IT’S TRUE TO SAY SOCIAL MEDIA hasn’t really caught on in the management of business travel – yet. Pioneers in trying to build communities for business travellers included Dopplr and, in many ways, itinerary management services TripIt and WorldMate.
Then things went quiet until a couple of years ago when corporates started looking at collaboration tools such as Yammer and the potential of applications for a company’s travelling employee. Again, not massive traction in terms of business travel management but those who are using social media are finding it really helpful in many ways.
The travel team at Microsoft, for example, has been using Yammer for the past few years. What started as a small-scale plan around general collaboration and getting travellers to share feedback has become a company-wide strategy around engaging with employees. MS Travel’s global lead for employee engagement and user experience Julia Fidler says that as with any emerging channel,
Yammer attracts specific types of travellers, as well as according to region and culture. Travellers in China and Latin America are less likely to engage with it, being generally more used to a higher-touch service. That said, some 30,000 – half of Microsoft’s travelling employees, use the travel category of the service and there are even those that could be described as advocates in the mix. Fidler says: “We’ve been able to get some great support from a small number of regular travellers who are first to answer. You would think they were working for us.” As well as collaboration around a potential meeting or trip, Yammer is good for educating travellers on travel policy and programme, and supporting them before, during and after booking. There are some challenges around using the service, such as the right tone and
language to use when interacting with travellers, and consistency of responses from the team. There’s also the need to ensure people make allowances for each other because of the open nature of the forum.
So far, Fidler hasn’t encountered any security issues around using Yammer, with the only concern being sharing of hotel codes specific to Microsoft. As you might expect, working within a technology company, Fidler believes the use of these social and collaboration-type tools in travel management will grow. “Three years ago, if you asked if there would be a strong social media presence in a business, there would have been shaking of heads. As our working population has started to change, we can see the uptake of things that three to five years ago were not feasible.”
CHANGING WORKFORCE The presence of the younger workforce and the bottom-up push in terms of the sort of technology they want to use is not the only driver for the use of social-style services in corporate travel. These types of services can play a role in that shift to supporting the traveller’s needs and trying to engage them. There’s also a need to embrace, or at least be aware of, new channels to market. It’s worth remembering how quickly new technologies catch on today – it only took Facebook three-and-a-half years to get to 50 million active users, and there are already some 300,000 Facebook Messenger Bots. Recent GBTA research suggests business travellers from France, Germany and the UK are seeking to book via direct channels.
The Concur-supported study reveals almost one third of business travellers in each country expect to use ‘alternative channels’ more often in the next year – that could be chatbots within Messenger, Skype, Slack or another chat service altogether. For Fidler it’s about new ways of working, adding value as a travel team and trying to influence travellers via a two-way communication. “We can now distribute information to travellers quickly. We used to have to send emails to large groups and the open rate was not always good.”
TMCs GET SOCIAL While Microsoft might claim first-move advantage in the use of these social tools, they seem now also to be catching on among travel management companies. Carlson Wagonlit Travel is one example and although not a complete stranger to social-style tools in terms of hotel reviews, the TMC is now planning to launch ‘social collaboration’ features on its mobile application.
The initiative will come later this year and the company sees a number of cases for use. For example, if a team is travelling to the same meeting, its members will be able to create a group within the app. According to Dan Kelly, CWT director of product marketing for EMEA, the idea is for the travellers to collaborate around booking the hotel or suggest ideas, perhaps about restaurants. He says in discussions the Travel Management Company: An agency which manages business travel for a company. has been having with its product development team as well as end users, “being able to collaborate socially with users was coming out a lot”. A second phase of social-style integration, slated for the end of 2017, is something CWT is calling ‘Who’s Around’.
The functionality enables anyone travelling on their own to see if other colleagues might be in the same destination or on the same flight. It is hoped this will allow corporates to derive value, first through savings from shared airport transfers. And a second, softer benefit, is in generally breaking the
monotony for travellers by showing them who they might potentially hook-up with. Kelly says: “We know these are the sorts of things travellers are asking for, which is why we’re acting on it.” He adds that the product development team is now working through the potential privacy issues, but believes that with people embracing these tools in their personal lives, it’s not too far a stretch to think they will do the same for business travel.
HELPFUL BOTS Metasearch company Skyscanner developed group functionality for Skype last autumn. The service enables two people to interact with the bot in a single conversation. Currently the bot can help a group plan a trip with the same origin and destination, but, for the future, it is considering how it might offer multiple origins to the same destination and even multiple origins to different destinations.
Skyscanner director of product Filip Filipov says: “Our premise is that travel is inherently social – even business travel when you could be travelling in groups so the search experience via Skype should allow for this.” He adds that although it’s small numbers using the functionality, those that do use it are coming back. Filipov also believes the technology community needs to do a better job of informing people of the benefits of using bots. “Right now we work with the tech enthusiasts and early adopters. We think that over time, this will become mainstream and also, this is the precursor to voice.”
Egencia-owned Traveldoo also has plans in this direction. Chief operating officer Dan Fitzgerald says the company is piloting an internal messaging platform, which is similar to Slack. If successful, the platform could be rolled out to customers. Traveldoo is also looking at the potential for bots in business travel management, although Fitzgerald believes they won’t get really sophisticated until all the data around traveller behaviour and preferences can be put to good effect. That said, Traveldoo is testing chatbots around its expense management support which, says Fitzgerald, are simple queries that lend themselves to a chatbot solution. He adds that they also help compliance and make for a smoother experience for travellers.
Earlier this year, travel and expense management specialist Concur announced a pilot bot using the Slack messaging tool. The bot enables conversation with travellers on trip itineraries as well as help with expenses. VIRTUAL ADVANCES It seems as if most airlines now also have a bot, mostly via Facebook Messenger, although some carriers have brought in additional technology specialists, such as Travelaer’s work with Icelandair on its booking bot. Aeromexico has also been making progress in this area with a ‘bots in groups’ service near launch.
The service enables a group to involve the Aeromexico bot in their group chat, share a selected flight with a group, use push notifications around check-in, flight status and boarding and check-in and receive boarding passes. Brian Gross, vice-president of e-commerce for Aeromexico, says he sees bots now falling into to four distinct areas: sales, inspiration, service (such as boarding passes) and frequently asked questions. And technology supplier Caravelo has just launched a chatbot called Vale for Mexico-based low-cost carrier Volaris.
The bot enables ticket sales and other services for the carrier via Facebook Messenger. Vale will initially just be available to loyalty club members. CWT’s Kelly says bots definitely add value. “We’re rolling out chatbots and from a business point of view it means we can manage resources better and bring the expertise of the people to the more complex type question.”
CORPORATE EVOLUTION All these developments, whether messaging and collaboration platforms as Slack, chatbots or peer-to-peer reviews, are edging their way into the corporate travel world. It’s becoming the way many people conduct their daily working lives using social and collaboration tools. And, as the workforce becomes more mobile and need to stay productive on the move, this will only increase.
It’s only natural, therefore, that it would seep into business travel management. Rocketrip founder and chief executive Dan Ruch says it uses Slack for internal communication and its travellers use in-app chat when they have questions. “Enterprise messaging apps like Slack are far from ubiquitous in travel management, but are part of an important evolution in how companies interact with employees,” says Ruch. “Just a few years ago, email-based automation of expense reporting was still new and unproven. The next generation – instant messaging-based bot support – came about much quicker: the development of employee-focused travel management systems has accelerated.”