During the coronavirus pandemic, travel disruption was felt globally as lockdown measures kept most people at home. Border restrictions, to limit the spread of the virus, further compounded the situation. The massive shutdown cost countries billions of tourism dollars with the travel industry among the hardest hit by COVID.
Not surprisingly, business travel and the role of travel managers have changed significantly over the last two years. As business travel returns, many are questioning what changes will become permanent, and how the industry will continue to evolve to navigate new challenges including inflation, COVID-19 infection spikes, and the threat of further travel disruptions.
Like many sectors, travelers were driven online through digitalization and the use of technology. A recent study by the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) explores how technology has impacted the travel manager’s role, the traveler experience, and the TMC business.
According to the research study, “The Evolution of Travel Program Technology,” technology is the most important factor when travel managers select a TMC, ahead of costs/fees and account management quality and support.
“The role of the corporate travel manager changed significantly as a result of the pandemic, elevating the position as companies navigated unprecedented challenges. Given the fast pace of change, technology has played a vital role in ensuring the efficiency of travel programs. Keeping updated and communicating with travelers has taken on renewed urgency for companies, and travel managers looking to their travel management company (TMC) to advise on innovative ways to manage travel programs effectively while keeping travelers safe,” said Suzanne Neufang, CEO, GBTA.
As companies return to travel and update their travel policies, many are using this opportunity to reassess supplier relationships and technology requirements for the post-COVID environment.
The study also shows it is essential TMCs be at the forefront of technological advancements to advise travel managers, and help solve corporate global travel challenges.
Key highlights from the study:
- Almost all travel programs (96%) use an online booking tool (OBT), and as such is the most popular technology component of a travel program. However, other technology solutions are less frequent including reporting dashboards, TMC mobile apps, re-shopping tools and single use virtual payments to name a few. This suggests many travel managers might largely associate travel technology almost exclusively with OBTs and thus, might be unaware of other solutions that can create efficiencies and streamline travel program components.
- Few travel programs use their online booking tool to promote sustainability. Fewer than half say their OBT shows carbon emissions in search results (44%) or displays lower emission flights higher in search results (10%), provides sustainability messaging (4%) or is configured to exclude less sustainable options from search results (2%). However, a decent number of travel managers are interested in configuring their OBT to do these things. These practices will likely become more common as sustainability concerns grow, OBTs design key features and travel managers learn more about them.
- There is widespread interest in chatbots. Seven in 10 travel managers are interested in artificial intelligence-enabled chat. These chatbots can answer traveler questions or help them make bookings. Despite strong interest, chatbots are largely not a reality for most travel programs. Fewer than half say their TMC app includes a chatbot that can answer traveler questions (44%) or can help travelers make bookings (29%).
- Artificial intelligence (AI) has the potential to dramatically transform how travel programs operate. Travel Managers are widely interested in using AI to enhance reporting (87%), data cleansing (82%), personalization of search results (78%), and auditing of expense reports (62%).
- Travel manager’s understanding of the New Distribution Capability (NDC) is mixed, with many being largely uninitiated with the XML-based data transmission standard. One-third (30%) say they know “some but have more to learn,” while one in five say they know “virtually nothing” or only “a little” about NDC (20% each). While one in five (21%) travel managers report their program offers NDC content through their TMC/OBT, a third (34%) are unaware if their TMC/OBT offers NDC content – suggesting NDC is not top of mind among many travel managers.