Social media: Apps and managed travel

It sometimes seems there is an app for everything – but do they work in the world of managed travel? Felicity Cousins finds out more

When I’m planning a trip I use a mobile app to check the weather at my destination, an app to see which train to get to the airport and home again, and an app to check my flight status. When I’m waiting to board the flight I read the BBC news app, or catch up with friends or colleagues on apps such as Linked In, Twitter or Facebook – and I’m clearly not alone. I only have to glance up briefly from my screen to see everyone around me, from business to leisure travellers, playing with their mobiles. According to an article on Carlson Wagonlit Travel’s website, by 2014 app downloads are predicted to rise to 76.9 billion globally from 10.9 billion in 2010. But how do apps fit in to managed travel and what are the pros and cons for people who buy and manage travel?

This question was put to the floor at the ACTE/Management Solutions (MS)-UK forum in London in September. One travel buyer commented: “The challenge for travel managers is that, to stay on the cutting edge of technology, their organisations have to react and move with the changes. We need to make it a better experience for the traveller.”

Another added: “As travel managers we should embrace technological change. We are there to help our travellers on their travels, and they are using smartphone apps, so we should accept that to assist them in their travels. What we need to do is educate them about which ones to use.”

A key point picked up at the session was that travel managers are now expected to have a black belt in technology to add to their growing skillset. Julian Mills is director at Traveldoo Technology, which provides web and mobile platforms for business travel management. He agrees the biggest challenge for the industry is keeping up with the fast-moving changes in technology. “Everything happened in such a short time frame – in 1995 it was all about the online booking tool, but now it’s about which app you have, in a vastly changing environment.”

Paul Saggar, director of technology and development at HRG says: “Fifteen years ago corporate travellers were going home to book their leisure travel online and so the traveller started feeling empowered. A similar thing is happening in the mobile space – we’ve all got smartphones and we are all technologically savvy.”

Another travel manager at the ACTE/MS-UK forum said the app issue has just highlighted how travellers assume they can do the travel manager’s job: “People want to book their travel themselves. They all have their favourite airlines and hotels and their favourite ways of booking travel.”

Everyone seems to have an app, whether it’s the expense management company, travel management company (TMC), airline, hotel or chauffeur-drive. The app market is flooded. HRG’s Saggar believes this will be the case for some time to come. “I think it will go on for about 24 months before we see stabilisation and consolidation – if you look at the mobile space there is no clear winner or device or operating system taking the lead.”

Generally, travel apps are directed at the traveller as bookers of travel, rather than the travel manager. This makes sense as there are clearly hundreds more travellers than travel managers – but do apps help or hinder compliance? As one travel buyer puts it: “Keeping travel policy in place I see as our greatest challenge. Travellers are savvy and, with this technology and traveller behaviour, there is a pressure to book outside policy.”

But Jon West, regional general manager for hotel booking specialist HRS, disagrees: “Apps can benefit compliance. I think we have to make booking easy for the travellers, especially where organisations are using travellers rather than bookers.”

The HRS corporate app, iHotel, shows a list of hotels within policy which a traveller can book, and then options outside policy, which will need approval.

Booking flights on mobile apps is still in its infancy. For example booking a return flight may work well on an app (if you can get over the small screen on your smartphone) but for more complicated, multi-sector trips most people will have to log on. The GDSs are also developing apps but while Sabre’s Trip Case and Amadeus’ Mobile Partner allow travellers to view their itinerary, at present it is only Travelport that allows travellers to book flights while on the move – although the Travelport Mobile Agent only currently works with Galileo. So bookability is certainly a case of work in progress.

Amadeus UK & Ireland managing director Diane Bouzebiba says the technology company’s AETM Mobile app is currently being trialled with one corporate and its TMC. “We plan to launch it in the fourth quarter of this year, on Android devices and iPhones. The big difference will be that it will allow you to book, whereas most current apps only contain itinerary details and you can’t make any changes to the purchase.

“A key benefit of AETM Mobile is use of the same rules database that has been defined by the corporation, together with air,  car, hotel and rail travel content directly from Amadeus and the corporation’s preferred partners – this results in seamless integration of booking information.”

Traveldoo’s Mills says: “Bookability is about the user experience and, yes, there is functionality out there, but corporates want a single source of data. It is about creating solutions. It is not all about booking, it’s about moving towards compliance and corporate social responsibility.”

By the end of Q2 next year the Traveldoo app will offer booking ability for hotels, air and rail.

But Mills emphasises the compliance angle: “Bookability is out there for leisure and business travellers but the difference with business travel is that it is all about control and data. Our app will say, yes, you can book it and it is in policy, and then it will send an approval to the line manager.”

Andrew Winterton, president of suppliers, product and technology at Carlson Wagonlit Travel, says: “We’ve had customers asking when they can book air, and that is something on the horizon, but we have found CWT To Go is being used as an informational tool initially. The way I look at apps is that they are support tools to manage travel at the fingertips of travellers.”

HRS’s West says: “What is important is that people can make bookings in policy through whatever channel is available at the time.”

As trips are often cancelled or delayed, the need for an app that reflects these changes is clearly useful. One example is American Express’s app Mobile Xtend, which connects clients to the corporate travel booking system so that passenger name records (PNRs) are automatically updated and itineraries are kept up to date.

American Express Global Business Travel vice-president Colin Kennedy says: “It is one thing for an employer to provide a travel app, but another to provide one employees embrace. Travel apps must offer information that is useful and relevant to the traveller, but also provide information users can trust.”

But are apps always the answer? What is wrong with a mobile website? The issue at the moment is that different devices sometimes aren’t recognised by the operating systems of different websites, so even if one website works well for Blackberrys, it may not fit with the iPhone’s IOS 6 operating system.

CWT’s Winterton says: “Apps have become a bit of a bandwagon thing and everyone has to have one, but if you defuse the hype, they are obviously a very strong tool for assisting travel. However, the techno-nirvana everyone’s talking about is HTML5, and certainly any architectural plan of ours is looking at that.”

HTML5 is the next language needed to build websites, which will work optimally for all mobile devices. Currently native apps (apps that are downloaded and installed to a particular device) are widely used and work on the basis that you download the information while you have internet access and then can access that when offline. HTML5 is browser-based technology that lets you bridge that gap and access applications through your device’s web browser, so you don’t have to download a native app.

HRG’s Saggar says: “The challenge up until today is that a native app provides a slicker, more powerful user experience that has been difficult to achieve via abrowser-based app. However, HTML5 will change that. Also, accessing the device’s own features and services, such as GPS or the camera function, could only be done via a native app, but this will change with HTML5.” HRG is looking at developing both HTML5 and native apps – a hybrid approach.

The good news is that the majority of travel buyers seem to be onboard with these technological changes in the sector, putting themselves in the shoes of the road warrior. One travel buyer said at the ACTE/MS-UK forum: “When I travel I want my itinerary all on my iPhone, all in one place. I want to be able to make reservations, choose my seat and book my hotel.”

Another agreed: “I want freedom as a traveller and those companies who put restrictions on their travellers will impede them from doing their job.”

We canvassed a selection of business travel industry experts on Linked In about how corporate travel apps could best be used…

“As a VIP travel consultant and corporate aviation specialist, I would wonder who would ever want an app to plan corporate travel? No technology could ever replace personal hands-on service, nor could it ever be as accurate as a real person for questions and answers.”

“You need to accommodate both the online travel-planner lover and the person who likes the assistance from a live agent. I agree, agent assistance is incomparable, but changing someone’s mind who loves to book their own travel is also a hard sell. Offer both solutions; let them make the decision based on their needs, wants and future goals for the company.”

“You want to include all elements in the app, like a one-stop-shop – like social networking, expense management, duty of care etc. I think a good strategy and road map is key to launch this innovation, which is happening whether people like it or not.”

“Our travellers are getting younger and the ability to do these tasks on the go or on your own device is going to be critical to a successful travel programme.”

“I think that the perfect app needs to go beyond just travel. Security updates, conference room booking, directions to your next meeting, directions to your hotel, taxi rates, weather etc. The goal is to take all of the things that take time and effort and make them seamless.”