Corporate travel buyers and suppliers gathered yesterday for the spring BBT Forum to discuss everything from mobility and digitisation to cross-departmental collaboration and risk.

The day started with keynote addresses from Uber for Business and Visa on how the companies are partnering with cities to improve mobility through technology and ease congestion for commuters. Uber said it is using data from the 10 billion trips booked through its platform to help local governments with initiatives such as setting up the infrastructure to support mass use of electric vehicles. Meanwhile, Visa has increased the footprint of its contactless payments on transport links to cities all over the world, including London, where 1 billion journeys have been completed using contactless.

The future is digital
Next up, BBT editor Matthew Parsons took the floor to moderate a panel discussion on digital transformation in corporate travel programmes.

One buyer on the panel said their company decided to search for a new TMC about four years ago, aiming to increase adoption rates. Other areas of the business had started using self-service technology solutions so the buyer included digitalisation in the tender document and chose a new partner based on the platforms it was offering. They said adoption improved to 98 per cent and presented the firm with reduced operational costs.

Another buyer who headed up a digitalisation scheme for their company’s travel programme said the firm’s chief technology officer recommended a Microsoft programme that allows users to create simple chatbots. The software was eventually used to create a bot that employees could use to find the answers to any questions they had about the travel policy and to troubleshoot certain issues.

A representative from corporate travel platform Roadmap said: “Digitisation of a travel programme can save money, but it can also save time – it takes away a lot of the stress involved in travel and puts everything into one place so they don’t have to waste time looking for what they need.”

Meanwhile, an artificial intelligence consultant said humans are still absolutely essential in order to make AI work for businesses. “A huge amount of time and effort can be saved by implementing AI, but it’s not about replacing people; it’s about helping humans to be more efficient and productive in their roles by automating certain steps in everyday processes.”

Cultural foundations
The next session covered cross-departmental collaboration, with Oliver Moore, head of travel agency at Enterprise, leading the discussion. The general consensus among the panel was that how buyers should engage with key stakeholders within the business is almost entirely dependent on company culture.

One buyer said they found forming a steering committee with people from different departments worked when restructuring their travel policy. Another said a similar strategy proved successful at their company, with stakeholders taking an active interest in which travellers in their department weren’t adhering to the policy so they could rectify the problem.

A third buyer admitted their approach to implementing a managed solution would be straightforward, but it turned out to be much more of a challenge trying to identify the key stakeholders within the company. They said: “At first I thought this policy would be all about saving money, but in talking to people in the business I realised it was more about protecting travellers.”

Redefining risk
For the final panel discussion of the day, Stephanie Smook, regional director, EMEA at ACTE, asked what everyone’s number one future disruptor is, with answers including millennials, consumerisation of corporate travel, cyber threats and acts of terrorism.

A representative from the Air Charter Association said with everything from drones and ash clouds to multiple air traffic control strikes across Europe posing a threat to travellers’ journeys, travel managers can help to mitigate disruption by communicating more effectively.

However, one buyer said it can be a challenge trying to adapt to what is essentially unpredictable, but that all travel managers need to be able to “cut through the noise” to get to the route of the problem.

Determining the first point of contact for travellers when they’re faced with a difficult situation can be a particular challenge, according to a representative from SAP Concur. “Some travellers might call HR first, but people in that department might not even know that employee is travelling.”

To get around this, the panel recommended being as proactive as possible when communicating with employees about travelling for work. A representative from the Anvil Group added that all stakeholders need to come together to determine how and when to communicate with a unified message.

Question time
The final session provided delegates the chance to ask any questions they wanted to see tackled, with Panacea Media editorial director Tom Otley moderating.

One audience member asked how travel managers are supposed to ensure the safety of employees who need to keep their location a secret for reputational or business reasons. A representative from SAP Concur said it is essential to communicate the importance of travellers letting at least one person in the company know where they are, even if it means ensuring the information is confidential.

When asked how companies can manage employees who use consumer booking sites for corporate travel, one buyer said their business went so far as to look into the legality of denying expenses reimbursement if a traveller booked off policy.

Meanwhile, one audience member said: “These booking apps are out there, so you might as well try to embrace them and be flexible about allowing travellers to use them.” A buyer agreed, saying their policy allows for employees to use other channels if they find a better deal, but they have to feed the details back to the travel team so they can keep track of their whereabouts.”

Another buyer said they had their booking tool block restricted fares to drive home the point that a cheaper deal doesn’t always include as many extras as negotiated fares.

The BBT Forum, held at the InterContinental London – The O2 in association with ACTE, was sponsored by Uber for Business, Arora Group, All Nippon Airways (ANA), BCD Travel, Enterprise/National and HRS.

The next BBT Forum will take place on 7 November, with the agenda due to be decided in the coming months. For more information, visit bbtforum.com