December 4, 2022
 

Let’s get digital

Technological development has gathered pace in the pandemic, says Gill Upton, as she outlines the biggest trends

Actively embracing ‘digital first’ thinking has been one benefit of the global pandemic. Solutions to new opportunities and problems had to be found, and fast, pushing the change to digital strategies.

According to a McKinsey Global Survey, the pandemic has accelerated digitalisation and automation by several years. McKinsey’s report concluded that the future belongs to those companies that put technology at the centre of their outlook, capabilities and leadership mandate.

The good news is that deployment is quick as most solutions are cloud-based.

“Buyers are starting to see that it’s not smoke and mirrors anymore. We have 5G on our phones now and NDC has given us the content, for example, so corporates can see that technology can enable change,” says Simone Buckley, Vice President Marketing EMEA at TripActions.

Richard Addey, Sabre Regional Director Western Europe and South Africa, believes technology can also help TMCs get their operations back to full steam.

“Some TMCs are completely panicked as some business is coming back faster than expected,“ he says

“Demands are different than before; travellers want to be taken care of.” 

“The future belongs to those companies that put technology at the centre of their outlook, capabilities and leadership mandate”

According to an Amadeus survey of over 9,000 travellers in nine markets, the technologies that would increase travel confidence among UK respondents in the next 12 months revolve around mobile solutions, namely on-trip notifications and alerts (44%), self-service check-in (41%), contactless mobile payments (41%), and automated cancellation policies (40%). 

Pushback from some travel managers is because they are not digital natives or don’t have a seat around the boardroom table to present a case for change. However, encouragingly, their low status has been elevated in many cases over the last 18 months. Those without the appropriate skillset abdicate responsibility to the TMC.

“One of the challenges corporate travel has, generally, in terms of adopting technology is the battle between what’s good for the consumer and the corporate; there’s a conflict between these things,” says Adam Knights, Managing Director Europe and Middle East at ATPI.

Read on for a selection of new travel tech solutions helping to overhaul our industry.

AI

The current iteration, autonomous A1, is giving us smart warehouses, robotics in hotels and airports filling concierge-like roles (think of Connie in Hilton Hotels), autonomous cars, and ‘intelligent’ chatbots offering answers to questions 24/7 in the absence of staff (think FCM’s Sam).

AI will soon be able to master language; already it can answer questions that would normally be asked of an analyst.

One disruptor is AI-powered Grapevine, a selling platform for ancillaries which is designed to help TMCs increase revenues per trip by improving attachment rates.

“The average TMC only captures 25% of hotel bookings so there is a lot of leakage,” says Grapevine founder Jack Dow.

“With over 40% of business trips being changed before departure TMCs have their hands full. We’re helping TMCs do what they’re good at, which is customer service.”
Already live with Gray Dawes, Grapevine focusses on items that have not been booked – hotels, lounge access, fast track, car hire and so on. Restaurants and live events will be added to its capability in 2022 alongside revenue calculator to pinpoint what revenues are left on the table. Its financial model is revenue share with the TMC partner.

Booking tools

TripActions calls itself a next-generation, AI-powered, faster and more personalised booking tool and expense platform with chat capability. It remembers booking preferences and claims seamless capability between mobile and desktop for easy itinerary management and rapid agent response. Its Return To Travel suite helps clients upload, manage and share health documents and track entry requirements.

The Vessul mobile-first booking tool from TapTrip aims to revolutionise the marine and energy sector by automating what is traditionally a labour-intensive and manual booking process, currently with only 2% tech penetration. Launched in October, it is a plug-and-play tool using Google’s own coding language and was tweaked after beta-testing with 20 clients.

 It provides a user-friendly experience to accommodate the complexity, variables and rich content which characterises managing crew rotations. For example, departure and arrival weather conditions have been integrated to the tool. ”It can make 450 flight bookings in a single booking to ensure crews arrive at the same time from multiple places,” says Neil Ruth, co-founder of the company.

Contactless travel

“Uberisation” is spreading to all modes of transport, despite duty of care being at odds with this concept. Technology effectively reduces the human-to-human contact when a more white-glove service is demanded in the post-Covid world. “How do you strike a balance between reducing touchpoints while still having personable support when you need it?” asks Danielle Martinez, Marketing Co-ordinator at Good Travel Management.

Online booking plus AI-powered chat could be the way forward, dispensing with labour-intensive emails being sent back and forth to confirm an airline booking, for example. Apps and virtual/e-tickets on smartphones do away with many touchpoints while travelling. When was the last time you printed out an orange train ticket?

Car rental can also be contactless: booked through an online tool then travellers scan their confirmation details at the pick-up location and choose the car and collect the keys from the stand. Meanwhile, hotels have long had contactless check-in via touch screens or electronic key cards.

Data insights

With corporates tightening their belts, accurate and fast data is crucial and Travelogix claims to offer real-time visibility to “a single source of truth” and report all spend metrics in an intuitive way through its leading product Analytix, says CEO Chris Lewis. The company’s Farecast lets TMCs track revenues from airline deals and incentives, while in November it will launch a duty of care module to help corporates mitigate risk. The future will bring app-based solutions, including in-trip communications and live itinerary updates.

In-trip communications

The ability to communicate with travellers at all points of sale, and both ways, is key in the post-Covid world, satisfying duty of care and wellbeing along the way, particularly now that the average length of trip is expected to be far longer. This will play into greater use of travel apps and support from chatbots to advise on destination information.

Mobile first

Using Google’s own coding language, TapTrip’s online booking tool offers a slick user experience when booking flights, hotels, trains and multi-city itineraries for multiple people, all on one app. Co-founder Neil Ruth says its aim is to make managing travel “as easy as watching Netflix” and claims 30% savings, 90% faster bookings and 95% compliance. It also offers lower transaction fees and is GDS agnostic.

Personalisation

“We’re in this Amazon/Spotify/Netflix world where all personal preferences are delivered so it should happen in business travel too,” says Jack Dow at Grapevine.

A survey conducted by the Boston Consulting Group highlighted that retail customers are 40% more likely to spend more than planned when their shopping experiences are highly personalised.

The big hope in the airline space is NDC, and One Order, although former British Airways CEO Alex Cruz believes the industry isn’t ready, hindered by a technology and mindset barrier. He refers to airline IT being covered in “thousands of software plasters …which are managed by a convoluted mix of internal and external partners”.

An intuitive booking tool and mobile apps is the starter kit, the latter to keep users ahead of gate changes, flight delays and the like, plus data-powered micro segmentation of customers to personalise itineraries and open-source technology to bring in full content as new disruptors enter the market.  For example, Sabre’s Red 360 aims to deliver the entire spectrum of travel products.

Recognition technology

Fingerprint recognition, facial recognition, retina scanning and other biometric identifiers are revolutionising the traveller’s journey. The technology is compatible with smartphones and can expedite airport security checkpoints, removing the need for boarding passes and expediting baggage drops. Some airports operate smart cameras to capture biometric data at check-in, which is then shared at security, border control, lounges, shops and boarding gates.

Facial recognition is obliterating hotel check-in queues. For example at the Marriott Hotel Hangzhou, guests can check in using Alibaba’s online travel platform.

To come is ‘selfie-pay’ where payments are confirmed using a smartphone camera. MasterCard is trialling such a system. Matching faces to databases will allow greater personalisation as info on gender, age and predilections will be instantly available and services tailored accordingly. 

Re-shopping

Rate auditing tools are not new but they’re now relabelled re-shopping tools. In a fluid world swamped by BAR rates, re-shopping is vital. With a simple API connection to data, mostly from the GDS, TRIPBAM can double-check hotel rates right up to the day of departure and re-book when necessary.

MD EMEA Peter Grover believes it negates the need for the RFP process. ”It is a complete waste of time,” he says. The company’s contract auditing function tracks that the right rate is loaded correctly and if it is offered every single time. In the first quarter of 2022 TRIPBAM will roll out the same service for airline bookings.

Meanwhile, Hotelhub has Rate Optimiser, another re-shopping tool powered by AI. Chief Commercial Officer Eric Meierhans  claims 15% savings achieved on 3-5% of bookings within a rich content of over two million unique properties. HotelHub 2 launches in early 2022 and promises greater personalisation, such as first choice of hotel, type of room and so on.