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For Business, Corporate Travel & Meeting Buyers & Arrangers

Tech game changers

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Amid the noise around new technology, what will make a difference to managed travel asks Linda Fox? 

It’s easy to get caught up in the buzz around start-ups grabbing attention in the corporate travel segment for their disruptive nature. And it’s easy to think, ‘what if?’ about all the technology trends and their potential to improve the traveller experience and make processes more efficient – whether that’s biometrics, blockchain, artificial intelligence or virtual reality.

But it is harder to sort out what is hype and what might actually stick. An Egencia-Phocuswright white paper, published earlier this year, took a near, medium and longer-term view of emerging technologies, such as AI (artificial intelligence), natural language processing and chatbots.

The Emerging Tech-Driven Corporate Travel Revolution paper forecasts that in three years’ time AI will be part of the corporate travel landscape in terms of data used smartly to increase efficiency. 

At a recent airline conference, Willie Walsh, chief executive of BA-parent IAG, said data had contributed €170 million to the business last year.

He went on to say this amounted to 1 per cent of passenger revenue, and added that the group sees enormous potential in exploiting data and is beginning to “get value out of it and do something really smart with it”.

Looking a little further into the future – five to seven years’ time – and the Egencia report suggests that voice and intelligent chatbots will have taken hold in corporate travel. They will be offering a mix of human and computer interaction to travellers based on preferences.

The five-to-seven-years view also predicts a significant reduction in travel policy compliance issues as technology not only learns preferences, but also automatically highlights out-of-policy spend.

Shiny things

And, looking ten years down the road, the paper predicts travellers’ needs will be fully anticipated with zero friction in the journey.

The trick now is not to get too carried away with what might be. Pat McDonagh, chief executive of Clarity, describes much of what is out there as “shiny things”. He’s referring to developments such as chatbots and devices including Amazon Alexa and Google Home. “They may get into wider use and become part of everyday, but in the here and now there are more practical applications for travel.”

Of Alexa and the Google Home device, McDonagh says they are in their infancy and points out the privacy concerns around what the devices learn about you and how intrusive they might be.

A more interesting trend for him is mobile and how some AI is seemingly already creeping in. Navigation apps are a good example and often seem to predict correctly where you want to drive.

Another example McDonagh cites is when your phone suggests who a caller may be – “maybe Bob” – when that person is not in your list of contacts. “It’s applying data, so there are some quite clever things going on there,” he says. “What’s going to be interesting is the evolution of the mobile device in a travel context and what it’s going to be able to do for us in the next few years.

“It’s still largely untapped but it’s going to become essential and very few TMCs have nailed mobile.”

Mobile tools

Beyond booking travel, another area to watch is tools that help the traveller during the trip, particularly if there is a disruption.

A number of start-ups, such as Freebird, are already working in this area. Passengers pay an insurance-like fee to the US-based company, which then rebooks them on alternative flights in the event of a disruption.

This is an area that airlines and the global distribution giants are already working on. For example, Swiss has adopted automated rebooking technology with IT partner Amadeus. And, as systems become more integrated and data is shared, airport transport and hotel elements will also receive the disruption information and be able to react accordingly.

Jim Peters, chief technology officer for airline and airport technology specialist SITA, also emphasises mobile. He believes mobile will become a platform with many providers and integrated content using API technology and expanded apps.

A benefit of this, according to Peters, might be TMCs, and the industry generally, seeking more collaboration in order to integrate more products and services.

Mobile services can improve the traveller experience, and some might argue that developments such as chatbots already do that in terms of seamless interaction with the airline or hotel. They can also fulfil other functions, such as customer service, and could be addressing travel disruption in the future. 

But the more widely held belief is that they are a bit of a craze and still far from reaching their real potential. McDonagh says: “Everybody needs to show technology leadership and the big thing recently was the chatbot, but it won’t be in wide use for some years.” He adds that one of the downsides of the messaging services is their inability to pick up on the tone of a conversation.

Eurostar chief technology officer Neil Roberts sees chatbots reaching their potential sooner rather than later. “Chatbots will continue to build momentum. It’s still early days, but as natural language processing and AI improve we will find an increasing number of low-level interactions being fully automated.”

Roberts adds that there is an opportunity for “early adopters” here, to free-up teams who can then focus on adding value to the customer through excellent service.

Chinese ‘super apps’

One thing that might help advance chatbots is the strength of services such as WeChat in China. At the recent SITA Summit in Brussels, Finnair’s chief commercial officer Juha Jarvinen said it was “scary” how little the Chinese platforms are talked about.

He went on to describe those platforms as “super apps” and more advanced than anything in Europe or the US.

Voice bots are also worth a mention as they won’t be far behind the current text services, especially with developments such as Google Assistant and Home, Alexa, Siri and Cortana.

SITA’s Peters says a lot of people are already looking at voice bots. However, he doesn’t see them catching on until consumers begin to use their voices for more activities. “Once that’s natural and there’s lots of interaction, people will expect to be able to interact with travel in that way. I think it will happen in that way rather than travel doing voice bots on its own.”

While chatbots, and mobile more generally, begin to address different elements of a trip, there are other technology developments which will also make for a smoother journey.

Biometric tech

There is a trend towards biometric technology, and this has been seen with facial recognition and fingerprint scanning. Airlines KLM and Finnair are among the first to test such technology with their partner airports for check-in and boarding.

Peters describes the trend “as a snowball that’s coming”, and says SITA is working on an initiative with a government and an airline. “Confidence is growing that the technology is good enough,” he says, adding that he believes in five years’ time the use of biometrics in travel will be widespread, while in ten years’ time it will be “the way most things work.”

McDonagh is a little more cautious and says there’s a balance that needs to be struck in terms of the need for stringent security and the burden on the traveller.

“High security and vigilance with the need to make the experience better” is how he puts it and says it represents an opportunity for the industry.

Blockchain payments

Less certain is how blockchain technology may impact managed travel.

There are some negative associations with cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin in light of the WannaCry ransomware attack – which attacked computer systems of institutions around the world, including the NHS, demanding ransom payments in Bitcoin. But the reality is blockchains can do more than record currency transactions.

For managed travel, immediate uses for the blockchain are hard to find but airlines, for example, are beginning to look at how it might be used to share data between stakeholders.

McDonagh points out that hotel settlement might be one area where blockchain could simplify processes through data-sharing.

Many of the current trends revolve around the traveller and their experience, which is natural if you believe this is ‘the age of the customer’.

However, other trends around how travel is bought and paid for are also worth a look.

Take some of the startups in corporate travel currently and how they might impact travel buying. Flyr is one example. It’s not hard to see how the fare prediction startup might benefit corporate travel buying.

There’s also Splitty, which splits a hotel stay into multiple reservations thus enabling consumers to get the best price. While aimed at the leisure market, it’s the type of technology the business travel-buying community would find attractive.

At the back-end

The area of payments could become more complex before it actually starts to improve processes. Consumers might drive the use of services like Apple Pay, but someone needs to spare a thought for how they might work in the back-end.

Consumer adoption will play a big role in which technologies might stick and which will fall by the wayside. It’s interesting to note that, according to an ITM buyer survey, almost 90 per cent of buyers say that their travellers often talk about websites and apps that don’t sit within the travel programme.

The survey also reveals that 83 per cent believe ‘Next Gen’ travellers are already influencing the travel programme.

Those ‘Next Gen’ buyers and bookers will also likely influence the technology used in corporate travel going forward and will have high expectations of systems and devices.

When it comes to actual game-changers, with so much emerging technology, it’s difficult to accurately predict the outcome, but safe bets would probably be mobility, AI and biometrics.

It’s worth looking up the definition of ‘game-changer’ to bring a bit of balance to the hype out there. It’s defined as: “a newly introduced element or factor that changes an existing situation or activity in a significant way”.

So, when you think of corporate travel and apply that “changes an activity in a significant way” element, perhaps it will be more incremental changes and improvements than leaps forward.

Chat and voice bots will make for a more seamless experience, but they’re less likely to revolutionise travel. Similarly, the uses of virtual reality will likely evolve into mixed reality, blending the virtual with the physical world. Profound changes will be few and far between.

Concur, for example, has been trialling virtual reality technology to provide travel managers with a visualisation of where travellers are and who might be needing assistance.

The final word should be given to advances in transport and driverless cars. These developments are not that far off, with one travel executive saying recently that he travelled as a passenger in a Tesla with the driver hardly touching the wheel during the trip.

The question is: how this will impact train travel and short-haul business flights? And, what about hyperloop, the superfast vacuum-tube pod concept, which Eurostar’s Roberts points out is “set to revolutionise transport...”? 

New tech set to impact travel

Artificial intelligence – cognitive computing enables machine learning, problem-solving and taking actions.

Biometrics – using human characteristics and features such as iris, face, fingerprints for identification purposes and to manage access.

Blockchain – a secure database or record of information that can store private information or information that needs to be shared among a number of stakeholders. Once information is entered it cannot be modified.

Chatbots – text-based services, such as Facebook Messenger, that act predominantly as virtual customer service points with airlines using them for elements such as boarding passes and more recently, booking.

Hyperloop – described as being able to move people at airline speeds but cheaply, it uses linear induction to propel a pod carrying passengers through a vacuum tube.

Virtual reality – using headsets, it enables people to move about and interact in a virtual world. So far, applications for travel are more about leisure, providing travellers with a taste of a destination, product or service before they buy.

Voicebots – the next step up from chatbots, voicebots are controlled via the voice, but also aim to act as a personal assistant. Think Alexa and Google Home and Google Assistant.

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