How personalisation is affecting business travel

Is personalisation a threat to managed travel, or a benefit that’s being delivered too slowly? Both, it seems…Rob Gill reports

The potential impact of personalisation and the use of data on the managed business travel industry has been much debated in recent years, but when will it really start to bear fruit? And will it mark the start of a bright new dawn in the way companies operate their travel policies and programmes?

We have all seen how data is being increasingly used by companies to target us as consumers – search for one product or company online, and then a short time later you will probably see its adverts popping up on a completely unrelated site. Similarly, supermarket loyalty cards are using data about our shopping habits to bombard us with personalised offers.

While personalisation is permeating into our everyday lives, there are only a few signs of it taking root within corporate travel. In fact, several buyers have criticised the failure of suppliers to keep up with up with these consumer technologies, particularly with products such as self-booking tools (SBTs). One buyer even decried the technology of some travel management companies (TMCs) for “still using green screens”.

One of the biggest projects based around personalisation within the industry is the much-vaunted New Distribution Capability (NDC), created through the leadership of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which has the long-stated ambition of offering an ‘Amazon-style’ shopping experience for those booking flights through a TMC or other third-party supplier.

Even to the casual observer, progress with NDC has been painfully slow, although several airlines are undergoing pilot projects, including British Airways. These trials have been mostly based around replicating the sort of services that are already available for direct customers using individual airline websites – BA, for example, is using NDC to allow seats to be selected through trade portals.

Institute of Travel and Meetings (ITM) chairman Mark Cuschieri probably spoke for many buyers when he said that NDC – and personalisation generally – was “not happening fast enough”, during a panel session on the subject at the Business Travel Show earlier this year. “With personalisation, the frustration is that it takes a very long time to change,” he said. “Buyers are not averse to change but I don’t think they have tools in the market to enable that to happen.”

TMCs have defended their progress by explaining the complexities of producing online platforms that combine multiple feeds from different travel suppliers.

Jason Geall, UK general manager of American Express Global Business Travel, says: “We are building mobile apps that will offer a globalised platform, which will be agnostic on the GDS, so that clients can choose the way they want to book. But it’s not simple technology and requires a lot of developer capability.”

But given this “frustration” about the slow pace of change, when are buyers likely to see more tangible use of personalisation within managed travel? Amadeus’s UK boss Champa Magesh has admitted that the concept of personalisation has so far been “very fuzzy” in business travel and it may take another couple of years for the situation to become clearer.

Former Astra Zeneca travel buyer Caroline Strachan, who is now managing partner at consultancy Festive Road, says that personalisation will “come in many forms” and it will not solely be based around technology. “Technology will play a part with the way travellers are communicated to, but how they’re handled as an individual will be important, too. I love that my local coffee house knows I drink a decaf macchiato – that’s not technology, that’s a staff member’s great attitude.

“Similarly I love that my supermarket knows I’m about to run out of smoothie based on the data of how regularly we order it and reminds me I need to get ordering. I can see many points across the traveller experience that could be personalised with the human touch or, indeed, technology.”

Using data to offer business travellers a more personalised service also forms a central plank of the newly forged concept of Managed Travel 3.0, which was discussed in the previous edition of Buying Business Travel (issue 79), and promotes the idea that employees will have the ability to make more of their own decisions on their business travel plans.

Greeley Koch, executive director of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives (ACTE), says that personalisation within business travel has been “evolving for decades”, which can also be seen by the increasing number of companies that now allow staff to choose their own work laptops and mobile phones. “Ever since carriers, hotels, and TMCs began saving traveller profiles to improve service for their most frequent clients, there has been growing consideration to appeal to the individual tastes of the business traveller,” he says.

The holding of individual traveller data by suppliers often sounds alarm bells for buyers as this can provoke fears that airlines or hotel groups may simply try to sell direct to the traveller and entirely bypass the managed programme and policy. It can also lead to questions about pricing – as one buyer says: “Personalisation raises a concern when it starts to differentiate on price, but it’s a good thing if it rewards traveller loyalty”.

So what will be the key element to using personalisation within managed travel in the next few years? Most TMCs and technology suppliers believe that this may lie in the creation of a single ‘one-stop-shop’ app or web-based portal that will cater for all of a business traveller’s needs.

Jill Palmer, managing director of technology-focused TMC Click Travel, says that consolidating the booking process within a single portal is vital and will end the need for travellers to use a multitude of different apps or websites from individual suppliers.

“The power of data and consolidation of that data is crucial to delivering the right customer experience,” she adds. “Personalisation is inevitable and we want to support it. The important thing for business travellers is to have one place to go to book all their travel – personalisation from the supplier needs to come through this portal.

“A hotel may offer free wifi for a direct booking but that kind of personalisation is not going to work for the business traveller – you just end up having ten different apps for travel, each with their own offers.”

Christian Gleave, CEO at fellow TMC Review Travel, admits that it has “taken longer than expected for suppliers to satisfy the demand for mobile compatibility” but this is changing with e-tickets increasingly being used by airlines, train operators and other suppliers.

“TMCs are now collating information on traveller habits and using this to streamline booking processes by uploading individual preferences, covering everything from seat position to hotel floor,” says Gleave. “This level of detail is expected to become much greater in coming years, with TMCs using these preferences to make time- and cost-savings that can be passed on to clients.”

While the speed of change in offering customised services has been sluggish, suppliers are beginning to introduce elements of personalisation into their products. For example, hotel booking specialist HRS is planning to introduce a ‘recommendation engine’, which is currently being trialled, to ‘intuitively match’ the needs of a traveller through the creation of a personalised shortlist of properties. This list will be created using an algorithm based on the individual’s online and offline behaviour, as well as taking their employer’s travel policy into account.

HRS’s UK managing director, Jon West, adds: “There is huge potential to personalise business travel as travellers expect the booking process to reflect more of a consumer experience. This technology can ensure that business travellers are receiving the best rate at that point in time – even if it is lower than the company’s negotiated rate.” 

Carlson Wagonlit Travel (CWT) says one of the most important elements to successful personalisation lies in the creation of ‘smart profiles’, which include information from a traveller’s previous itineraries, app usage and their digital profile. This data goes deeper than just knowing a person’s airline seat preference, such as detailing how much sleep they like to get and what time they prefer to eat on a long-haul flight.

The use of this type of granular data on traveller preferences and habits hints at a wider debate that is already going on in the consumer sector. This concerns the fine balance between companies’ ability to hold huge amounts of personal data on an individual in order to offer them a more customised service, set against a desire for privacy and fears that data may be stolen and used by criminals.

This is not always a straightforward debate – even in the consumer world. For example, a Deloitte survey of UK residents last year found that only 22 per cent were happy for companies to use their data to offer them more personalised products, while 66 per cent said they were “concerned” about the amount of information that companies were holding on them.

As the level of personalisation within business travel increases, the debate about data privacy may come to the fore over the next few years. But first, the industry has to start catching up with the kind of personalisation we already experience in our non-working lives.

There are signs that this is finally starting to happen, with several TMCs and tech companies claiming to be on the cusp of being able to offer a ‘killer’ app that will render all other booking platforms superfluous.

Amadeus’s head of travel intelligence, Pascal Clement, says the increasing complexity of the way travel is sold, such as the use of unbundled prices and multiple channels, makes “data science” even more important. “Travellers are telling us what they want through each interaction but only now can we listen, interpret and respond in an instant,” he adds.

This trend was also reflected in the results of CWT’s 2016 Travel Trends, Program Priorities survey, which found that 49 per cent of travel managers expected customisation to make a “high or very high impact” to their programmes this year, while 54 per cent said ‘big data’ would have a similar impact.

But CWT stresses that personalisation will “only be a success if we collaborate and share information”. This could end up being just as much of a challenge as getting the technology right when you consider the rumpus over Lufthansa’s decision to charge a €16 fee for bookings through the GDSs, or the uproar caused when hotel companies come up with new ways to entice business travellers to book direct on their websites.

Anatomy of a personalised business trip
Travel technology firm Amadeus has come up with an example of how a personalised business trip might look:

Search and book
The online booking tool knows from the traveller’s profile that they are looking for a flight with extra legroom, an aisle seat, fast-track security access at the airport and extra cabin baggage, but no hold luggage. The profile also tells the system that a premium wifi connection is required at the hotel. All these details are included in a package that the traveller can just click to book.

On the eve of their journey, the traveller receives an email offering them a taxi from the office to the airport.

Missed connections
The traveller’s initial flight is delayed so they are going to miss their connection. Another flight is automatically rebooked using Amadeus Personal Disruption Companion, with a new boarding pass sent to the traveller’s smartphone.

After completing hotel check-in, the traveller is automatically sent details of recommended nearby restaurants through the agency’s app.

The traveller is asked by an automated email to rate the flight, hotel and restaurant, through clicking on some links within the message, and earns extra loyalty points by doing this.

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