UNLESS YOU’VE BEEN LIVING IN A CAVE or a galaxy far, far away, then you will have heard of the gaming phenomenon of Pokémon Go, which has been sweeping the world this last few months.
The ‘augmented reality’ game has become the talk of workplaces and playgrounds around the world since its launch in early July, as well as spawning a succession of stories about the scrapes people have got into while playing the addictive game on their phones – including a group of teenagers getting stranded on an island and numerous car accidents.
The massive popularity of Pokémon Go, in which players go on a quest in the real world to try to catch virtual characters, reminded the scribes at BBT about the concept of ‘gamification’ that was all the rage at business travel conferences four or five years ago, but has now slipped into the background.
Will games such as Pokémon Go encourage companies to take another look at gamification as a way of encouraging their travellers to follow policy and book their trips within the corporate programme? And what other creative ways are travel management companies (TMCs) and other suppliers coming up with to help buyers to do their jobs more efficiently and effectively?
Creativity isn’t the ‘c’ word that most readily comes to mind when discussing corporate travel management. Cost, control and compliance feature much more often in the pages of BBT and at industry events. But the advancement of technology is giving buyers more opportunity to try something different in a bid to bring errant or ‘rogue’ travellers to heel, or going the other way with a more open policy.
DRIVING TRAVELLER COMPLIANCE
The concept of gamification was once a buzzword within the industry and was seen as a tool to help drive traveller compliance. But it doesn’t seem to have taken off in the way its proponents suggested back in 2011 or 2012.
Adam Knights, UK managing director for ATPI Group, says: “The purpose of any gamification within a travel programme is to convince users to book travel that corresponds with the company, travel manager or procurement goals. This can involve cost savings, early booking or choices that support a company’s travel policy.
“However, at this time this is not an initiative that has been widely adopted by our clients, or across the industry for that matter. There are also conflicting views within the industry on its use of gamification as some see this as a bribery-type of technique to get travellers to do what they should be doing already.”
One of the chief supporters of the concept has been leading TMC Carlson Wagonlit Travel, which integrated an element of gamification into its mobile app, CWT To Go, a couple of years back. This allows companies which award points to employees based on their policy-compliant bookings to track their position on a leaderboard against their colleagues.
American Express Global Business Travel also piloted an ‘engagement and gamification platform’ as a way of encouraging better behaviour from travellers and rewarding them when they booked within policy. But this concept has been slow to take off outside the US. Amex GBT director Philip Haxne says: “Originally, people thought gamification could solve the problems of compliance in and of itself. However, the perception has changed now, and it’s seen as just one part of the solution.
“Gamification now plays a supporting role in driving behaviour, but it’s still far from the norm and is not seen much in EMEA countries. The US has been quicker to incorporate it, since in general it fits more easily into the culture of the American travel industry.”
Hotel booking specialist HRS says it has seen “a few” clients using elements of gamification within their programmes. UK and Ireland managing director Jon West adds: “One notable area is to encourage employees to control spend while on business trips. Using the expense claim process, employees are awarded credit if they underspend on the designated budget on any given trip. These credits are then banked and can be put towards a reward, such as staying in a more prestigious hotel when enough credits have been saved up.”
So if gamification has yet to take off in Europe in a major way, what about other creative ways of improving travel management? All buyers, no matter what sector they work in, can understand the obvious benefit of securing quantifiable savings from their programmes.
Technology is leading the drive to give companies more visibility and control over their spending, as well as leading to the emergence of new ways of buying corporate travel, beyond the usual round of corporate deals. Foremost among these are the development of platforms such as hotel comparison shopping tool Tripbam, and Rocketrip, which sets a real-time budget for trips and then rewards employees with cash or other incentives for beating this figure.
Despite grabbing headlines, these tools have yet to establish a huge presence within the European managed travel eco-system. However, Business Travel Direct became the first UK-based Travel Management Company: An agency which manages business travel for a company. to sign a partnership with Tripbam last year.
Under this deal, Tripbam monitors hotel rates within defined criteria and looks for savings up to the day of arrival. These savings are flagged up to Business Travel Direct, which can then book the cheaper hotel rate or allow the client to make the decision themselves at the click of a button.
Julie Oliver, Business Travel Direct’s managing director, says: “It has truly been an unequivocal success. Not only are we finding savings on 36 per cent of hotels for our clients, but what really interests us is having access to a whole area of new data that can be analysed and reconfigured to find greater savings for our customers.”
She adds: “The hotel-client relationship has always been very one-sided, with hotels having immense power to change their rates. Technology like Tripbam is a real game-changer as it monitors room rates to ensure hotels are honouring their negotiated rates with customers and offering the lowest available rate. It’s accountability like we’ve never seen it before, and it has huge potential for benchmarking, compliance, and data analysis for organisations with big hotel spend.”
But HRS’s West warns that sites such as Tripbam could prove to be counter-productive in the long run. He says: “These sites will simply drive the behaviour in hotels to deliver yield management so that the last available rooms are sold last-minute at the highest price. This creates a bad feeling between corporates and hotels as it forces prices to become more unpredictable with room rates varying widely depending on when the booking was made and by whom.”
Meanwhile, Rocketrip says that it can reduce travel spending by up to 30 per cent per employee through the use of its platform which analyses market data to set a real-time ‘budget to beat’ for each trip. If the traveller spends less than this budget, they get to keep half of the saving they make. The tech company says that this encourages travellers to “spend company money as carefully as their own” by considering cheaper options such as flying in economy, booking Airbnb accommodation or staying with a friend.
TRAVEL MANAGEMENT 3.0
There has been much talk in recent months about the advent of Travel Management 3.0, which is the concept of the traveller being firmly in control of their individual travel plans and choices – primarily through the use of mobile technology. This future includes an enhanced booking experience, mobile devices that act as ‘virtual travel assistants’ and the use of virtual payments.
Elements of this type of freedom for business travellers already exist – there has been a growth in innovations such as travellers being able to bid for cabin upgrades, a process now widely available across many airlines, including Virgin Atlantic, Aer Lingus, Etihad, KLM and Lufthansa.
“Bidding for airline upgrades has been available for some time now and the more seasoned travellers have incorporated it into their best practice,” says Amex’s Haxne. “But there are policy questions in terms of reimbursement of upgrades, which in most cases aren’t allowed in Travel & expenses but can also be used to mean Travel & entertainment (especially in the US) [travel and expense] policies.”
These trends are rapidly becoming part of what expense management firm Concur calls “the age of the on-the-go economy” in its recent Virtual Instanity report, which looks at how technology will transform people’s working lives. Concur executive vice-president Tim MacDonald says: “Innovation will continue to go after key friction points for business travellers. You’ll see more Ubers and more Airbnbs yielding a ton of efficiency and traveller productivity.”
Despite the advance of digital services, Concur does not expect business travel to be “entirely replaced by holograms” because there will remain a “premium on relationships, partnerships and collaboration” in a future global business landscape.
For April Bridgeman, managing director of BCD Travel’s consultancy arm Advito, it may be time for buyers to consider “new thinking, tools and skills” to successfully manage their programmes. “It also requires letting go of some traditional beliefs and ‘knee-jerk’ practices,” she says. “Travel managers must act more in ‘real time’ to take advantage of spend opportunities. They must also invest in new intelligence and analytics capabilities and treat travellers like consumers. Some clients have realised that policy compliance just isn’t enough and is a rather weak and limited strategy. They’ve broadened their impact by implementing traveller engagement strategies so travellers can make better buying decisions.
“Many more are starting to manage their spend in real time – making it more about constant analysis and acting than relying too much on annual sourcing cycles. We call that dynamic performance management.”
Finding ways to acknowledge travellers for good behaviour within the managed travel environment is becoming important as well. For example, one of Business Travel Direct’s clients is looking to reward employees for early booking. “Purchasing more than a month ahead of departure would enable the traveller to fly premium economy on long-haul flights, rather than economy, and likewise with their rail tickets – boosting them to first class for advance purchasing,” explains the TMC’s Julie Oliver.
If the Pokémon Go craze teaches us anything, it’s that the rules of the game are changing and mobile technology will lead the way. There will be more creative technology-led solutions coming along to allow buyers to capture data, make savings and track their travellers as easily as capturing that Pokémon lurking in the office – at least, in theory.
IT MAY SEEM COUNTER-INTUITIVE for a Travel Management Company: An agency which manages business travel for a company. to promote a policy of trying to reduce the number of clients’ business trips, but this is one of the tenets of the ‘total virtual collaboration’ concept being promoted by BCD Travel, alongside its consultancy firm Advito and IT provider Cisco.
This involves the integration of the meetings and travel programmes, which should allow companies to work out whether a physical or ‘virtual’ meeting is the best option. If it’s the latter, through video- or audio-conferencing, then there is no need for the participants to travel.
April Bridgeman, managing director of Advito, explains: “Integrating virtual collaboration technology into a travel programme allows businesses to focus on travel that contributes to the bottom line. If a trip isn’t going to generate business or revenue, there’s an opportunity to conduct that business through virtual collaboration technology.”
A major reason why virtual collaboration could be set to take off is the improvement in the quality and reliability of virtual conferencing. Firms have also already invested in this type of technology – Advito says 81 per cent of companies offer access to some form of video-conferencing and/or telepresence.
The budget spent using this technology should also come down – Cisco is forecasting that the costs of virtual collaboration tools will halve every 18 months over the next few years.
According to Advito, integrating travel and meetings should result in a reduction in travel spending, increased employee satisfaction and higher levels of productivity by cutting out unnecessary business journeys.