Automated travel: Lone wolf travellers

Increasingly executives shun human interaction while on trips, which has huge implications for travel managers

Dealing with real people, either on the phone or in person is slowly going out of fashion when it comes to business travel. So-called total trip automation is already a reality for a good proportion of journeys, especially short-haul trips.

The fact is many road warriors don’t want that human touch anymore. They prefer to rely on their smartphone apps, texts and emails to engineer their travel arrangements. They focus on the job overseas, the trip in hand and aim to be productive without distractions.

Interestingly, half of those polled for the latest Egencia Tech Survey said they like to avoid, yes avoid, human interaction when travelling. This was the finding of a weighty and comprehensive survey among 4,500 business travellers in the UK, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Norway, Singapore, Sweden and the US.

“Executives don’t love isolation, they love convenience. Business travellers are busy people. If they have to speak to a human to resolve an issue, it’s just one more link in the chain that requires focus and effort on their part,” explains Alex Kaluzny, chief technology officer at Egencia.

This is echoed by several other surveys, including one from IBM showing that millennials now prefer chatbots and interacting with AI to a human voice possibly complicating things on the phone. As the younger generation embraces the convenience of ecommerce, especially consumer travel, many more conversations are taking place with technology, via a device, online.

“There is an increasing number of digital natives entering the workforce who feel more comfortable working and resolving everything digitally,” explains Antoine Boatwright, chief information officer at Hillgate Travel (see Q&A below).

Like astronauts into the void
It’s an interesting theory that corporate travellers are almost like astronauts sent off into the void having little contact with mission control, supported by a travel programme and armed to the hilt with tech including check-in numbers, q-codes, electronic receipts and verifiers.

“No news is good news as far as I am concerned,” says Kurston Hannaford-Janes, a travel manager for TV production company Two Four. She organises television shoots in various locations in the UK and overseas. She and her team rarely hear from their staff when they’re on the road unless something goes wrong with the travel plan.

“If shoots are overseas, however, there is a duty-of-care for us to call them once a day. If there is an issue with the itinerary, I email first, text second and only call last of all if I get no response,” she says. “I try not to disturb them on a very busy shoot. Automation is also everywhere. Increasingly we see it with hotels and apartment check-ins; there is less human interaction while away for our crews.”

So, the question this raises is: have we reached a tipping point where the age of total trip automation is now upon us? If so, it has huge implications for managed travel. In other walks of life, technology has gradually displaced humans, from self-service supermarket tills and automated check-in at airports to contactless payments across the UK. We could coin a new phrase in the not too distant future – contactless travel. This may soon be the new normal.

“Things that seemed impossible to automate in the past will soon have computers and machines replacing those jobs as well,” explains Thomas Frey, executive director and senior futurist at the Da Vinci Institute in the US.

“Automation is no longer the domain of the elite few, and the quicker we can make that transition to all sectors of the economy, the quicker everyone can participate. As we think about the growing number of machines in our lives, we need to consider how our relationship with them will morph and change.”

So, if a technology suite now supports the travelling executive within an inch of their travelling lives, when does the travel manager need to step in, if at all? Having the option to call someone in a mad panic is still the most crucial need. Delays, cancellations and unforeseen issues require human brains. 

“Like anyone else, travellers sometimes need and want to be alone on the road – travelling is stressful enough without the occasional frustration of dealing with other people. The key is offering those travellers the choice of whether to speak with another human being or not,” explains Greeley Koch, executive director for the Association of Corporate Travel Executives (ACTE).

“For example, some may want a mobile app that allows them to pick the hotel room and upgrade if they want; others may prefer to speak with the front desk clerk. Either way, speed is non-negotiable. No one wants to spend 15 minutes figuring out how to get a room upgrade.”

A spectrum of activity
Certainly, there is a whole spectrum of activity in the travel marketplace between complete trust in technology and those that need the human support of, say, a TMC call centre available 24 hours a day.

“The ideal situation is that technology and personal support is fully integrated, and the customer has a choice of options for contact, be that online self-service, a phone call with an agent, email or chatbots,” says Jill Palmer, CEO of Click Travel.

But if total trip automation is the future, if only to bring about efficiencies and savings, it will take more work and time to achieve, as well as investment. Travel management involves a whole ecosystem of providers across the globe, not all of which are aligned or automated. But first, managing travelling executives and their needs and expectations is crucial. 

“Engaging travellers to manage their behaviour is the only option here,” states J. Michael Silvey, senior director of demand and behaviour management at Advito.

“This means that the company needs to address the issues that travellers face and give solutions to those problems. We can also use behavioural economics to shift the choice of the traveller so it is aligned to the corporate choice.”

Tech to assist in automation
There are now new technologies being developed globally that will drive change and further automation. One is universal profiling. The idea is that your executives have one customer record that holds all their details, payment billings, preferences and itineraries.

“This will meet many barriers – one being the GPDR – the EU General Data Protection Regulation coming out in May and other US regulations,” explains Silvey. “Corporate travellers want data portability and ease of transacting with any supplier. Take, for example, IATA’s One Order. It promises to simplify our industry and it will mean TMCs will need to rethink how they do business. This industry-led initiative will reorder how we all do business to match the Netflix and Amazon effect.”

Investments in technology, such as blockchain by hotels, the New Distribution Capability and more money flowing into chatbots and artificial intelligence (AI), will also bring about further trip automation and customisation. This is ushering in a brave new era powered by an absolute faith in tech tools by the corporate traveller.

“It’s not just about automation of the trip, it’s about automation of the whole travel management process,” reiterates Palmer. “There is now an entire generation of people in business who’ve grown up with the idea of doing everything through their phone – and they totally trust in automated services for the most part.” 

Palmer points out that consistency is a big issue. Travel suppliers are at different points in their automation journey. This also differs depending on which country you operate in as well. It is definitely a mixed bag. 

However, the Institute of Travel Management’s annual Outlook Report, which polled UK travel managers last year, revealed that buyers now anticipate and expect greater integration of services from end-to-end, as well as integration with devices combined with full, rich and accessible content in the next few years. Times are changing. 

“Total trip automation does require every supplier involved to offer full customisation and automation,” says Palmer. “Going forward there will definitely be more computerisation of the simple processes. For bookings where the agent is essentially just pressing a button for the customer, that can be easily automated which will bring down costs,” she explains.

We can also expect further improvements in streamlining payment functionality and widening the range of ancillary content that is available. Two Four’s Hannaford-Janes stresses that the most human interaction she has when it comes to managing travel involves setting up new payments with suppliers. However, investments in fintech are likely to iron out these issues in the near future.

Finally, as a travel manager it’s worth considering where automated processes work and where they don’t (see panel, left). In some cases getting executive travellers to manage their own bookings using tech tools can be a very inefficient process. Knowing when to step in is crucial.

“A business owner needs to examine the negative impact on productivity when travellers undertake to resolve the management of itinerary changes themselves,” explains Adrian Parkes, CEO of GTMC, which represents travel managers. “Time spent sourcing flight times and tickets is time away from the job at hand. That can have a detrimental impact on the overall value of a trip.”

As more technology is integrated into the travel experience, managers increasingly need to pay attention to the experiences automated services offer and question whether they live up to expectations and deliver good services.

“After all, travel managers are responsible for employee satisfaction and safety. If expectations are not met, the wear and tear of travelling can reduce productivity, lead to burn-out and waste resources,” says Christophe Tcheng, vice-president of core products at American Express Global Business Travel.

“Travel managers should gather traveller feedback and deliver an experience that’s in line with needs and wants. Employees drive a business forward, which should make them a number one priority.”

The human touch
There is a lot of talk about customer-centricity in this new data and tech-driven era, and this is likely to be a big focus in the future – putting the traveller at the centre of this automated era will be essential. However, we definitely shouldn’t forget the role of people in managed travel.

“We deal with humanitarian workers that are often bound for dangerous or far-flung locations,” says Matt Truin, operations director at Diversity Travel. “Typically they carry out high-risk work. In these scenarios the human touch is simply irreplaceable.

“Whenever one of our travellers finds themselves in a challenging, unpredictable or threatening situation, we can offer informed guidance on their next steps. We believe it is vital to retain such services in an increasingly ‘human-less’ business travel landscape,” he adds.

It is good to know the machines aren’t completely replacing us.

BBT asked Antoine Boatwright, chief information officer at Hillgate Travel, about trip automation

Have we reached a tipping point where total trip automation is possible?
The degree of automation is increasing tremendously but it is not yet total. At most one can say for certain regions and types of transactions and travel patterns, they are fully automatable. However, certain parts of the travel chain are not available via API, ie, hotel check-ins or check-outs. There’s also no overarching body to standardise communication protocols across all travel categories.

Why is this greater reliance on tech tools happening now?
There’s a perception that many user cases are simple and do not require assistance. There’s also a perceived feeling of greater empowerment to get things done versus having to deal with people who might stand in the way. There’s also a corporate and procurement push to lower costs by making everything move online ie, it’s being mandated.

What are the issues and problems with total trip automation?
The reality, as many technologists are acknowledging now, is that the best outcomes are achieved when one can get the best out of man and machine. There needs to be a refining of what this actually means because the devil is in the execution.

How will this evolve in 2018 and beyond? What are the opportunities? 
It will not be down to a single player, be they technology provider or TMC; the suppliers of various industries need to come together to move towards standards, similar to NDC, in areas, such as hotels, to lower the cost of digital enablement for all concerned.

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