Wearable technology and business travel

On-the-go gear and on-the-road people – in many ways, business travel and wearable tech are natural fit, as Mark Frary explains

Excited by Apple watches, smart clothes and other wearable technology? Or are you the sort of person who sneers at users of so-called ‘jerktech’? Whatever your views, there is no denying that wearable technology is hot right now.

Market research firm International Data Corporation (IDC) forecasts that 72.1 million wearable devices will be shipped in 2015, compared with 26.4 million in 2014. Over the next five years, this figure is predicted to soar to more than 150 million. Much of the growth so far has been from relatively cheap devices.

Jitesh Ubrani, IDC senior research analyst, says: “The demand for basic wearables – those that do not run third-party apps – has been absolutely astounding. We expect smart wearables – those capable of running third-party apps – to take the lead in 2016. Smart wearables, such as the Apple Watch and Micosoft’s Hololens, are indicative of an upcoming change in computing, and the transition to smart wearables opens up opportunities for vendors, app developers and accessory makers.”

Get Smart
But when it comes to the managed travel environment, is this all just hype? I polled a small group of Buying Business Travel readers to find out how you felt wearable technology would affect business travel.

The travel buyers who answered the survey are clearly early adopters, with a third saying they own an Apple Watch and another third saying they have a different type of smartwatch, such as a Pebble or Samsung Gear. A third also say they own a fitness tracker, such as a Fitbit or Jawbone. This compares with the estimated 12 per cent of the general UK population that You Gov expect to own a wearable device by the end of 2015.

Chris Pouney, of strategic consultancy Nina & Pinta, says that while he has not encountered traveller demand for wearable tech in the managed travel sector, he believes it is coming with the advent of Apple Pay. “I see mobile wallets via wearable being an opportunity for buyers to capture ancillary spend not currently captured, plus making the expensing of such items significantly easier for travellers,” he says.

That said, buyers are open to the idea of implementing wearable technology in their organisations. When asked whether they would consider adding wearables to the technology platforms supported by their travel programmes, there were some clear must-haves. The most desired functions of wearable devices are traveller tracking and traveller messaging, plus the ability to manage itineraries. Half of respondents also cited payments using a virtual corporate card.

Booking using wearables is still seen as something of a pipe-dream. One respondent said: “The percentage of people who book using a mobile is still quite low. People may view itineraries on a watch, but I think as long as they had a phone, they would use that instead.”

Another said: “I think these devices can appear gimmicky. I suspect that most corporates would struggle to produce a business case for them. Once they can integrate with the corporate travel arena in the same way that smartphones and tablets have, they may become more acceptable.”

The majority of buyers I polled predicted that it will take between one and three years before wearables become an important part of travel management. One respondent believed there were two main barriers to adoption. “First, the tech has yet to reach a stage of maturity where it can be relied upon,” they said. “Second, there will need to be a significant level of education to enable business buy-in and traveller adoption. Traveller tracking is also a topic that needs further discussion, as it overlaps privacy rights.”

Some are optimistic, though, and one buyer felt wearable tech could add value for travellers. “Used at critical points in the business trip, these could be invaluable,” they said. “Having the boarding pass presented just as you reach the gate, sending onward travel information to you, having a virtual key for your room… These will become the norm in the next few years and we will wonder what we ever did without them.”

But that’s a far from universal view. Other buyers felt wearables would never be important in managed travel. One said that wearable technology would be “a flash in the pan” and likened it to Sony’s ill-fated Minidisc technology. He said: “We’ll all look back and laugh.”

Latest developments in wearables
Long flights can be immensely boring, and one airline that operates plenty of long flights is trialling wearable technology to make the journey go faster. Qantas is working with Samsung Electronics Australia to trial a new entertainment service using Samsung virtual reality (VR) technology that will allow first class passengers on selected A380 services, and in lounges in Sydney and Melbourne, to view inflight movies, as well as features about network destinations in three dimensions.

Tripcase, the itinerary management app owned by Sabre, has been available on Android Wear, Samsung Gear and Pebble watches since last year and Apple Watch since the summer. It has announced it will also support the Samsung Gear S2 from launch. A bug which caused the app to crash for iOS 9 users has also been fixed in the latest release of the app.

There are now more than 12,000 apps approved for use on Apple Watch, according to monitoring service Watch Aware.

Samsung and Facebook subsidiary, Oculus, have set the launch for their jointly developed Gear VR virtual reality headset for November. It will be the most widely available consumer headset and will be priced at less than US$100 in the US. The much hyped Oculus Rift headset is set to be launched in spring 2016.

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