You can’t please all of the people, all of the time – but our experts share how you can give it your best shot in this era of cost-cutting and automation
What makes business travellers happy? Or perhaps, more pertinently, what are the barriers or issues that can combine to make for a poor travel experience? These are much asked questions in the world of managed corporate travel and the answers are not always straightforward.
Buyers are often the first to be the targets of complaints from travellers when trips don’t run smoothly or they are forced to take a circuitous (and significantly longer) route to their destination to save a few pounds on the airfare. They may be equally vociferous if they are compelled to stay in a hotel they don’t like or can’t clock up their preferred loyalty points.
Some buyers simply shrug their shoulders and say their employees are spending the company’s money so need to follow policy and book with the preferred airlines and hotels, regardless of their personal preferences. But, on the other hand, there’s a persuasive argument that happy travellers are likely to have more productive and successful trips.
What do travellers want?
Recent research from American Express Global Business Travel revealed the biggest challenges for UK business travellers were: being away from family and friends; not being able to adjust travel arrangements if something unexpected happens; keeping on top of day-to-day work while planning a trip; and having to travel over weekends and public holidays.
As for the benefits of business travel, the Business Travel Satisfaction Survey from expense management specialist Chrome River found “getting to see new places” was the top enjoyment factor for UK road warriors. This was followed by the ability to “travel in style” by flying in a premium cabin and staying in a higher category hotel; the ability to add leisure days on to a work trip (known as bleisure); and earning loyalty points to use for personal travel.
Chrome River’s study also revealed that giving travellers the choice of which suppliers they used, including airlines, hotel companies and car rental firms, helped to significantly improve satisfaction levels. Business travellers who classified themselves as “unhappy” had much lower levels of freedom when booking suppliers.
These findings are probably not hugely surprising for any experienced buyer. But what can be done to tackle these issues to make life better for travellers, without impinging or threatening their organisation’s main priorities, such as increasing compliance levels? This is even more challenging in an era when cutting costs is usually at the top (or very near the top) of the buyer’s key performance indicators (KPIs).
Technology is regularly cited as a panacea capable of solving at least some of the potential disconnect between what a traveller and their employer want when it comes to business trips. But the managed travel industry is frequently criticised for its supposed slowness in creating the kind of technology travellers already enjoy when booking leisure trips.
Online booking tools (OBTs) and other corporate platforms are undoubtedly becoming more sophisticated and pulling in bookings from a wider range of suppliers and sources. Information is also starting to be incorporated into these tools – from live data about train and flight delays to the latest Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) travel advisories, and even crime information to ensure travellers don’t stay in the “wrong part of town”.
There is also a growing feeling that business travellers need their own corporate-focused tools to assess the appropriateness of the hotels and other services they are booking, rather than relying on leisure-based review sites such as Trip Advisor.
Simone Buckley, who formerly headed up the Institute of Travel Management (ITM) and who is now chief executive of TMC Fello, says: “We had a client who booked a hotel in Phoenix after reading a few reviews on Trip Advisor. But when they talked to colleagues they were told that the hotel was on the wrong side of town, so we changed it for them.”
Some companies have developed their own internal reviews systems, particularly for hotels, where travellers can leave reviews and ratings to get around these issues. There are also sites such as Tripism, which allow business travellers to share recommendations and tips, as well as providing feedback and data insights to buyers about suppliers.
But relying too much on reviews from business travellers can become a double-edged sword, particularly on subjects such as hotels where an individual simply may not like a certain property or brand for personal reasons.
Steve Banks, director of business development at Capita Travel and Events, says: “I don’t think you want the Trip Advisor approach where somebody says they just don’t like that hotel for personal reasons, even though the hotel is the best solution for the organisation.
“There’s a problem if you open up to too many channels for feedback because it can become very emotive. When you analyse it, you can get a lot of differing opinions. You want to ensure you’re identifying constant themes and things that happen over a period of time, then you can take out the individual nuances – unless they have significant impact.”
The personal touch
Travel technology companies are hard at work creating and enhancing online tools to help make travellers’ lives easier by reducing stress or “friction” from planning to booking to going on the trip. Much of this focus is on consolidating information from multiple sources into one app or platform, which can be then be analysed to create more personalised content for travellers.
Paul Broughton, managing director for Travelport UK & Ireland, says: “UK-based millennial business travellers use 18 different categories of apps (nearly twice as many as baby boomers who use around ten) while on their business trips.
“Every step travellers take generates huge amounts of data and every aspect of a travel programme and behaviour can capture this meaningful data. Business travel will be an ultimately more satisfying experience if travel managers can look into and analyse travellers’ profiles and booking data, by making use of AI [artificial intelligence] driven by data and analytics, to build a bespoke travel experience that’s more in line with leisure trips.”
This type of technological advance is not just about creating better and more flexible trips for business travellers, but can also help their organisations to meet their duty-of-care obligations by making it easier to locate and contact them in an emergency. It can also take the hassle out of tedious processes, such as dealing with on-the-road expenses.
Leon Herce, executive vice-president, corporations, travel channels, at Amadeus, says: “The on-trip stage of any journey can be the most challenging for an employee, incurring major out-of-pocket expenses and dealing with potential itinerary changes.
“Technology solutions can allow employers to better communicate with their employees while on trip with automated alerts and messages, and smooth processes mean that dealing with expenses can be automatic and take much less time.”
Removing potential friction from trips is the most important role of technology, says Dan Fitzgerald, chief product officer at booking and expenses specialist Traveldoo.
“This is why companies like Uber have become successful so quickly,” he adds. “Finding and paying for a taxi was often difficult; now it’s not. The future will be about smarter technology predicting possible friction and acting to prevent it before you even know it’s upon you. Changing your flight before you knew about the delay or filing your expense claim based on your card payments.”
Meet the road warriors
Creating a two-communication platform between buyers and their travellers has been seen as a way to create a better relationship. But there is a sense that sending out online questionnaires and blanket emails to employees is no longer a particularly effective method of communication.
Former ITM chairman Mark Cuschieri, global travel lead at UBS, says: “How do we get closer to our travellers and communicate with them? Traditionally, when we survey them, we only get a 5 per cent response. It’s about treating travellers like consumers.
“The most important thing is to speak to your frequent travellers – not by doing a survey but meeting them – because they are the experts consuming your programme. The way you communicate to your road warriors is very different to other travellers – focus your communication on those people. In the past, it was just a blanket communication.”
Travellers may also be more responsive to messages from the travel department when their organisation or industry is going through tougher economic times – a good example is the energy sector following the crash in oil prices three years ago.
A buyer for a major energy company says they effectively “market” the objectives of their programmes and policies to travellers to secure their buy-in and support.
“Showcasing businesses that have succeeded through gamification and focusing on duty-of-care keeps the travel policy alive and healthy in people’s minds,” he adds.
“Show someone tangible evidence of how an OBT transaction is far cheaper than a phone call and they listen. They see how a small dollar-value difference multiplied a thousand times could mean the difference between someone’s job sticking, or someone’s travel budget remaining for next year.”
Back to basics?
It can be tempting to think that automation and technology are the solutions to improving the business travel experience. But is there still a place for old-fashioned service?
Fello’s Simone Buckley says the TMC has recently picked up clients looking to move away from a technology-based service. These companies want to work with experienced agents who can find creative ticketing solutions thanks to their knowledge of their clients’ travel patterns and airline fares.
“We have got some clients going back to basics, where they want a much better service for their chief executives and board directors, which can only really be provided by experienced TMC staff,” she adds.
Another way companies can make life more enjoyable for their business travellers is by enabling them to combine work trips with a holiday. These bleisure trips are not just a bonus for employees but can also be a win for buyers as the airfares can work out cheaper if they are travelling at weekends.
Craig Liasi, senior director of product marketing, EMEA, at SAP Concur, explains: “With the right data visibility, they can see how these kinds of trips can save money. By incorporating these bleisure components into their corporate policy, a business could advise a traveller that by having a weekend away built into their trip, they could save substantially on flights.”
A greater focus on traveller wellbeing has also led to some corporates introducing policies stopping travellers from coming into the office after a long-haul overnight flight. For example, emergency consultancy Oil Spill Response operates a “rest days” policy for long-haul travellers “to combat fatigue and help to keep staff safe”.
Creating these types of “win-win” situations is likely to be paramount in improving satisfaction levels among business travellers in the coming years. The continued focus on cutting costs means that it’s never going to be possible to please all of the people, all of the time. But technology – as well as savvy and experienced travel advisors for more complex itineraries – should help to find innovative ways to take the pain out of many business trips and find the right balance for travellers and corporates alike.