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Mobile technology - threat or opportunity

With the world well and truly wedded to its iPhones and Androids, the subject of BBT’s latest Editor’s Lunch was certainly topical.

Editor’s lunch, sponsored by MasterCard, and held in the imposing surroundings of the Royal Automobile Club on London’s Pall Mall, an animated conversation on the subject of mobile technology ensued over a delicious lunch. To keep things informal and relaxed for our guests, we don’t identify the key buyers and travel managers who attended, but the views and quotes which follow are from the lunch, and give a sense of how those attending see the topic.

Buying Business Travel’s editor Paul Revel set the scene for the discussion by presenting some of the latest statistics for mobile use among travellers. Some 80 per cent of all business travellers already carry a smartphone or tablet device, while an ACTE survey found 88 per cent of its members use smartphones, with a further 9 per cent planning to buy one. The speed of uptake is also astonishing, with Google earlier this year reporting 300,000 new Android activations per day, while digital marketing firm eMarketer said 50 per cent of all new internet connections worldwide are coming from mobile devices.

Against such a background, it’s clear the first prerequisite for mobile technology is in place – or in hand: travellers already have mobile devices, but are they using them just for email and perhaps listening to a bit of music, or are they downloading some of the thousands of applications – or apps for short – which focus on travel?

To remove one objection immediately, it isn’t possible for companies to effectively police what travellers are doing in the mobile technology area. In short, employees can’t be forbidden from using these new technologies, even if this were thought to be desirable. Travellers want maps and real-time information and, even if corporate IT departments don’t want these apps downloaded to company devices, many travellers already have at least two mobiles – the company issue, and the personal one (often a BlackBerry, and either an iPhone or Android).


The obvious challenge to any company travel programme is lack of compliance. If travellers have access to real-time information on devices which are increasingly capable of searching the internet, this can undermine compliance. It is the same phenomenon as travellers sitting at their computer and finding cheaper options for their travel, without perhaps investigating the restrictions those rates have attached, or understanding how such actions can jeopardise existing corporate deals which rely on certain volume undertakings. One travel manager described the threat to the travel mandate as a “blizzard of information that is, in fact, often misinformation”, the problem being that a traveller will tend to use websites which he or she trusts, even when from an industry point of view, the rates – or conditions – might not be the best.

One manager told of missing an override deal by only two or three tickets, simply because a traveller had booked outside policy because of their loyalty to a particular airline programme. They earned enough for some free tickets to Florida for the summer holidays, but the company missed out on a five-figure discount – a tale that will be familiar to many other travel managers.


Linked with all of this is the fast approaching day when our mobiles will replace our wallets. For some, that day is closer than ever – recent research shows that people are more likely to leave their wallet at home than their phones; and it is already possible to make payments at some fast food restaurants using your mobile. Predictions vary, but research firms forecast global mobile transactions in the region of $240 billion by the end of this year, $300bn in 2012, and anywhere between $630bn and $1 trillion by 2015 (this compares to approximately $37bn in 2009 and $160bn in 2010).

Max Chatterjee, vice president, commercial cards at Mastercard, said that within a few years more and more of our phones will have the capability of not only making payments, but allowing the traveller to choose which card a particular transaction would go on – in the same way as from a wallet. The technology developed for this means that an added layer of security is embedded in the phone, allowing us to input our PIN number with confidence, just as we would in a shop or restaurant.

The travel management company (TMC) insight is also worth noting here, since it was pointed out that many suppliers to the industry want sales to be directed through one distributive route because of the different margins paid through different channels. TMCs know that so long as they can provide an app that keeps a traveller happy, then that will help compliance, since compliance comes when travellers do what is easiest for them.

Of course, mobile technology also provides other opportunities, such as helping keep track of travellers when emergencies occur – such as during last year's ash cloud crisis.

There is also the sense that travellers – and consumers in general – are ahead of company policies, which struggle to keep up with the speed of innovation in these areas.

TMCs have added many apps to their own programmes, such as Tripit’s, which can help travellers store details of their trips, which can then be accessed by colleagues and travel managers. There was also mention of programmes allowing receipts to be photographed and added to an expense report.

Finally, let’s not forget the humble SMS, allowing travel managers to send texts saying: “You have four fellow travellers on the flight going to the same office/hotel afterwards – why don’t you share a taxi..?”