Online booking tools: Waiting to self book

Online self-booking tools are evolving slowly, despite travellers’ enthusiasm for them. So what’s obstructing their widespread use?

Corporate self-booking tools have evolved in recent years to provide a better user experience and access to greater choice of content, which helps to keep travellers in policy. Some offer expense management tools making for a more seamless experience and improved spend visibility.

However, self-booking tools still represent an ongoing challenge to travel managers and what it often seems to boil down to is that they are being oversold.

One corporate travel manager, who has used a number of the systems in the market, feels there needs to be far more due diligence carried out when it comes to selecting a self-booking tool.

She says companies really need to sit down and decide what they want from a system because, in many cases, technology promises a lot that it cannot necessarily deliver.

“I’m not saying there are not good online booking tools, I just think they should be transparent about what they can and can’t do, and we should be very clear about what the expectations are.”

There are challenges, such as the technology’s ability to work across different geographies, as well as its ability to integrate with all the required TMCs.

There’s a conversation to be had between the corporate and the TMCs they work with before any contract is signed for a self-booking tool, especially when you consider the three-year contracts involved.

Some thought should also be given to the companies that offer the technology you’re planning to implement. Will they give you a dedicated person who acts as a central point for any issues? Or, will it be someone different each time. The latter creates “confusion and delays”, says the travel manager.

What’s interesting is that these problems don’t relate to the technology itself, which many buyers simply just want to use to enable their travellers to make simple online bookings, integrated with the TMC they work with and taking into account corporate travel policy and any approval constraints.

Most travel managers seem to have accepted that this is what they do and anything that deviates much from this, such as customisation, might require a rethink.

Another buyer told BBT that their current booking tool from their TMC was great at doing the simple things. For anything more complex than point-to-point, travellers are advised to speak to the TMC. This buyer’s philosophy is that employees should not be spending their time booking travel.

One of the main hindrances she encounters is the amount of time needed for training to use a corporate self-booking tool. The 80/20 rule probably applies to most companies in that it’s 20 per cent of employees making up 80 per cent of a company’s travel.

The buyer adds: “Unless you use it regularly, you won’t remember, so you’ve got to use a tool that is simple and maybe looks like websites you use.”

The buyer would also like to see functionality built in, enabling travellers to make changes to bookings after they have first been made.

The sentiment chimes with research from Egencia revealing that almost 50 per cent of travellers see the ability to control bookings themselves from initial stages to any required changes as the most important element of a travel programme.

Egencia unveiled its Online Air Exchange tool earlier this year, enabling travellers to change flights themselves via desktop or mobile. The technology automatically displays any penalties and charges travellers might incur.

Evolving technology
The next stage of evolution for corporate booking tools will be eagerly watched. It’s no surprise that content delivered via IATA’s New Distribution Capability technology standard is a concern for the travel management community.

In an open letter to the “Business Travel Value Chain”, IATA’s Travel Manager Advisory Group called on everyone to do more. The missive, for example, said it wished to see more from self-booking tools, the GDSs and aggregators in terms of “how NDC content will be featured and the developments around policy applications” now relevant with the advent of ancillaries, fare bundles and personalisation.

While Amadeus, Sabre and Travelport have announced various TMC and airline pilot partners for their NDC initiatives, many online booking tool specialists have been quieter.

KDS, which is owned by American Express Global Business Travel, says it can support content, both GDS and non-GDS, via open API connections. It also says that as airlines leverage NDC-enabled content, Amex GBT customers will be able to access the content via its Neo technology.

Development work is also being carried out to enhance Amadeus’ corporate booking and expense management tool Cytric so that it, too, can offer NDC-enabled content.

A further interesting NDC development is the integration of airline content such as descriptions of a carrier’s product and services and what a ticket includes from Routehappy into the NDC Exchange. ATPCO and SITA developed the exchange late last year as a marketplace to help drive the adoption of NDC.

KDS also integrated the rich content earlier this year as did New Zealand-based travel and expense management technology specialist Serko.

Serko is making its own push into the UK corporate travel technology market via an exclusive partnership with ATPI.

A familiar interface
Serko wanted to expand into Europe, says ATPI’s managing director Adam Knights, and his company will now be exclusively offering the Zeno travel and expense management technology to customers.

Knights says ATPI was impressed with Serko after working with it in Australia and New Zealand. While the company still works with and offers other technology, including Concur and Amadeus Cytric for the coverage they provide, there is a feeling that the latest version is a “step-change.” Knights adds that the Zeno user interface is much closer to what travellers might see in their daily lives, which can seem dated and clunky, often because of the constraints of legacy systems.

Knights highlights particular elements of the Serko product, such as the chat service that is currently in development, and the links to Microsoft products, such as Outlook, so that travel patterns can begin to be anticipated and the booking screen auto-populated with travel information.

ATPI has two of its larger customers testing the technology and Knights says the company recently retained business based on the promise of Zeno. He also believes that the artificial intelligence-based chat element, once opened up, has the potential to change today’s fee structure because of the improvement it will provide to the overall user experience.

These sorts of developments can’t happen soon enough for travel buyers who, according to recent GBTA research, say live chat is one of the booking innovations they are most excited about offering in travel programmes to improve the user experience. Players are also working to integrate with this sort of functionality as well as with customer relationship management technology and office tools such as email. Amadeus Cytric is a good example. It already works with SAP CRM tools and FCM with its chatbot, SAM.

The study, supported by SAP Concur, reveals that evaluating and implementing new technology is one of the areas that is taking up more of travel buyers’ time compared to five years ago. Further improvements in user experience are likely to come in continued partnerships between TMCs and technology companies such as the ATPI-Serko tie-up.

Another good example is the Rocketrip and Sabre announcement with Rocketrip becoming a preferred partner for the GetThere tool. And, earlier this year during the Business Travel Show, a number of these types of partnerships were unveiled with TMCs seeking to focus on what they’re good at and partnering with specialists in various areas for content or technology services.

Looking ahead, there are unlikely to be giant leaps in corporate booking tools. It will continue to be about partnerships as existing technology companies improve their offerings and start-ups bring emerging technologies to reinvent existing processes. Incremental improvements in the user experience are likely as additional functionality, such as chat tools and even voice, is made available via mobile devices.

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