A changed world

The travel technology space is moving at such speed that it’s hard to keep up with all that is going on, but it’s also incredibly exciting, because just about every development is geared towards making the travel experience that much more seamless and easier to consolidate.

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Whatever we think about the pace of change in our everyday lives, technology is right at the core, enhancing and personalising our experiences like never before. And nowhere is this truer than in the travel world, where technology has positively disrupted how we plan, book and stay when travelling for work or leisure, never mind how we consolidate the associated spend at the end of it all.

This technological transformation has spawned a new generation of tech-savvy, app-wielding consumers who demand smart, friction-less travel at every point of the process. From booking travel and accommodation to checking in, shopping and booking transfers, the power is literally in people’s pockets.

This new ‘on demand’ dynamic and fast-paced travel culture has thrown a spotlight on corporate travel, because it openly challenges the stigma which has, for so long, defined business trips – bleary-eyed men and women in suits rushing through an airport to catch a flight they’re likely late for, before spending the night in boring, corporate accommodation and eating bland food off the room service menu.

This could not be further from the truth. Technology has inspired the rebirth of corporate travel like never before, giving business travellers a greater sense of freedom and exploration, as well as validating time out of the office – something which has blighted business leaders for years.

INDUSTRY VIEW

But, where does it end and what does ‘technology’ mean to those at the very heart of the corporate travel industry?

More importantly, what role do they believe it should play, beyond just making the entire travel process easier?

“While many believe technology is surpassing human interaction, the nuances of individual needs and travel cannot be forgotten,” says Kananelo Makhetha, CEO of Club Travel Corporate. “We view technology as an enabler of people, because ultimately it is there to support people and make their lives easier. Tech is only effective when it adds value to the relationships and services we offer to people. Without a doubt, technology has helped us automate repetitive tasks, but its true value is in how it has allowed us to focus on total traveller management for our corporate clients.”

It’s an interesting time for Club Travel, which only recently was sold to online travel agency Travelstart, making for an intriguing mix of services and skills under one roof. Only two years ago, Club Travel itself acquired corporate travel and expense management solution, Travellinck, which allows TMCsto control travel expenditure from requisition to reconciliation, enabling cost savings, easy travel policy enforcement, streamlined processes and accurate reporting. It also allows real-time booking of flights, accommodation and car hire with a payment platform that enables direct settlement to suppliers and automatic reconciliation of card statements.

“With Travellinck we aim to reduce the cost of business travel and simplify it,” says Makheta. “To this end, we are focused on several areas including automation, smooth integration with third-party systems, policy and developing innovative booking technology with real value such as seat selection.”

As already touched on, there is plenty happening in the travel tech space and not a day goes by without a major development, advancement, acquisition of partnership.

Wings Travel is another industry player that has been quite active, and in June announced a major expansion of its technology solutions division following the acquisition of Alchimea, a specialist software developer of workflow integration, process automation, application design and management in the areas of global mobility, business travel and related support services.

“Together with Alchimea we are working on various strategic technology projects including the development of Wings’ innovative mid-office system TMA® (Travel Management Application),” says Nemanja Krstić, Wings Global Head of Technology. “This cutting-edge software enables all Wings offices globally to operate off the identical centralised global platform and database, which is distinctly unique, on this global scale, with zero compromise. TMA® enables above-industry data integrity levels, real-time traveller tracking, reliable on-demand reporting and advanced pre and post-trip data analytics, all managed off a single dashboard by country, region or globally, in the currency of choice.”

Krstić has a clear idea of how he sees technology in the business travel space and what role it needs to play.

“As the world becomes increasingly reliant on connectivity, the need for technology in business becomes vital,” he says. “Delivering travel solutions has had to evolve in line with these trends and with that new methods of conducting business, processing client data and sourcing relevant content had to be applied. TMCs simply have to embrace technology to deliver these services in a world that is always on.”

“I think the focus is definitely beyond making trips easier through technology,” says Louis van Zyl, CEO of CWT South Africa. “It touches on maximizing value, educating buyers, making them the experts in their trip planning and execution processes, but also keeping them informed and equipped throughout the entire process, from planning to undergoing their trips, to ultimately returning home and completing the process.”

Van Zyl, though, is also of the opinion that technology shouldn’t remain purely “business”.

“I think an element we shouldn’t lose focus of is the element of fun,” he says. “I think technology can also help in breaking the monotony of a business trip and providing options for travellers to take time to enjoy what their business destinations offer outside of the work commitments.”

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE

AI is one of the hottest topics in the travel technology space.

“There’s no doubt that artificial intelligence is here to stay in business travel,” says Nicole Adonis, GM of FCM Travel Solutions South Africa, which last year rolled out the chatbot Sam. “The volume of data held by travel providers, including TMCs, such as traveller profiles, transaction history and personal preferences, make travel and AI ideal bedfellows. At the highest level, AI has the capability to improve customer service, to make that service more personal and improve travel planning.”

The technology companies – and the prominent players in this space – would seemingly agree.

“We are mixing AI (deep learning) with econometric models and behavioural economics, including the irrational behaviours of humans, to better model and predict traveller choices,” says Andy Hedley, MD of Amadeus Southern Africa. “Artificial intelligence and bots – from travel companion to travel assistant to travel essential – corporations and TMCs sit on a massive amount of data and should leverage this data as a way to build predictive analysis and benchmarks, and to offer relevant and instant information to travellers.”

There’s clearly a huge opportunity for travel brands and entities willing to take the technological ‘plunge’ and open themselves up to this sort of change.

Further to that, automation is already helping companies to target and reach customers and deliver better services, but the change has just started. There is still a big opportunity to simplify customer journeys and personalise experiences in the travel and hospitality industries.

Google’s Vice-President of Engineering for Travel and Shopping, Oliver Heckmann, says that nearly 60% of consumers believe that their travel experience should deploy the use of AI and base their search results on past behaviours and/or personal preferences. Google’s data shows that 36% of consumers are willing to pay more for these personalized experiences.

Further to that, a 2018 survey by YouGov found that 68% of the British public would welcome the presence of AI at the airport.

Carried out on behalf of inflight entertainment and passenger engagement company Spafax, the survey asked 2,110 people for their wish list for a “lounge of the future”.

Findings showed a disparity between what young and old want. While 27% of all respondents said they would not like artificial intelligence to assist them with anything for their trip, over 55s were most resistant to AI in airports, with 33% saying they would not like it to assist them. In contrast, only 17% of 18-24-year-olds said they didn’t want help from AI.

Of those asked, 37% aged 18 to 34 said they would play augmented reality (AR) board games with other passengers, but only 9% of those 55 and over said they would. Other findings included:

– 17% of 18-24-year-olds said they would like to try on hologram clothes at an airport, while only 6% of 55 and overs said they would

– 36% of women said they would choose a virtual reality (VR) preview of tourist attractions at their destination, along with the opportunity to pre-book tickets once they’d browsed

“We commissioned this research to find out what the British public actually wants out of their airport and airport lounge experiences,” said Charles Vine, Head of Brand Alliances at Spafax. “Airport lounges in particular are evolving from faceless waiting rooms with chairs and a coffee machine to being providers of an experience in their own right. The results send a clear message to us that people want the introduction of technology, but only in a way that enhances their trip, entertains or is enjoyable.”

It also comes down to just how AI is used to augment an existing offering, and this appears to be something the TMCs are grappling with.

“The benefit of having a global standardised platform, such as ours, is the accessibility to rich/’Big Data’ sources, which allows for the AI component to be plugged into a number of areas, enabling the solutions teams to creatively interpret and utilise,” says Krstić. “Soon, technology such as chatbots and voice recognition will become standard operating features. However, there are many other areas that could benefit from the utilisation of AI in the travel space, such as travel risk, itinerary automation, anomaly detection, automated quality checking, fraud prevention, data mining etc.”

It’s clear to see the myriad of potential benefits to the corporate traveller and his or her company.

“AI is already embedded in business travel and is helping processes on the operational side of business travel management,” says Makheta. “We believe it will play a bigger role in personalisation by offering an intimate picture of the individual traveller and the minute details of his/her needs. AI will make relevant predictions, recommendations, and accurate decisions based on personal data. The result will be that people will be able to move even faster.”

BIOMETRICS

As it is, advances in machine vision are seeing a growing convergence between AI and other sophisticated technologies like biometrics, which has been a feature of airport technology development in the past two years.

According to Forbes, most airlines and airports are exploring the use of biometric identification to get travellers checked in, through security, and boarded on flights.

A 2018 survey by SITA, a technology company serving the aviation industry, found that 77% of airports and 71% of airlines were either researching biometrics or planning to implement programmes to identify travellers using facial recognition or other biometric means.

Biometrics are already becoming a familiar part of the travel experience, to the extent that Delta launched the first end-to-end biometric terminal in the US, promising to speed up the passenger experience at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport.

Facial recognition technology can be used to confirm passenger identity at check-in, bag drop, security and boarding, removing the need to show a passport and boarding pass at each step.

“Customers have an expectation that experiences along their journey are easy and happen seamlessly – that’s what we’re aiming for by launching this technology across airport touch points,” said Delta’s Chief Operating Officer, Gil West.

In 2018, British Airways expanded trials of biometric boarding and arrivals technology at US airports, with partnerships at airports in Los Angeles, Orlando, Miami and New York.

Travellers going through Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA) can also make use of automated e-Security Gates powered by facial-recognition technology, cutting down the amount of time it takes for them to proceed through security to just 20 seconds.

Eligible travellers can use the electronic gates to scan their documents and boarding passes, which are then verified by facial recognition technology using the gates’ embedded cameras. Previously, airport security staff conducted this process manually.

No prior enrolment is required in order to be able to use the gates, and any passengers over the age of 11 that hold a valid electronic travel document are able to use the service.

“This smart initiative will speed up and enhance the accuracy of the document checking process,” said Chris Au Young, General Manager, Smart Airport for Airport Authority Hong Kong. “It also marks the first step in our efforts to streamline passenger boarding at HKIA by using biometrics.”

Regional rival Changi Airport in Singapore, meanwhile, opened its new Terminal 4 in 2017, offering automated end-to-end processing across its check-in, security, immigration and boarding procedures, with facial recognition playing a key role.

Technology companies like Apple have also made biometric identification more familiar to the masses. “Biometrics not only have the power to create a more secure world by validating identity with more certainty, but also create a more seamless customer experience,” said Caryn Seidman Becker, CEO and Chairman of airport security firm CLEAR.

“We picture a not-so-distant future where biometrics replace the need for cash, credit cards and physical forms of identification – think health insurance cards, hotel check-ins, restaurants, car sharing, smart cities and more. The possibilities are endless.”

NDC

There’s no doubt that another hot topic in the travel industry is IATA’s New Distribution Capability (NDC).

NDC is a travel industry-supported program launched by IATA for the development and market adoption of a new, XML-based data transmission standard.

The NDC Standard enhances the capability of communications between airlines and travel agents and is open to any third party, intermediary, IT provider or non-IATA member, to implement and use.

According to IATA, the NDC Standard enables the travel industry to transform the way air products are retailed to corporations, leisure and business travellers, by addressing the industry’s current distribution limitations:

– Product differentiation and time-to-market

– Access to full and rich air content

– Transparent shopping experience

But NDC has been a long time in the works, and IATA has had to work hard to get the travel industry onboard.

In fact, according to a 2018 report by ACTE, many travel managers still felt in the dark about the issue. The report said that almost a quarter (23%) of travel managers said they were “not at all” confident in their understanding of NDC and what it meant for their programme. A further 58% said they were only “somewhat” confident in their understanding.

“I think we have experienced the initial euphoria of what it promises to bring to our industry, the despondency of the realization that it is not the ultimate answer to all our shortcomings, and the frustration of the initial teething pains,” says Van Zyl. “As usual, I think the early adopters have felt the most pain, but I have no doubt that IATA and the NDC proponents will ultimately overcome the initial challenges, like dealing with all the exceptions in transacting on thisplatform, including interlining and packaging ancillaries. As with all new and disruptive technologies, once realization sets in, these challenges will be dealt with and overcome.”

If one speaks to a broad cross-section of senior industry members, one gets the sense that the tide has been turning and that the big players understand their role in driving this process and change.

“NDC is a top priority for Amadeus and we’re moving fast to integrate NDC content into the Amadeus Travel Platform,” says Hedley.

“NDC is currently top of mind for TMCs,” says Krstić. “The benefit to airlines of selling content via this channel surpasses any current traditional method. This point is only reinforced by official plans from the GDS companies embarking on huge development initiatives, ones that would completely change the traditional GDS business model and see their platforms themselves as massive content aggregators.”

Perhaps Adonis simplifies the issue even further, distilling it down to its core purpose, which must have the travel customer at the centre, because, ultimately, the consumer has to benefit from this major industry change.

“By integrating NDC content into our core booking systems, we will be able to personalise the booking experience for our customers even further,” she says. “This will ensure that we continue to offer the widest choice of content that is appropriate for our corporate customers’ needs.”

CONCLUSION

It’s a tough job just trying to keep up, isn’t it?

There really is so much advancement and so much in the way of new technology in the travel space, and what’s clear is that the big players are all diving headlong into it, to see where they can improve the customer experience, create efficiencies and just generally make the whole travel process a seamless one.

This can only be good for the consumer or end user.

THE ‘SMART’ HOTEL ROOM

All the major players in the hotel space – including Hilton and Marriott – seem to be working on a “smart” or “connected” hotel room, with AccorHotels the latest big group to make a noise about the progress it is making, with the company testing technology that uses voice activation and the internet to make the hotel room experience more accessible and personalized.

A model smart room at the company’s Paris headquarters incorporates a variety of technologies and accessibility features to accommodate up to three guests at a time.

They include:

– A Google Home voice assistant

– A connected tablet that controls lighting, music, the bed headboard, curtains, TV, and other audio-visual equipment in the room

– A special LED lighting system that senses motion at night to automatically turn on

– Sleep aids, like Dodow, described as a “luminous metronome that promotes both concentration or sleep,” and a Dreem headband that has “brain energy sensors and a relaxation system.”

– Aromatherapy aids like Sensorwake, which helps you wake up to a certain aroma, like coffee, tea, or a sea breeze, and Skinjay shower capsules that contain essential oils.

“Voice is the future,” says Damien Perrot, Senior Vice-President of Design Solutions for AccorHotels. “To be able to use it to access the TV, go to Netflix directly, or select your favourite song — we’re hoping to connect all of those elements to enhance the guest room experience. All of these elements and innovation in technology help improve the usage of the room.”

AccorHotels is testing the use of both voice activation and in-room tablets.

Perrot said the decision to use an in-room tablet was prompted by the fact that “many guests don’t want to have to download another app that they only use when they’re in the hotel. For this room, the decision was to put in a real tablet with all the functionality already built in, and they can use the table to connect everything.