through the channel using their preferred methods with transparent communication on costs.”

“At some point business travel OBTs will need to get to an Amazon model, where you just add any products into a basket and have it shipped”

Wylie at TripStax isn’t convinced the perfect global OBT is coming any time soon. “I don’t think anyone in my lifetime will be able to come up with the ideal OBT that meets the requirements of all users, situations and markets,” he says.

“There are currently good platforms that work in certain markets. Other tools may today only work in one market, for example China. When you have market differences, and legal concerns around where data resides, there is no one OBT that can satisfy the hugely diverse world of business travel. There will be fantastic individual OBT products, but not one absolute ideal OBT globally.”

Nor is he putting much faith into Artificial Intelligence (AI) as a game changer, at least not in the short term.

“AI is not yet at the level where it can truly help. At the moment, AI is very good when you have a bound question and a bound response, for example what is 1 + 1, where the answer is always 2.

“But AI can’t yet handle the nuances of business travel. For example, you couldn’t ask an AI chatbot for the lowest logical fare and get the answer that would take into account the traveller’s personal itinerary needs and or preferences.”

Snowfall’s Cars says machine learning can help identify traveller preferences from previous interactions and transactions and make appropriate decisions.

“For example, it might be used for rebooking preferred aircraft seats or proactively managing more significant disruption, like offering fast-track access if they’re running late, lounge access in the event of a flight delay, or re-routing and re-booking if their flight is cancelled,” he explains.

Hyper intuitive

As Chat GPT and other LLMs (Large Language Models) become increasingly sophisticated, some believe this kind of technology will not only bring significant improvements to the OBT experience in the future, it could eventually render OBTs obsolete altogether.

Barcelona-based consultant and strategic protyper Cesc Vilanova points out that models like GPT-4 can already extract meaning from traveller requests, such as “I want to change my flight later today” and can also recognise shared calendar appointments, historical booking data and even unrelated conversations like “my last meeting has been cancelled”. They can also extract meaning from an organisation’s travel policies and traveller preferences.

This will allow the AI to suggest options to a traveller based on factors like preferred airlines, type of seat or departure time, also factoring in what the employer needs in terms of preferred suppliers, cost restrictions or CO2 impact.

“I think we will see a gradual change from travel-initiated requests to AI suggested options,” he says.

“It takes 10 times less time to accept a relevant trip suggestion by typing ‘yes’ to a Slack message sent by AI than to initiate a booking request from scratch by using an Online Booking Tool.”

If AI can combine relevant suggestions with a frictionless user experience, this will significantly improve traveller adoption, which is music to a travel manager’s ears.

“The change will take time but the ingredients to make them a reality are already here,” says Vilanova.

The key, says Brian Sheerin, CTM Chief Technology Officer, is “not to move too fast, too quickly, just because we can”.

“It’s important to not race too far ahead of the understanding and needs of your clients and their travellers.”

For more in-depth features on business travel technology, see the July/August 2023 issue of The Business Travel Magazine.