September 21, 2021
 

Tools of the trade

As expectations rise, travel booking technology must prioritise both style and substance. Catherine Chetwynd looks at the latest market developments

The travelling public takes for granted the ease with which they can book a flight or hotel online, call a cab from their phone and, these days, keep order of the rest of their lives.

Corporate booking tools, however, often get a bad press. They have been clunky on a desktop and worse on a mobile, giving travellers an excuse – if they needed one – to flout policy and waste time and money looking elsewhere for flights or a hotel, undermining travel policy in the process.

But there are big changes afoot and in addition to big players such as Concur and American Express Global Business Travel’s Neo, there is a constellation of disrupters that runs the gamut of corporate needs.

And although many were launched to target SMEs, they are also being brought into the wider world, offered by TMCs alongside more complex tools. GBT’s relationship with Lola.com fits into this profile, giving SME customers access to simplified travel management processes.

ATPI provides financial and marketing support to technology start-ups through its Endeavour Programme, including a recent partnership with Taptrip, which sits alongside Serko’s Zeno, Concur and Cytric, all accessible via one interface.

“Some clients may have more complex travel requirements that need to be met in multiple markets, while others may have a need for more point to point, less managed travel,” says ATPI’s Chief Innovation and Technology Officer, Ali Hussain.

Taptrip is aimed at SMEs. It launched by selling direct to businesses but: “We are looking to focus on travel management companies because 73 per cent of bookings are made by email or over the phone; our vision is to fill that void,” says Taptrip founder Neil Ruth. “We will be a preferred partner of ATPI and when they go to RFP and bid for corporate business, we will be presented as an online booking tool option.”

“Booking tools have often been clunky on a desktop and worse on a mobile, giving business travellers an excuse to flout policy, but there are big changes afoot”

In addition, Taptrip has hired the head of user experience from PlayStation, who has “given the entire front end an overhaul” and integrated the tool with Ticketmaster, restaurant booking site zomato and Eventbrite, to allow travellers to make the most of their free time when travelling.

To compete with this versatility, Amex GBT has launched GBT Ready for mid-market organisations, providing the TMC’s products, technology services and travel inventory, including its travel and expense platform Neo, as a bundle.

“Initially, it offers assisted onboarding from a dedicated implementation expert to help buyers drive adoption, implementation and give ongoing guidance for travel managers,” says Head of Global Presales at Neo, Alistair Leaman. Once set up, customers can tap into online assistance. Since October 2019, the GBT Supplier Management Platform (SMP) has provided connectivity with GDS for online NDC content; and Neo powers the GBT mobile app, which has a live chat function.

Expanded horizons

Concur’s app centre allows it to tap into the disruptor domain and includes Rocketrip and Uber for Business. “The app centre is an evolving beast and something that we are constantly looking to expand – we cannot afford to rest on our laurels,” says director of TMC partnerships, Darryl McGarvey.

SAP Concur has added Delta Airlines to TripLink, allowing mutual customers of Concur and Delta to capture business travel bookings made directly on the airline’s website and app, giving full visibility to travel managers; from April, all TripLink customers in EMEA will have access to TripIt Pro.

Members of Focus Travel Partnership have SME clients, who benefit from Focus Dashboard, where they can book content from Amadeus, Galileo and Sabre, as well as rail bookings via Evolvi or Sabre Rail.They also have access to Atriis.GTP, a platform for corporates and agents that provides air, hotel and rail content.

“Focus has dedicated support for Atriis, which provides access to NDC content,” says Business Solutions Manager Pascal Benn.

The platform takes bookings within policy and facilitates approval for non-compliant choices. An Atriis mobile app completes the picture for customers.

Keeping it inhouse

GBT’s development of Neo follows the mould of TMCs that prefer to design technology in-house, rather than rely on third party tools. Reed & Mackay’s bespoke R&M/Book’s policy engine is built into the company’s agent system to ensure consistency for online and offline bookings.

For Click Travel: “It means we can avoid passing on unnecessary third party costs to our customers and can avoid unhelpful punch-outs to other systems,” says director of Sales and Implementation Vicki Williams.

Organisations that have disparate policies for different types of traveller can enter
these into the Click tool. Ease of use and consistency have led to 97% adoption.
“We support all our customers with training but you could pick up the tool and use it without,” says Williams.

Amex GBT’s Neo also offers the option to tailor policy to requirement, including blocking non-compliant bookings, and now limiting travel to areas that are high risk, such as when the coronavirus began to spread globally. And in Clarity’s Go2Book, policy can be applied by organisation, department, team and/or individual.

High functionality and good reporting in the Gateway booking tool were among the reasons Church of England Central Services chose Diversity Travel as its TMC.

Carbon cost

“We can also capture our CO2 emissions and get reporting on that, which we need because we have just undertaken [a pledge] to go carbon neutral by 2030,” says Head of Procurement Chris Day. The organisation has not previously had a full service TMC or booking tool as part of its travel programme.

“This is an important project for us to get right, especially the procurement element because it’s the first big procurement exercise the organisation has done and because it’s so visible,” he says.

Not surprisingly, this requires a concerted communication campaign to ensure take-up and compliance. “We are very lucky to have a good internal comms team here and one of them is with us on the project full time as part of the implementation. Having him on the team all the time has been really good.”

Also with an eye to sustainability, Concur will give options instead of air travel where available, such as London to Paris, including holding a virtual internal meeting.

“Some booking tools still require a punch out to other booking systems, or can’t support split ticketing for rail, for example, which are problems our clients would not tolerate”

Not all tools provide a comprehensively smooth service, however. “The devil is in the detail,” says Commercial Director for Clarity, Sue Chapman. “Some tools still require a punch out to other booking systems, can’t support split ticketing for rail or have integrated NDC content at the expense of including GDS content, all of which are problems our clients would not tolerate.”

Jef Robinson is Programme Manager – Travel Meetings & Events for a major US software company and chose Concur via competitive tender in conjunction with his TMC. “Most travellers love it, especially the integration of travel bookings and T&E management,” he says, pointing to ‘high levels’ of adoption compared to previous TMCs and OBTs.

“This is one of the major pros, as are the availability of the technology to the majority of our travellers, and the impressive content. The only major con is that it’s not available in every country. It would be fantastic to be able to further integrate hotel annual RFPs with Concur.”

Organisations sometimes forge direct relationships with booking tool suppliers, though Robinson steered a middle path between RFP to the provider and that recommended by the organisation’s TMC; the TMC now has the direct relationship. “In hindsight, we feel that it would be useful, especially in the event of system issues or queries, where we currently rely on our TMC as a go between,” he says.

Flexible friends

Flexibility is also key and Click’s customers can change travel policy regularly, even every month. “In past roles I’ve had, when implementing third party tools, we have been reliant on going to a technical team in the States or in France and then have
to wait for a response,” says Williams.

Bots are making their way into every corner of life and booking tools lend themselves to having an AI-powered online chat facility that responds to most frequent questions.
GBT is using AI in online booking to analyse travellers’ previous choices to predict booking preferences. Hotels are still subject to high non-compliant bookings and GBT’s new Rest Assured Solutions incorporates two million properties, including content from booking.com and Expedia, giving greatest choice to travellers but remaining within channel and programme. Clarity, meanwhile, plans to use AI to manage flight alterations in its mobile app, for example.

“Historically, Reed & Mackay has been an offline business but over the last 12 months we’ve seen more people go online. We are now seeing a 50:50 ratio of online versus offline”

Providing a dedicated hotel booking service is arbitrip, which employs AI and machine learning technology to learn what type of hotel users like and build that into corporate policy. It has single sign-on, allowing collection of data per individual, it integrates with SAP and other systems to ensure consolidated data, derives content from 60 suppliers that range from GDS and OTAs to niche operators, and arbitrip uses aggregate data to negotiate rates.

“Our clients reduce travel costs by 15% to 17% by using our platform,” says CEO Benny Yonovitch. Travellers can also book leisure travel on the site at low rates, giving their company an HR benefit but without clouding business data.

Mobile first

Optimised for mobile is another area that used to be highly unsatisfactory. The Click tool was designed for mobile first and has been adapted for other devices, ensuring booking with consummate ease while on the move. Over the past six months, 22% of the TMC’s bookings were made via mobile.

Neo is also predicated on a mobile first principle and Clarity’s Go2Book was recently refashioned to provide a more leisure style look and feel, and to make use on the move as easy as its desktop format.

“Tools can manage complex itineraries to a degree but a consultant may be able to do some creative ticketing and find a fantastic fare you might not be able to unearth yourself, and when it comes to under-standing the complex nature of visas and passports, sometimes the products just aren’t there yet,” says R&M’s Product Development Director Fahim Kahn.

One third of Clarity’s transactions are processed offline and given that agents are using the same platform as travellers, all the information stays in one place, whether an individual books online or via an agent.

However, if R&M’s experience is any measure, online adoption is gaining traction. “Historically, Reed & Mackay has been an offline business but over the last 12 months we’ve seen more people go online and use our products. We are now seeing a 50:50 ratio of online versus offline transactions, which is a real game changer for us,” says Fahim Kahn.