Companies have a duty of care to protect their travelers during business trips.
They need to know where their travelers are, keep them out of harm’s way, and get them help or back home if dangerous situations arise. But despite this obligation, varying guidelines and restrictions from locations and transportation suppliers are stoking fear among travelers and travel managers. With so much uncertainty around today’s business trip, what will help restore confidence in traveling?
Airlines have slashed flights and limited the number of passengers who can fly on a plane at a given time. Hotels have instituted extraordinary measures to help ensure guests avoid falling ill or experience health concerns during their stay. While limiting or cancelling travel availability may help during times of crisis, it isn’t a viable long-term solution, especially when travel represents a substantial sector of the economy.
“Without guidance to promote the health and safety of travelers, there will be no travel, no sustainable reopening of our businesses and no revival of our economy,” stated the May 2020 “Travel in the New Normal” industry report by the U.S. Travel Association.
There is so much technology available to consumers today (e.g. monitoring their health and interacting with medical professionals), it seems feasible that these solutions are a viable option for providing guidance on travel health and safety issues.
Two key steps need be taken for technology to help, according to John F. Rizzo, CEO of travel solution provider Deem:
Create trust in the travel process.
Create the ability to automatically fix things when they go awry.
“The only way to quell fear,” he says, “is to create transparency and have data that’s science-based be available to a traveler in real time and have it curated correctly so that you can make an informed, data-based decision on where you're traveling.”
Challenges plague the travel industry
In an attempt to keep travelers safe and in compliance with company policies by specifying what is or isn’t allowed (and tracking travelers throughout their journey), companies employ approved online booking tools (OBTs).
Most OBTs are connected to a global distribution system (GDS), which aggregates and distributes content from travel industry service providers such as airlines, hotels, car rental companies and railways. The OBT then serves this content to travelers so they can search, book and manage all aspects of their trip at once. Additionally, some OBTs can also connect with content sources, such as safety and risk rating providers, to offer specific content that may not be otherwise available, enabling even greater choices to travelers.
Employees are expected to book their business trips through the company’s approved OBT, because doing so ensures travel managers can keep track of and communicate with their employees. But compliance has been a long-standing issue when it comes to business travel. Many travelers don’t use the OBT because they think they can get a better price elsewhere, they don’t like the user experience of the tool, they believe it lacks functionality in the native app (mobile) or they worry about receiving their loyalty points.
According to the Association of Corporate Travel Executives (ACTE) 2019 “Booking Tools and Technologies” report, 39% of survey respondents prefer to look for a better price on their own rather than booking through the OBT, believing they can save more money. Nearly 20% acknowledge a poor user experience. Another 16% want to handle the booking via a traditional phone call. Ten percent opt to use the travel tools they use in their personal lives, and 8% don’t trust the options shown in the OBT.
If travelers aren’t using the tools provided to them, which are designed to protect both business travelers and travel managers, it’s harder to keep travelers safe.
Add to that the fact that the most commonly used corporate travel software is largely designed based on expense report needs, and you have a system that’s ready, even past due, for transformation. Road warriors, those business travelers who spend much of a year traveling for business, really should be involved in the software creation process as they can tell better than anyone what would be helpful to them.
Why couldn’t the travel booking experience be more like the consumer experience when buying other items online? If for example, you buy something from Amazon and want to return it, you can do so with the touch of a button.
In the corporate travel industry, however, if you want to change a flight or a hotel booking, you will most likely need to call the airline or hotel and wait on hold for up to an hour before you can speak to someone to handle that request. You also may be charged a change fee. This cumbersome process is inhibiting the use of approved booking platforms, thereby making it much more difficult for companies to provide duty of care for their travelers. It shouldn’t be this way.
Technology to the rescue
In an effort to encourage compliance to corporate policies, and to ensure the safety of travelers, travel solution companies are stepping up with new technology offerings. One company, for example, offers automated flight ticket exchange that rivals the return experience of Amazon. Another markets a communication solution that lets travel managers quickly locate traveling employees, communicate with them and even dispatch a response team if needed.
Still another offers a business travel continuity solution with an at-a-glance dashboard that gives travel managers visibility into the locations of the company’s business travelers. This enables travel managers to communicate with and/or reroute travelers as needed to keep them safe from natural disasters and other phenomena. These are only a handful of examples. Other technologies are evolving as well.
Collecting real-time data from airlines and hotels on their latest safety policies and pulling that data into a desktop or mobile app can help travelers make better informed decisions. A traveler will be able to easily see if his or her intended airline for an upcoming business trip is booking middle seats or not, or taking other health and safety precautions in response to regional or world events.
Real-time data can also be used to provide a safety scorecard for a particular neighborhood to let travelers – and travel managers – know if there’s a virus outbreak or political or social unrest in a certain area, as well as the crime rate.
In addition, real-time data can be used to keep vulnerable demographics safe, such as a female arriving at a foreign destination after midnight. It can also recommend certain transportation means and hotel quality based on demographic.
Personal privacy certainly plays a role in this. Google and Apple are already busy at work finding ways to be able to notify a person that he or she may be near someone who was potentially exposed to an illness, for example. In this way, you could avoid that person and situation in a private way that also protects the other person’s privacy. This type of technology may set a standard for the future if or when other highly contagious illnesses arise.
Artificial intelligence (AI)
Artificial intelligence and its subsets, machine learning and predictive analytics, can work together to predict likely outcomes of various scenarios. They combine real-time and historical data from different sources to recognize patterns. In this way, they can differentiate “normal” from “abnormal". That information can then be used to alert travel managers to unusual activities so the managers, in turn, can safely assist with removing their travelers from those situations.
People are ready to accept things that are more automated, such as automatically fixed trips when issues arise and automatically exchanged tickets without human intervention.
As technology continues to advance, travel managers will eventually be able to push a button to automatically get all of the company’s unsafe travelers home or to a safe place while adhering to company policies.
Similarly, when individual travelers feel unsafe, they’ll be able to push a button to be directed to a safer location – efficiently and without the friction of having to wait on the phone on hold. The travel management system will automatically generate an itinerary to bring the traveler home within policy.
Another development in the travel industry is contactless travel. For example, cars connected via the Internet of Things (IoT) can be opened electronically with a smartphone – no key needed.
Along those same lines, you’ll be able to use your smartphone to open your hotel room door, without even turning the knob. Many hotels already use near-field communication (NFC) technology for this purpose.
All you have to do as a traveler is enter the hotel. The hotel’s technology then geolocates you, recognizes you and confirms your credit card is on file. Then the technology sends an update to the mobile app with your room number. You go to your room, hold the phone near the door and the door opens.
Touchless interfacing technology is likely to extend to flight ticketing, identification verification, check-ins, purchasing, ordering food and more.
Toward a friction-free solution
Before these technology advancements can really take off and help make travelers safer, the discrepancy between the technology experience in everyday life and the one business travelers encounter must be addressed.
It’s no secret that technology has removed friction from the consumer shopping experience. The touch of a button (and the run of a credit card) can initiate the shipping of a package to a personal address.
Unlike that simple, straightforward practice, however, the travel sector relies on people in the middle, so to speak, to facilitate all the details of a travel booking: from a flight to a rental car and even a hotel room.
“Because of the complexities of the business travel industry and the history going back 30 years, we've built up a lot of antiquated business practices that are not as frictionless as what we're used to on the consumer side,” acknowledges Rizzo.
Today’s business travelers want that same streamlined, efficient experience in travel that they’ve come to expect in their personal lives. So, how can we improve the way business travel is carried out to create that frictionless experience and ensure traveler safety at the same time? It needs to start with the travel solution providers.
“We as vendors need to think about a traveler-centric view, not an expense report-centric view or a finance-centric view or a centered view around the non-road warrior,” admits Rizzo, a road warrior of 35 years.
As technology continues to advance and improve, travelers will naturally adopt those that are simplest to use, that is, the ones that provide the least amount of friction.
Travel managers must also make some changes. Those involved in the decisions about which software to purchase and use will need to broaden their view to ensure the solution will also satisfy the needs of travelers and not just the needs of the business.
Transformation creates improvement
Rizzo predicted in April that the business travel sector shutdown of 2020 would “help us be a better industry and fix some suboptimal practices.” That’s clearly happening as the situation has provided time to address some of the challenges in the industry.
“Difficulties provide an opportunity for transformation, whether it's in our personal lives or our work lives or whatever we do. I think that when we're confronted with challenges, more often than not, we respond by making things better than they were before.”
History proves that to be true as well. The tragedy of 9/11 led to the development of an infrastructure for metal detector scanners. The severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak of 2003 prompted the implementation of thermal scanners in Asia.
“Unfortunately, COVID has had a devastatingly negative effect on the world, but it's forced a lot of new thinking on travel,” Rizzo says. Indeed, recent events have led to even better ways to keep business travelers safe and to provide an intuitive travel experience.
It’s also created an opportunity for travel solution providers and travel management companies to consider what the optimal business travel platform should look like and how it can make road warriors more efficient and safer.
Questions that should be addressed include:
Why should I have to touch anything to board a flight?
Why can't I hold my phone and have it all done electronically right?
Why should I have to think about if I’m going to a place that’s safe?
Why can’t my app automatically adjust dates if I cross the international date line?
Businesses are assessing when they’ll be able to afford to put people on the road again, while FCM Travel Solutions found that 88% of business travelers will consider it safe to return to travel if their companies believe it’s safe.
It will be a slow process as companies approach it cautiously. However, as technological advancements occur exponentially, it won’t be long before we have even more technology solutions to our most pressing health and safety issues.