A different world

685

From laptops to iPads, smartphones and tablets, the world has becoming increasingly connected. Industries that don’t follow suit, becoming more tech savvy for the good of both their own businesses and their clients, will simply not survive in today’s digital marketplace. The travel industry is no different. Lynette Dicey takes a look at the tools that today’s tourism businesses and corporate travellers on the African continent have at their disposal.

Gone are the days when a telephone was a travel agent or travel management company’s greatest technological asset. The corporate travel landscape has shifted and brought itself in line with the constant evolution of digital and mobile technology, and TMCs have had to adapt in order to accommodate the change. The result is a pioneering industry, with ongoing innovation a necessity, in order to provide consumers with the best possible service.

Travel Management Companies

Overcoming challenges, particularly in the context of corporate travel in and around Africa, is an important objective in terms of business strategy, and there are a number of difficulties that come with operating in this environment. According to Sonja Hamman, Director of Strategic Client Management in the Oil and Gas Division at Wings Travel Management, there are seven main obstacles facing travel management companies that operate in the dynamic African environment: airlines, infrastructure, hotels, payment issues, technology, health and safety, as well as joint ventures and affiliations with local travel agencies.

Monopolies established by airlines in various countries throughout the continent, as well as unreliable service, limited scheduled flights and generally high fares, means that travel can take much longer and make even arriving at a particular destination a bit of an ordeal. Further to that, a lack of infrastructure in many countries, combined with sub-standard hotels in certain centres, complete with payment problems (many don’t accept credit cards), make corporate travel on the African continent a minefield. Health and safety concerns, especially with the recent Ebola outbreak, further complicate African travel, as do service delivery difficulties with local travel agencies, due to limited technical and process integration with TMCs.

That all sounds like a lot of doom and gloom, but there is light at the end of the tunnel, I promise, even though technology presents its own set of challenges and serves as an ironic paradox.

“There is a huge mobile phone user base in Africa, but while technology is improving, there are still significant gaps where regions struggle with unreliable Wi-Fi/Internet and often even basic phone connectivity,” explains Hamman.

However, the mobile area is where the most significant developments have taken place. In order to meet the increasing demand for technology and digital services, the majority of TMCs have developed platforms to meet travellers’ needs.

“Merely offering these technologies is no longer sufficient – we have seen a growing need for technologies with advanced integration capabilities,” comments Business Solutions Director at HRG Rennies Travel, Maurice de Vries. “Global clients are seeking the same levels of technology automation with regards to travel management in Africa as they would in more developed parts of the world. There is a growing trend towards single pricing, cost controls, standardised service and improved data quality and management. Clients also want end-to-end procurement solutions that include elements such as expense management.”

To this end, Rennies Travel Global was recently launched. Within this low-cost model the travel requirements of multinationals are booked and ticketed in South Africa for their business entities around the world, regardless of location, ensuring they receive the best value from a local team.

“The solution is activated by technologies such as our Universal Desktop tool that allows Rennies to access and source multiple fares with one entry, ensuring best rates for clients. In addition, we work closely with clients to provide them with central points of information storage and management,” says De Vries.

HRG Rennies Travel has more in its locker, though. Further proprietary tools have been developed, such as an online booking tool called Rennies Travel Online; a web-based traveller profile database called Rennies Travel Profiler; ViewTrip Mobile, which sends SMS messages with itineraries and travel documents to travellers’ mobile devices; Online Hotel Management, which allows clients to manage customised hotel supplier information; Let’s Meet, which reduces the cost of conference facilities as it loads multiple organisations in multiple locations, books the meeting room and sends orders via email to the relevant suppliers, as well as provides reporting capabilities; Collate, which is a performance management system that enables monitoring of various elements throughout the client’s business; and HRG Insight, which provides pre and post-trip reporting data across the region, and the ability to track travellers at any time.

HRG Rennies Travel is not alone in developing a host of eye-catching technological products. Innovation is a necessity in the highly competitive digital space and Carson Wagonlit Travel is also proving itself proactive within this space, offering a variety of solutions. CWT Portrait is the company’s secure online profile management system, while LooknBook goes beyond an online booking tool and provides rich approval workflows, back office integration, real-time ticketing and invoicing, and online changes. CWT to Go is the group’s mobile app and enables travellers to view past and upcoming trips, check flight status, view schedules and notifications, and update their Portrait profile. It incorporates maps, weather forecasts and currency tools into a user-friendly, contextualised interface. CWT Programme Messenger proactively monitors and alerts on policy compliance, while CWT Listens allows for feedback and escalations associated with the booking process. Programme Management Centre provides a 360-degree view of an organisation’s entire travel programme by incorporating a comprehensive set of business intelligence tools, whilst Safety and Security as a module is accessible via the full suite web-based CWT Portal, which provides for quick and easy traveller tracking. Together with CWT Alerts, these solutions are aimed at enhancing existing security programmes.

“The real-time, anywhere access we have come to expect in our everyday lives has a profound impact on the way we travel, and decisions are made and put into effect on the move, in the air and in record time,” says Carlson Wagonlit Travel’s Senior Manager of Integrated Solutions, Pine Nel. “Efficient, accurate flow of information and quick, easy, mobile access to the booking process becomes vital, as it is here where technology puts the power back in the traveller’s hands.”

Contributing to ‘putting the power back’ in the hands of the corporate traveller is FCm Travel Solutions’ range of local market and global travel technology solutions, which feature web and mobile travel management tool FCm Portal. It provides access to online booking tools, travel alerts, maps and guides, weather information and passport information, among others – FCm Profile, which is a web-based profile management tool linking multiple databases; FCm Mobile, which allows checking-in to be done online, as well as offers flight status notifications, itinerary information and a currency converter to ensure that business travel is quick, easy and instantly accessible; FCm ClientBank, which is a web-based platform that gathers reservation and financial data for a multi-dimensional view of travel expenditure, so that companies can improve efficiencies; FCm Secure, which is a travel risk management platform; FCm Online which provides online booking tools, automated lowest fare search and travel management information reporting; and FCm Expense Management, which assists in reducing travel-related operational costs.

FCm incorporates these solutions into their offering to best accommodate operating in the difficult African environment, according to MD Melanie Walljee.

“Technology has been trending for a number of years and in the past year has come to play a large role in a TMC’s offering,” she says. “Traditionally, a TMC would third party a software programme or platforms created by suppliers. However, with the market becoming more competitive, TMCs are moving towards creating their own technology to offer the client more cost-effective solutions that are less reliant on third party suppliers offering the same product re- branded to multiple TMCs.”

And it’s not just ‘traditional’ TMCs that are seeing the need to develop their own technology. Wholesale outbound operator Salsa Tours identified this opportunity and as a result recently launched an online travel management tool called TravelBeat, which is the result of three years of intensive development and programming.

According to Salsa Tours CEO Vishal Koovejee, TravelBeat is a unique offering in the market. Unlike traditional platforms, it serves as more than just a booking engine and is a full management tool for corporates, public sector business, tour operators, travel agencies and consumers, as it offers reporting capabilities and an audit trail, which allows for greater transparency. The platform was even tested on seven-year old children to ensure it was user-friendly. The end result is a highly-functional platform that allows users to take complete control, offering geographic coverage of land travel products and services to over 160 countries globally, and 40 in Africa.

“TravelBeat is a tool that can become a critical part of business operations, and since we launched it in September there has been a phenomenal response,” says Koovejee.

In the ever-evolving and increasingly competitive digital landscape, it’s becoming a necessity for TMCs to choose to ‘build or buy’ technology, asserts Louis van Zyl, Chief Operating Officer – Africa, Marine and Offshore at Tourvest Travel Services, and this needs to done against the backdrop of whether the technology will be effective in an African environment where the infrastructure to support resource-intensive technology solutions may be lacking. Tourvest made the decision to build and develop an online solution with two main components. The first is a travel portal to assist corporate travellers with every step in their travel request, selection, procurement and subsequent documentation and reporting needs, while the second is a local online booking solution to cater for the local nuances related to travel procurement in South Africa specifically.

“We are working on making the booking solution capable of extending into selected African countries as well,” says Van Zyl. “The overall objective here is to be selective in the technology we provide, but to do it consistently across the continent and to make it capable of working in the most challenging environments.”

Specialised offerings are increasingly becoming a necessity for companies to differentiate themselves, and Club Travel’s launch of a new online subscription-based service for small and medium-sized businesses fits into this category seamlessly. Club Travel Business Solutions is aimed at companies that spend less than R3-million on corporate travel per year, and provides access to reduced fares, a cost centre to monitor spend across sectors within the business, an audit trail and the best deals across airline, accommodation and car hire suppliers.

“Essentially, the new service offering gives small businesses the ability to manage their own bookings online, while enjoying the benefit of TMC rates and having a dedicated travel agent at their beck and call,” explains Club Travel Corporate Business Development Executive, Collin Austen. It includes a profile management system to record travellers’ details such as Voyager and passport numbers and meal preferences, so that these don’t have to be inputted each time a booking is made.

Another new product to hit the market recently was the b-there travel app, the result of the coming together of Marabou Travel Group – a South African destination management company – and Uniglobe Travel.

The app is another good example of an offering catering to a niche market. It was developed exclusively for use on new generation Samsung smart devices, and features as the key travel app on Collectiv – Samsung’s Lifestyle ecology app. It offers great air, car and hotel prices, says Uniglobe MD Mike Gray, as well as bush, beach and city specials exclusively negotiated for Samsung smart device users, resulting in added value for customers.

“B-there has also teamed up with Concierge Hotels to bring customers an a la carte choice of hundreds of hotels in the Indian Ocean Islands direct, and special IT fares can be bundled with these purchases,” says Gray.

B-there is a native travel app and therefore works with Samsung’s built-in features for speed and efficiency.

“Our vision is to align the Samsung mobile user base with selected preferred suppliers through b-there, providing these suppliers with a unique channel for increased market share, profitability and brand loyalty, while at the same time getting really great deals for b-there customers that are only available on Samsung,” says Gray.

In addition, Uniglobe offers a comprehensive suite of solutions such as the Total Travel Risk Management and Total Reporter systems to add value to individual, SME and corporate travellers’ experiences.

Adding value to the corporate traveller’s experience is a priority for TMCs, and a key component of achieving this, says Hamman, is the implementation of a single standardised data platform that allows travellers to have all their needs met in one location. Wings Travel Management’s platform enables clients to receive consolidated reporting globally, as well as live data traveller tracking to ensure traveller safety. Updated itineraries, e-ticket receipts and travel information are sent to clients via email, but can also be accessed on mobile phones via goText, which uses mobile texting technology. 

“In Africa, where mobile data can be unreliable at times, we have found that this is a more reliable medium,” says Hamman. 

Further Wings offerings are goOnline, a fully integrated work-flow request tool that communicates in real-time with consultants to manage online requests, and goReconcile, which allows automatic credit card statement reconciliation. A new reporting tool is on the verge of being launched with multiple reporting portals covering executive summary, traveller tracking, supplier performance, traveller performance, quality and general reporting. An intuitive, self-service and mobile-enabled business intelligence tool, it will help clients measure and improve the performance of their travel programme.

Standardising platforms for ease of use is a priority for a number of TMCs, and BCD Travel has succeeded and continues to lead in this arena. It was the first global TMC to standardise operational technology across all African markets – meaning travellers across the continent have standardised levels of service, access to the same technology and integrated information, according to Commercial Manager Africa, Kagiso Dumasi.

“Our global strategy is to make our global technology available to all the markets in which we operate, and we have recently launched our proprietary app TripSource Mobile in the US and European markets, with an African launch in the pipeline,” she confirms. “We successfully tested the product in two key African markets and are making great strides meeting this objective.”

Competition remains fierce in the technology sphere as TMCs fight to be first to launch innovative offerings. But, says De Vries, the rapid development of technologies has seen more and more players outside of the traditional TMC space entering the travel arena.

“We’re no longer competing only with traditional TMCs, but with technology solution providers,” he says. “Our challenge, therefore, is to reassure clients that it is less about outsourcing disparate ‘standard’ solutions and more about working with the travel partner to find solutions that not only meet their automation needs, but also fit into the objectives of their wider travel programme.”

Global Distribution Systems

No surprise, as there is a direct link with the space, but technological advancement is the staple diet of the Global Distribution Systems companies out there, as they set about linking and consolidating products and services such as airline reservations, hotel bookings, car rental and other activities.

Essentially, GDS refers to a network that is operated by a company enabling automated transactions between third parties and booking agents, providing travel-related services to the end user. In South Africa, the market is dominated by three major players – Travelport, Amadeus and Sabre. In today’s environment, GDS’s have become a vital component of corporate travel and the way in which the travel experience is managed. Through GDS’s, travel agencies are able to offer comprehensive and accurate content through the use of technology-based services. In fact, the GDS is arguably the most efficient manner in which travel agencies can provide pre and post-booking options, as well as travel services to corporate clients through a single point of reference – one that evolves with the changing needs of both travellers and travel content suppliers.

Also evolving is the actual GDS space itself. In fact, George Harb, Managing Director at Travelport for Southern Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe, believes that Travelport has moved from the fundamental architecture of the GDS towards an open system platform that has enabled travel agencies to remain competitive. The business has made possible the access of information, as well as planning and booking on Geographical User Interfaces (GUI). Travelport was in fact one of the first GDS providers to move to server-based technology for airfare shopping and pricing. As a result, the industry has experienced a faster delivery of fares and up-to-the-minute availability to travel agents through the GDS.

In much the same way, Amadeus believes that it has “truly evolved into a travel IT company, as we have invested heavily in solutions that serve every aspect of a corporation that meets the requirements of the business traveller,” according to Jannine Adams, Senior Manager Marketing, Amadeus GTD Southern Africa. “Beyond online self-booking tools, Amadeus also provides end-to-end solutions that integrate into existing systems to holistically manage expenses before travel takes place.”

That said, the GDS is not without its challenges. Managing it across Africa calls for a need for consistency in the way that bookings are made and managed for the corporate traveller. One way in which this can be achieved is through common technology adoption, together with effective workflow management and reporting.

Gaining support from travel agencies in adopting technologies has proved to be an additional challenge, which stems from the varying maturity of the agencies across Africa.

“Our experience with the largest global TMCs, as well as smaller and regional corporate-focused travel agencies, places Travelport in an ideal position to offer advice to travel agencies in Africa on how best to deliver such consistency,” comments Harb.

Players in the GDS industry monitor global travel, consumer and technology trends across the board. Importantly, note must be taken of the working habits of corporate travel agents and how they make use of GDS and travel technologies. The latest innovation within the GDS space is a desktop selling and merchandising platform for agencies, which is sure to have an impact on the industry.

“To date, a number of airlines have signed up to provide ancillary services through this merchandising platform,” says Harb. “What this means for TMCs using Travelport is that they will be able to offer additional services to corporate travellers who would prefer not to deal with multiple parties when booking and managing a business trip.”

In-depth research and the observation of traveller trends is very much part of the Amadeus DNA. It too takes an approach led by innovation. The company invests significant resources into research and development. Core to its vision is the belief that trends around personalisation, connectivity and sustainability are critical to travel and the technology that powers it.

“We have the ability to continually invest in much-needed areas of development, as we seek to meet the needs of the industry for the future of travel,” says Adams. “That’s evidenced by the two billion euros Amadeus has invested since 2004.”

That innovation has led to the integration of user-generated content into the Amadeus e-Travel Management self-booking tool.

“A good example is the Amadeus Trusted Hotel Reviews, where a community of travellers is able to rate and comment on the hotels they use during their business trips,” says Adams. “The rating information is available to other travellers during hotel availability for the same community.”

The market will soon be exposed to Amadeus Trip Concierge, whilst other Amadeus products to have caught the eye recently include: CheckMyTrip Mobile, Offers, Ancillary Services, Low Cost Carrier Light Ticketing, Robotic Ticketing, and Mobile Messenger for duty of care solutions.

In an industry where competition is stiff, each GDS must provide some differentiator in order to stand out. Global reach proves to be an advantage in this case. Travelport, for example, has a presence in 170 countries, as well as an extensive workforce across the globe in the form of both full-time employees and those who work in majority-owned subsidiaries. Amadeus is also a global competitor, with operations in 195 countries and a team of 11,000 employees.

Clearly the GDS space is big business, with Sabre another global operator that uses data to help its clients to provide a more personalised travel experience. Indeed, Sabre is of the belief that data is a key driver of innovation, with more than one million people per year using the company’s technology to plan, book and travel. 

Technology and the investment therein is key to becoming a successful GDS. For Harb, an annual investment of $400 million, as well as a commitment to an open and accessible platform, has been a vital component of the company’s positive performance on the African continent. In this way, it has attracted approximately 300 developers who access Travelport’s content.

“It’s about a flexible approach, which has attracted developers who desire the ability to build flexible, customer-centric and intelligent technology,” he says. “It’s essentially a cycle: as our developer network grows, so does our eco-system of applications and bespoke solutions.” Ultimately, it’s the investment of industry players into technology that allows travel agencies greater access to content and booking tools.

An important aspect of investment in technology is the launch of new products that will help to make the industry more efficient. Travelport has created a platform with the capability to integrate content from any provider, regardless of their business model or technology.

“Our platform aggregates travel content from hundreds of thousands of the world’s leading travel providers. This includes over 400 airlines (including all the leading low-cost airlines), as well as airline ancillaries; more than 600,000 hotel properties, 35,000 car rental locations, 55 cruise and tour operators and 12 rail providers,” he says.

Through Travelport Smartpoint, the company has created a world-leading shop window and integrated workflow solution. Corporations are also selecting Travelport to gain access to the company’s technology and real-time content. This allows them to manage their travel, authorisation and procurement processes – including traveller profiles, pre-trip approvals and duty-of-care capabilities.

“We’ve recently launched the ‘Cabforce App’,  a third party application developed using the Smartpoint Software Developer Kit (SDK), which enables agents to book taxis and transfer services in real-time, within their workflow,” says Harb.
Transforming the business-to-business travel payment model is eNett, a solution model which issues single-use Virtual Account Numbers (VANs) through the trusted MasterCard network in multiple currencies. By integrating eNett into point-of-sale solutions, Travelport’s clients have access to a payment method – both when making and receiving payments – that is more efficient, more secure and less open to fraud. Travel providers now receive their payments faster, and automatically, through the MasterCard acceptance model, which takes labour and administration costs out of their receivables.

“As part of Travelport’s ongoing strategy to redefine and strengthen our hotel offering to both corporations and TMCs, we recently acquired technology provider Hotelzon,” says Harb. “This investment supports our drive to make booking independent hotels easier for business travellers and adds an additional 30,000 hotel properties to our Travel Commerce Platform. These include, in particular, new European independent and small hotel chain properties that were previously unavailable.”

With the launch of Travelport Rooms and More, there is an innovative solution giving the freedom to shop and book bed and breakfast establishments, boutique hotels, 5-star deluxe hotels, budget accommodation and everything in between. It also features a streamlined commission payment process that delivers monthly payments in local currencies.

Cash or card?

The past decade has seen phenomenal developments in both the card and mobile space throughout Africa, with only a few exceptions in very newly-formed economies. But even these, says Diners Club’s Leane Walters, are starting to get on board.

Within this space, one of the challenges is that banks continue to see data as a competitive advantage. The problem, according to Walters, is that some banks block various data flows that come through to them and don’t originate from them, to other card providers.

“What they don’t realise is that the customer is ultimately the one that is negatively impacted – and not their perceived competitor,” says Walters. “It’s impossible to be everything to everybody and our belief is that all transactional and additional data related to a customer’s charge belongs to the customer.”

However, in spite of these advances, cash remains ‘king’ due to its superior bargaining power, particularly on the African continent.

“Travel markets into and out of Africa are changing – travelling and trading with cash is becoming an increasingly unmanageable exercise due to multiple risks being balanced, such as theft, security, loss, high surcharges and even exchange rates,” explains Walters. “Across the continent, but particularly in countries such as Nigeria and Kenya, central banks are implementing policies to encourage consumers to use electronic alternatives rather than cash. Their reasoning is that it’s much safer and more convenient to transfer money electronically, and it’s easier to track, as there is a record of all transactions.” Furthermore, she says, a card proposition serves as an affordable, efficient and safe alternative payment mechanism.

But there is a need for education in terms of how credit cards are used, asserts Harold van Eeden, Commercial Card Manager for Visa Sub-Saharan Africa, particularly as there is a misconception around fraud on cards.

“Payment technology companies are therefore working towards imparting more knowledge to merchant establishments and increasing the base for accepting a card product,” he says.

Reconciling travel spend has become an increasingly important issue for business travellers. But, as Walters points out, actual reconciliation is only one of many steps in the entire expense management process.

“What you get out of reconciliation is only as good as what you put in, and with this philosophy in mind, the focus at Diners Club has largely been on automating this process as far as possible and enhancing our transactional information on our invoice, with key additional reference elements sourced from both the TMC and corporate,” she says. “Not only does this ensure a more efficient end-to-end expense management process, but it also helps companies to make sense of the information at the end of the day.”

To this end, Diners Club Advantage Plus was introduced in the past year to not only automate and enable the expense management process, but also to allow for enhanced transactional information to be easily extracted and uploaded into any financial system. This means companies have access to their own unique information and can build bespoke reports, which greatly enhances transparency and allows for improved planning and decision making.

Diners Club also recently released the Dynamic Virtual Card, which facilitates real-time supplier payments. The virtual card information is generated for once-off use to settle a specific amount and is linked to a specific supplier for a predetermined period of time.

“The card allows TMCs and companies to access unique card information via an online platform to facilitate the payment of local land arrangements, traditionally known as billbacks,” clarifies Walters, pointing out that the related additional reference data is automatically matched, which significantly enhances reconciliation and reporting capabilities. Cost savings are enabled through instant supplier settlement and improved cash flow administration.

Van Eeden maintains that those enterprises willing to harness technologies built to automate the reconciliation process will eventually bring in quantifiable efficiencies – and dollar savings to their bottom-line.

“Visa already offers tools through our commercial solutions which help corporates to automatically book business travel expenses into their corresponding financial segments. We also provide customised financial extracts to the corporate’s ERP environment without any actual IT development required,” he says.

Corporate travel expense specialists TraveluXion offer an end-to-end solution that combines the Amadeus’ online booking technology with Fraxion Spend Management. Designed to be owned by the corporate customer, its procurement technology solution offers a host of benefits, allowing for the effective matching of travel spend against card company data – and furthermore, ensuring that the request and invoice is matched and validated.

“The benefit of this solution,” explains TraveluXion MD Shirley le Roux, “is that it solves the myriad of problems that exists in a primarily paper-based environment, where inevitably, too much time is spent chasing signatures, obtaining approvals and trying to find lost or misplaced paperwork and supporting documentation required to effect smooth payments.”

She argues that corporates looking for an effective solution to cater for all their travel and expense rated items need to position their tenders and RFPs towards independent companies who specialise in this space.

“Travel technology solutions are usually not offered independently from a travel agency, with the result that it’s not easy to make changes to the system. As the technology is not owned by the corporate, they lack control, have poor visibility and a heavy reliance on third parties for data,” she says. “Ultimately, corporates should be approaching technology companies to provide the software and support in order to allow corporate customers the independence and ultimate ownership of their own travel procurement process.”

Acknowledging the need of corporates to more securely manage transactions processed via travel cards, lodged cards and central travel accounts, and to maximise their negotiated pricing with their respective TMC, Visa will be introducing the Visa Travel Portal during 2015, a solution that offers booking, reconciliation and reporting processes. The portal features a self-service model which allows clients to book travel directly.

Other new developments from Visa include Travel Tags, which form part of its Advanced Authorisation service and provide enhanced authorisation information for issuers to use, as well as help to decrease declines while cardholders are travelling.

Technology could potentially allow travel platforms to integrate with airlines so that corporates are able to book preferred price air tickets, modelled around the strategic price buying currently done by procurement companies, claims Van Eeden. Additionally, enhanced data representing the actual employee details for business travel expenses is also not inconceivable.

The future, insists Walters, is all about data.

“Our priority going forward is to improve transactional data and increase our access to key data sources,” she says. “By consolidating transactional data, our technologies enable accurate reporting, which in turn allows the corporate to negotiate quality discounts. It also allows them to monitor the adherence to the travel policies that underpin these preferred agreements and ensure that the negotiated cost savings are realised.”

What is clear is that the influence of technology has filtered into every aspect of the business travel industry, and even though it’s a bit of a minefield, from online booking tools to global distribution systems, mobile travel applications, travel reconciliation products and card payments, corporate travel technology is a space that is evolving quickly, and only the most innovative will survive.

Refreshing Rail Apps

Present-day travel is a combination of physical and digital interaction, and travelling by rail is no exception. Passengers across the spectrum are becoming increasingly techno savvy, keeping abreast of the latest mobile and digital trends in order to research trip options and book rail tickets. 

“Technology has changed the way people travel and you find it everywhere: websites, social networks, mobile, applications, kiosks, touch pads and interactive windows,” says Terri-Ann Wright, Manager at World Travel, a South African partner to Rail Europe. “The range of digital tools is impressive and offers multiple ways of enhancing the traveller’s experience. Most travellers plan their trips online. With a wider use of smartphones, travellers now have the opportunity to ‘surf the net’ and access mobile applications before and during their trip.”

Within this context, smartphones have been the biggest disruptor and have driven the demand to make planning the journey more efficient through the provision of services ranging from virtual ticketing to real-time train schedules. Innovations in Wi-Fi and 4G technology and increased co-operation between developers and operators have contributed to making navigating rail trips and connections with other modes of transport as painless as possible.

World Travel has a number of offerings to facilitate a fuss-free trip, according to Wright. Through the World Travel online application, travellers can access information instantly while travelling through Europe. Because many of World Travel’s rail travellers are first-time train users and aren’t familiar with the rail procedures, she explains that it is imperative to understand how the rail products work and what the associated benefits are for the products purchased.

Numerous tools on the app make booking easier for the customer, including fares loaded in local currency; the ability to contact a local fulfilment centre; an interactive map allowing travellers to locate a city, build an itinerary and book transport and accommodation; a forum where travellers can ask questions and plan their trip with travel experts; and a station guide available for the main European stations, providing useful information such as location and connection with public transport, amongst other things.

World Travel recently launched a new mobile app, ‘My Train Companion’, designed to simplify journeys by train in Europe.

“For instance, a traveller is able to retrieve train schedules, locate stations on a city map and see how to connect with public transport, as well as retrieve all ticket details easily with the individual’s booking reference,” says Wright. “With an integrated reminder, the app informs you about upcoming trips and keeps record of previous trips.”

Taking to the air

The digital age has allowed travel to transform, to the extent that a flight is no longer an enforced technological break. Business travellers can remain connected and, as such, avoid losing valuable working hours.

“Airlines are recognising this and taking steps to ensure passengers can interact with people on the ground,” comments Delta Air Line’s Director of Sales for Africa, Middle East and the Indian Sub-Continent, Jimmy Eichelgruen. “Incorporating technology into the travel experience gives passengers more choice and greater value. It’s important that airlines listen to the needs of the customer and adapt their offering accordingly.”

In response to this increasing demand, Delta has a wide array of apps and services to improve the flight experience. While websites remain important, their reach is dwindling as apps continue to grow in popularity as a means of booking trips and sourcing information, Eichelgruen argues. For instance, the Fly Delta app allows tracking of checked-in luggage, viewing the status of a flight, and keeping up to date with the airline’s latest news, while a recently launched initiative enables travellers to use personal electronic devices – ranging from mobile phones and MP3 players to tablets and laptops – from gate-to-gate.

Wi-Fi has been identified as another indispensable tool in the digital space and airlines that choose not to include it in their offering run the risk of alienating certain passengers. As it stands, many airlines have gone the route of making Wi-Fi available, although some have chosen not to, and it’s a debate that’s like to rage on, as arguments for and against are presented.

“The entire Delta international fleet will be Wi-Fi equipped by the end of 2015 following successful implementation on domestic aircraft,” says Eichelgruen.

To keep up with the swift developments taking place in the app arena, as well as the provision of Wi-Fi to travellers, airlines need to constantly track trends and respond accordingly. British Airways is one carrier working hard to stay ahead of the curve, with the introduction of new features on its iPhone app as one example. In fact, the British Airways app is at the forefront of implementing the latest features in its most recent version of Apple software, iOS 8. Since October, travellers using the app in Heathrow Airport’s Terminals 3 and 5 have been able to access the status of their flight in the iPhone notification centre – enabling them to stay up-to-date without having to open the app. ‘Push notifications’ detailing when the gate will open and when the aircraft will begin boarding have been added to further improve the travel experience. Responding to consumer feedback, iPhone customers with the British Airways app now also receive a personalised welcome pop-up message and Wi-Fi password when entering the Terminal 5 lounge.

“We have a unique opportunity to address customer needs and offer intuitive ways of making their journey even smoother,” comments British Airways’ Chief Commercial Officer, Drew Crawley. “It’s these thoughtful features – from alerting customers to gate announcements, to Wi-Fi passwords, that truly add value. The potential to optimise mobile and digital technology is endless, but requires a careful balance of adding value without bombarding customers.”  

Hotel using technology to improve customer service

Hotels too are adopting the latest technology to enable them to meet the demands of guests. Protea Hotels understands the importance of being connected, according to Group Marketing Manager Nicholas Barenblatt, and offers guests free Wi-Fi of up to 500 MB per day at all its hotels.

“We have a simple process of requesting guest information once, giving you freedom to the Internet, and offering top-up on bandwidth which is seamlessly added to your room account, and connecting multiple devices on one account,” he says.

Protea is not the only hotel chain using mobile to improve customer service. Starwood Hotels and Resorts, for instance, has conducted research that indicates that 40% of travel searches are done on mobile devices, and has consequently developed an enhanced ‘mobile experience’, which has been designed specifically to make it easier and faster for guests to book their trips.

Starwood has also developed unique content and functionality for particular devices such as the smartphone app, which was developed with the mobile traveller in mind – easy to use with “one eye and one thumb” while walking through an airport, while the iPad app was designed for a more leisurely interaction – a “lean back” moment – encouraging travellers to explore different destinations.

Hotels won’t survive without the incorporation of technology into the guest experience,” says Barenblatt. “We’re piloting technology like SnapScan in Protea Hotel Fire & Ice! Cape Town at the moment, while Marriott International (which earlier this year bought Protea Hotels) is rolling out mobile check-in and check-out across its brands. It’s that sort of technology, along with things like making booking channels increasingly more user-friendly and accessible across all devices that is keeping the hospitality industry current, but it’s a constant evolution.”

The goal at Starwood is to cut through the clutter, by moving at the pace of digital innovation with the agility of a start-up, notes Hassan Ahdab, Vice-President & Regional Director of Operations: Africa & Indian Ocean at Starwood Hotels & Resorts.

“In the last 24 months alone, we were the first in our industry to leverage state-aware technology on our mobile applications, the first to build an iPad app on Apple’s new iOS 7, the first to launch SMS capabilities, the first to integrate user-generated Instagrams into our property pages, the first to introduce a Chinese Android app, the first to display real-time Weibo feeds, and the first in the hotel industry to launch an app for Google Glass. Over the next two years we’ll invest $100 million in mobile, R&D, on-property and associate initiatives, extending our lead,” he says.

“Emerging technology will impact virtually every aspect of our business – from the guest experience to the way we operate our hotels, to how we engage with our guests, customers and associates. Our teams are working intently to develop technology that helps deliver the most personalised service. Our goal is to know each of our guests, so they feel special and recognised, every time.”

Apps for corporate travel

Mobile has become the driving medium of modern-day life, and this has carried through to travel. Corporate travellers are increasingly using mobile apps in order to plan and manage trips. Here are five popular apps to make travel as painless as possible:

e-Travel Management Mobile App

Users can easily search, book and approve all segments of their trip from hotels to flights and rail. Last-minute trip planning is quicker thanks to its ease of use, aligned with Amadeus policies, profiles, fares, methods of payments and delivery. Available for iPhone and Android. Free

Tourism Radio City Guides

This nifty little app offers information on history, culture, geography, places of interest, accommodation and restaurants in over two dozen major international cities, as well as 1,500 Points of Interest (POI). Available for iPhone and Android. Free

Triplingo

It can be difficult to communicate in a foreign country if you don’t speak the language(s). Triplingo removes the hassle by acting as a dictionary and translator, as well as offering crash courses on local culture. It can be downloaded for free, however some of the content is only available by upgrading to a premium subscription. Available for iPhone and Android.

Wi-Fi Finder

This handy app means you’ll never be far from Internet access, and it allows you to save your searches for later offline use. It covers 144 countries worldwide and a wide selection in Africa, with particularly comprehensive listings in Cape Town, Cairo and Marrakech. Available for iPhone and Android. Free

Wundermap by Weather Underground

Knowing the climate of a place you’ve never been to before can be tricky, but with Wundermap, extensive information on temperatures and forecasts from Weather Underground’s network of 33,000 weather stations will remove all doubt and allow you to plan the trip accordingly. Available for iPhone and Android. Free