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Why travel management companies have a responsibility to drive innovation

13 min read

With effective travel programs becoming an increasingly critical element of business strategies, travel management companies are facing mounting pressure from a diverse group of customer stakeholders seeking guidance on balancing cost, compliance, traveler satisfaction and security.

Simultaneously, shifts in the preferences of modern business travelers and travel managers have sparked a need for personalized products and consumer technologies that surpass those which travelers are using for personal travel.

As these dynamics intersect, we have witnessed the development of an overarching “consumerization” trend that is fundamentally impacting how the business travel industry operates and its future potential.

When paired with the rapid evolution of technology, TMCs have an unprecedented opportunity to tailor their offerings and deliver increased value through truly integrated, traveler‐centric products and service experiences.

Business travel should be the most fertile ground for innovation in the traveler experience, as it involves more consistent decision‐making, and relevant data is more readily available.

However, the industry must first be willing to drive change rather than passively react to it, as has been the case in years past.

Yet, by embracing a proactive approach now, TMCs can still promote meaningful change and truly move the industry forward.

Expectations for consumer tech experiences are changing the travel landscape

It’s tremendously important for TMCs to capitalize on this opportunity, as it’s not the first time we’ve seen this sort of potential for industry‐wide disruption. In the 1990s, e‐commerce and the internet were set to radically change how business travel was bought and managed.

There is a misconception that innovation is being solely driven by travel technology startups.
David Thompson

While online platforms took booking and expense from the back office to the computer screen, interactions between different spokes of the business travel industry remained, for the most part, unconnected and siloed – particularly in terms of data and the traveler experience.

Some of this was driven by the TMCs ceding control of online booking tools to third parties. By outsourcing the digital point of sale, TMCs avoided the digital transformation required of them and ultimately set back industry innovation by relying on a fragmented network of third parties. At the time, they did not realize that investing in becoming technology companies would eventually develop into a requirement for long‐term success.

Fast-forward to today, and the complexity of the world in which we operate has changed dramatically. In the current travel climate, business travelers expect tools and technologies that mirror the consumer experience they have when shopping at home.

They want business travel service providers to deeply understand their profile, anticipate needs, pre‐populate fields intelligently and display the most relevant options to make the end‐to‐end process quicker and easier.

We have also seen growing demand for rich data experiences in real time, both online and via mobile, from travel managers who require more comprehensive travel program insights.

Responding to a shifting climate

So, how is the industry responding to these evolving needs this time around? There is a misconception that innovation is being solely driven by travel technology startups.

However, it’s important to understand that these companies are often dedicated to solving one issue in a particular travel segment. As TMCs, we have the ability to deliver enhanced end‐to‐end global functionality that addresses the varied needs of all clients in any industry – but only a proactive approach, seeking out innovation, will get us there.

This doesn’t mean the best solution can’t come from a startup, though. At American Express Global Business Travel, we’ve partnered with, and even acquired, technology startups whose solutions were either directly integrated, or slightly modified, to satisfy the unique needs of our customer base.

However, the reason TMCs are better positioned to drive change lies in the deep knowledge they can utilize to connect the dots between new technology and corporate travel needs. Working with a vast array of clients across different sectors enables TMCs to gain comprehensive insights around changing business demands and to better understand the specific integrations clients would like to see.

Coupled with harnessing the expertise of a talented workforce, which can be done in a variety of ways like the annual “hackathon” we host at GBT where our employees are encouraged to share their most creative ideas, TMCs can build the framework for a powerful innovation engine.

Proactively applying innovation

Yet, this knowledge is only as effective as the fundamental processes in place to act on it. Big tech brands are continually evolving the landscape, and TMCs can no longer simply react to the new or enhanced products they’re developing.

To truly improve the business travel landscape, they must first have a foundational technology platform designed to proactively address the complexities of modern travel programs. At GBT, our Core Technology Platform underpins all of our solutions by providing an ecosystem that is capable of integrating emerging technologies.

For example, after witnessing increasing demand from travelers for tools where we can monitor their trips and interact with them electronically, we prioritized investments in our mobile app. As a result, we created live chats for real‐time interaction with travel counsellors supported by multiple data sources and predictive analytics.

Additionally, recent improvements to artificial intelligence and machine learning have enabled TMCs to quickly analyze massive volumes of data and make decisions and recommendations built around personal needs. By shifting these human resources away from manual processes to higher-value services, TMCs can deepen their customer interactions.

Voice technology, when combined with other important data elements of a customer’s profile, has helped make lengthy administrative processes a thing of the past by enabling travel managers to immediately authenticate users.

Response times to business questions and customer requests are also significantly reduced with a data lake, which compiles all important information in one singular location. With both of these technologies, travel counselors no longer need to complete the arduous process of collating data from various sources.

It’s important to note, however, that identifying emerging technologies is just one piece of the puzzle. To truly deliver increased value, TMCs must create a dedicated strategy built around proactively implementing these new solutions as they evolve. Those that do will be better positioned to effectively develop the personalized, predictive and intelligent products desired by the modern traveler and travel manager.

Where do we go from here?

Simply put, technology has limitless potential to enhance the supplier and traveler relationship. Our industry can no longer sit back and wait for it to develop. To truly capitalize, TMCs must proactively explore key technology trends to uncover the best possible solutions for enhancing the customer experience.

A world of fully automated business travel is not as farfetched as once believed. The automatic booking of flights, hotel, transportation and even dinner reservations is now a legitimate possibility ‐ practically eliminating the friction of business travel by making choice a positive thing, and not a headache on the back end.

TMCs that understand this and commit to not only developing a dedicated technology roadmap, but making it an integral component of their core business strategy, can ultimately play a significant role in shaping the future of business travel.

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