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BBT Forums: travel buyers need to be 'cognitive technologists'

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Senior buyers and travel experts gathered for BBT Forums in London and Dublin to discuss the ‘digital revolution’ and its challenges and opportunities for managed travel

“Exponential” progress in technology means successful travel managers need to be “cognitive technologists” to enhance their travel programmes and their careers.

Data Exchange CEO Susan Hopley told BBT Forum delegates that as artificial intelligence (AI) advances, travel buyers need to be aware of how these capabilities can serve their roles and their travel programmes. AI – also known as cognitive computing – utilises technologies including machine learning, natural language processing and object recognition to tackle a range of tasks including anticipating problems and modelling solutions.

AI can do some of the “leg work” in a travel programme, said Hopley, freeing up travel buyers to focus on more strategic and holistic aspects of their role. And its data analysis capabilities can help predict behaviours and patterns, and act on those predictions to change outcomes. 

The BBT Forums, entitled The Digital Revolution, were held at the Grange City hotel in London and at the Carlton Hotel Dublin Airport.

Hopley added: “Let’s look at the traveller – the airlines and other suppliers have huge swathes of information about each traveller, they are able to market directly to them and that’s dangerous for the buyer.” She said there will be a big change in contracting. “Having to take six weeks to get a contract doesn’t make sense – the digital revolution will make it easier for us to make more instantaneous and effective contracts because the market is changing.”

Embracing technology

Sessions moderated by Enterprise head of travel agency Olly Moore looked at how and why you should utilise technology to support your programme.

One travel buyer spoke about their business and how it has embraced all sorts of new technology and implemented it into their travel programme. “One example was an app we downloaded that lets travellers take photos of their receipts on the road and just send them straight to finance.”

He also spoke about how the company had implemented robotics into the programme. “We had an event in the US and found that 65-70 per cent of travellers were booking their travel and accommodation in the last week resulting in higher rates, so we implemented a flight- chasing model from our GDS team, so our team were chasing travellers to book earlier in advance – from this we estimated savings of more than $350,000. We’ve evolved that process, so we now use 'Robotics Process Automation' software – instead of having people chase the travellers the software fires our those reminders to the travellers by emails... also robotics are great as they never have sick days, cigarette breaks and always work weekends.”

Another buyer talked about how they have moved away from grey fleet to shared smart pool cars, which resulted in massive cost savings. They said this move was met with some resistance because staff saw using their own vehicle as a financial benefit with some getting up to 65p per mile for using their car or annual lump sums. 

“We made people realise this was about cost savings and everyone would benefit as a whole,” the buyer said. “We saved £104,000 in our first year, which is around four jobs and in a time of cuts and austerity that’s important. We also saw a boost in productivity with a 30 per cent reduction in trips taken.”

Technology innovation

One of the sessions looked at mobile and 'seamless' travel.  Part of the discussion focused on the rise of chatbots and their future role in travel. Consultant Chris Pouney said there are many challenges around them and they do have a part to play but “there’s still a lot of work to be done in this area”.

BCD director of sales Tony McGetrick said: “I think the traveller and buyer community will decide whether they add value or not but I can see it coming into our business, given there is a large proportion of our travel today that is straight-forward A to B.”

Pouney disagreed with the argument that millennials want less interaction, which is leading to the rise of bots. “It’s not less interaction millennials want, it’s less of the futile and pointless interaction across all areas of the industry,” he said.

Technology impacts

Other technology developments discussed included: how telematics in pool and rental cars can help eliminate expense fraud and risky behaviour in company car travel; how beacon technology can transform traveller experience and enable seamless secure payments; and how platforms such as online auction website can challenge programmes by encouraging out-of-policy behaviour – but also offer potential savings.

Enterprise’s Oliver Moore cited Chinese platform Wechat, which now has more than half a billion users. This single app consolidates a wide range of functions from instant messaging and social networking to mobile banking and payments, and ‘city services’ – these including doctor appointments, paying utility bills and fines, and booking transport. The forums discussed how the adoption of these platforms in everyday life – for example the growth in travel transacting on Facebook Messenger – impact behaviours and expectations when it comes to managed travel programmes. 

One buyer asked: if we go digital for everything who guarantees safety and security? One idea is having accredited standards built into your programme for certain suppliers.  Another said it is still the buyer’s role to insure that accommodation is vetted, there is effective ground transport in dangerous cities and every company has a preferred list of airline suppliers.

The BBT Forums are supported by ACTE and sponsored by BCD Travel, Concur, Diners Club, Enterprise, HRS, Lufthansa and Grange Hotels.  

For information about attending BBT Forums, contact events manager Emma Gordon at or visit

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