Tech strategy: Game plan

Why your travel programme needs an effective technology strategy

For far too long, companies have considered technology a tool, enabling employees to do something useful, such as type a letter more quickly than on a manual typewriter or, more recently, book an airline seat without having to speak to someone to do it on their behalf.

Yet forward-looking companies are recognising that technology goes far beyond useful tools, and having a planned technology strategy is vital in order to drive benefits that can not only change behaviour but also keep travellers happy and deliver on corporate objectives.

“Strategy is always something visionary,” says Yvonne Moya, who recently joined consultancy Festive Road and was previously travel buyer with Unilever, IBM and Deutsche Telekom.

“If you don’t think about what you really want you can’t create a roadmap. But if you create a roadmap, it can change. Technology changes and requirements change. No-one knows what type of technology we will have tomorrow. Is blockchain going to translate into really tangible projects? Who knows?”

Her advice is to first identify overall objectives when considering a technology strategy. “A lot of people start with thinking, ‘I need that app’ or ‘I need digital payments’ or something similar. They are starting in the middle and are really disappointed when it doesn’t help,” she says.

Ask the customer
A travel buyer from a multinational pharma company says the traveller should be at the heart of an organisation’s technology strategy. She says her company is undertaking a survey of its more than 15,000 regular travellers to find out “what they would want to see in terms of technology and best practice, and in terms of ease of use and 24/7 accessibility”.

“No one ever thought it would be a good idea to ask the customer before,” she says.

Getting the technology right means putting some other elements in place; it has implemented American Express business travel accounts and is in the process of consolidating its agencies. Technology is helping the company get much more competitive versus its industry peers.

The buyer says: “We went through a huge benchmarking programme and we found we were spending more than our competitors. We need to travel dramatically less and need to spend the money in smarter ways.  Technology can help drive awareness and then drive behaviour.”

One challenge is that technology providers and TMCs often overhype the capabilities of their technology products. Moya says everyone wants a perfect solution immediately, but neither buyer nor supplier is ready for it. “It is better to have a realistic roadmap and view of the future,” she says. “There clearly is overselling [by tech providers], but buyers need to be upfront and truthful about their requirements. I see a lot of requirements copied and pasted from one tender to another.

“The most important thing is not to do it in a silo, but really to involve stakeholders: internal IT teams, TMCs and other partners,” she adds.

Talking with IT teams is not always straightforward. “Sometimes IT people speak strange languages,” says Moya. “Those guys have no clue about travel and the service attitude, and all of a sudden you can’t connect the dots. You can overcome that by having a travel technology manager who is able to speak both languages, knowing what an API is as well as a GDS and an OBT.”

And you do need to speak to IT. The IT department is likely to know things that you don’t, for example, that one part of the company is running a service chatbot that could be used by travel to answer the thousands of questions that come in about travel policy.

Travel tech manager
In some programmes this travel technology manager role sits successfully within the TMC’s account management team rather than on the company payroll. 

TMCs can be divided into two camps: those that do technology and those that don’t – and for corporates looking for a technology partner, there are arguments in favour of both types.

The list of those companies that develop their own in-house technology includes HRG, Capita Travel and Events, and Hillgate Travel. Antoine Boatwright, Hillgate’s CIO, says the difference between working with a technology provider directly and a TMC with their own technology is like the difference between handling “a supertanker or speedboat”.

“Technology companies are very process-driven; they are offshored and the distance between the coder and the person with the requirement is so large that it takes a long time to turn into product,” says Boatwright. Despite that, there can be advantages. “Some tech providers have the scale that allows them to negotiate on a much larger basis with third parties you might wish to engage with,” he says. However, technologies such as the cloud have enabled TMCs to scale quickly.

“TMCs, meanwhile, understand travel first hand and they see it from the operations side. They see the requirements and the service delivery and can optimise both,” he adds.

The pharma buyer clearly believes that owning the technology relationship directly with providers, particularly the online booking tool, is vital and that managing them at arm’s length through a TMC does not work well. “I have seen it in the past from other jobs. You get so much more mileage if the technology is firmly in your hands,” she says.

Companies need to bear in mind four factors when considering their technology strategy, says Boatwright: culture, baseline, capability and business imperative.

“If I go to a company like Facebook, they have a fast-moving culture and they want to adopt things quickly. At the other end of the spectrum, you might have the royal household, which is aware from a professional standpoint of technology but is culturally not an early adopter but a follower of technology,” he says, adding that neither of these is a Hillgate client.

He says the more traditional organisation would probably have a “desk-toppy” environment, whereas “the likes of Facebook would have a ‘mobile-first’ culture and you are looking at things like wearables”. This translates directly into tech strategy. If you are a Facebook-type organisation, then you are used to biweekly release schedules for tech updates and you are probably already thinking about virtual reality and artificial intelligence. But at the other end of the cultural spectrum, moving from single-digit percentage online booking tool adoption to 25 per cent might be your strategy.

Knowing where you are today with technology, your baseline is always going to be important to understand what is feasible. If you are a mobile-first company, you may well allow employees to bring their own devices to work; at the other end of the scale, you may have very few corporate mobiles and don’t have a mobile strategy. “Your roadmap starts from this baseline,” says Boatwright.

On the question of capability, he points out: “Nine times out of ten, where strategy falters is on internal capability. They need to ask what technology they are going to be comfortable with, and also how many projects they have that are ongoing and whether they have the capability to work on another project.” For example, if you are undergoing an upgrade of your enterprise platform, the chances of introducing new technology into travel is likely to be slim.

The final pillar in all of this is the overarching business imperative. Boatwright shares the example of a professional services company that charges back travel to its clients. “If they are able to reduce the cycle between paying for travel and charging customers from 90 days to 30 that is no longer a travel issue but a finance one,” he says.

Driving innovation
The pharma buyer says one element of her company’s technology strategy is trialling disruptive technologies, particularly traveller-centric ones that can reduce admin.

“We have never had a programme for the medical reps who travel in cars and trains around the country visiting doctors. That has never been tackled. We have the figures to show that if we can take a few minutes of admin time out of the day of each sales rep then this can have a significant effect on the revenues of the company as a whole,” she says.

“It is important to be disruptive. I would be embarrassed to miss out on a big trend or something super-cool. You need to keep yourself relevant in your organisation and you do that by driving innovation.”

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