Mad about tech

Technology is playing an increasingly bigger role in travel management, so what’s the best approach and how do TMCs get the balance right, without neglecting the human element of service?

280

If you’re the owner or chief executive of a travel management company, I have a question for you.

Are you a TMC or a tech company?

I’m willing to bet that if you asked 10 different TMC execs the same question, you’d get an interesting spread and variety of responses, with justifications either way.

That’s largely because many big TMCs are grappling with this very issue and are attempting to settle on where their core competency lies.

Sure, many will defer to “servicing my customer with the most efficient and cost-effective travel programme”, but the evolution of travel technology has added a layer of complexity to this service offering, and as a result, the role of travel management companies is changing, hand in hand with the new demands of the modern-day business traveller.

Whereas once TMCs functioned primarily to process bookings, now they must harness data and tools such as artificial intelligence, predictive analytics and chatbots to provide value to their customers throughout the travel experience.

These were just some of the conclusions from ‘Harnessing Technology to Empower Your People’, a report from Advantage Travel Partnership based on findings from the 2017 Advantage Conference and Business Travel Symposium and a “Buyer Research Survey” conducted by the Institute of Travel Management.

“Through continuous discussions with members and research undertaken with travel buyers from ITM, we noted that technology strengthens the service of a TMC,” said Neil Armorgie, CEO of WIN and Global Product Director for Advantage.

“Human interaction remains the vital ingredient that business travellers and clients are ultimately looking for. Technology enhances this partnership, making for a more seamless relationship and therefore achieving better productivity for the client, which ultimately helps them grow their business.”

This appears to be one of the key challenges facing TMCs, as every day technology plays a bigger and bigger role in their offering – an offering that remains a service offering with human beings at the heart of it.

“I see automation as key from a back-end as well as a client-facing perspective,” says Wally Gaynor, Group CEO of the Club Travel Group. “I see technology solving many issues in the corporate travel space, but where we are different is we see humans behind the technology; not as faceless humans in a call centre, but humans who ideally know the client, have empathy and can deliver when things go wrong or when technology fails.”

According to the research conducted by the team behind the ‘Harnessing Technology to Empower Your People’ report, 87% of travel buyers are excited about the future of travel technology, but 76% said they were looking for help from business partners to keep them up-to-date on new developments.

TMC VIEW ON TECHNOLOGY

That brings us back to the dilemma facing many TMCs. Just how far down the technology route do they go, as they contemplate making strategic investments in new tech to ultimately create that ideal balance between “man and machine?”

“I’m a little reluctant to go completely to the technology development side, because that would require a lot of resources, and that’s not our business,” says Louis van Zyl, CEO of CWT South Africa. “We’re not a technology company, but we believe that we do need to be able to develop a certain level of technology that is purely concentrated on how we can get our customers to interact with the leading-edge technology there.”

According to Van Zyl, the challenge is in finding that mix between trying to have the most leading-edge technology and factoring in the human element of service, as already touched on.

“Technology is definitely the conduit, but it needs to supplement how we service our customers,” he says.

At the same time, Van Zyl admits that there are some customers who want the most leading-edge technology, and that CWT SA needs to be adaptable to service them on the level they require.

This, perhaps, ties in with the report already cited, which went on to state that, “as much asnew technologies will automate process-driven tasks, business travel continues to be an industry dominated by people and relationships, and the ability to deploy people into more creative roles should be an excellent opportunity to further personalize the travel experience.”

So, the suggestion, then, is that technological advancement should be an enabler and a mechanism by which a TMC can re-focus its human capital in other areas that demand a more “human touch”.

“We are encouraging clients to use a self-booking tool for basic repetitive trips and use their competent consultant for complexed itineraries,” says Gaynor. “The choice of tool is extremely important and it is our job to find the tool that best suits the client’s profile. For example, a client who travels locally 95% of the time has different requirements to that of a client travelling internationally 95% of the time.”

Club Travel Corporate’s FareStar technology allows it to link with its GlobalStar partners around the world and offer its clients access to fare and availability not available in the local market.

“We have a team of developers adapting existing technology and developing new technology to give us the necessary efficiencies in the back-end, which feeds into the client experience, allowing us to serve them and offer an exceptional experience at a competitive price,” says Gaynor.

“FCM believes technology should move travellers forward, so we have developed a suite of products to make business travel management simpler, faster and more efficient,” says Nicole Adonis, General Manager of FCM Travel Solutions, part of the Flight Centre Travel Group.

That’s a fairly simplistic, yet pragmatic, view on technology from Adonis, who in 2019 expects travel programmes to embrace opportunities to simplify the travel process through the adoption of new technologies.

“Consumers are already showing a strong dependency on voice-activated digital assistants for basic search and query response functionality, as well as for scheduling, to help manage their increasingly overloaded, connected daily lives,” she says.

FCM – and the Flight Centre Group as a whole – have already dived headlong into the tech space and in 2018 launched FCM’s travel chatbot, Sam. It works using a simple and intuitive chatbot-based interface, much the same as Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, and according to Adonis, Sam has been “getting smarter” since first appearing in the marketplace. The chatbot now offers transfers via Uber and Lyft, and also has city guides filled with local hints and tips, with the promise ofmore to come later in 2019.

FCM also has FCM Connect, which is personalised to the travel tools and information needed to manage, book and travel. A single click-through hub, the gateway to the FCM Connect suite of products transports travellers and bookers to an intuitive dashboard that can be customised with the tools relevant to the user. This allows the user to experience all the travel services they need, in one place, without having to sign in to multiple sites.

Staying with the Flight Centre Travel Group, Corporate Traveller, which focuses on the SME space, has also announced the launch of a new technology platform, YOUR. CT, in the South African market.

YOUR.CT gives travel arrangers, travellers and managers a single access point, via their customised dashboard, to information and functionalities that are relevant to their business travel needs. This includes pre-trip approval, booking options, profile management, traveller tracking, travel alerts and reports. The platform can be accessed via PC, tablet or mobile device.

All of which suggests that Flight Centre is making a big bet on technology, as it seeks to differentiate itself from its competitors.

The same could be said for Tourvest Travel Services and its Travelit product. It’s a complete end-to-end travel management solution, providing services to procurement, HR, finance, IT, travel arrangers, authorisers and the executive management team.

Last year saw Travelit take a significant step in the evolution of its offering, by delivering an app to its existing customers.

“We wanted to create a seamless experience for our customers,” says Travelit CEO Philip Katz. “But the whole travel process is quite bitty and drawn-out, so we wanted to spoon-feed them as much as possible. We realised that the easiest way to do this was to create an app that fitted properly into our booking platform.”

The app itself works for both Apple and Android, and starts with the traveller’s profile. Thatcovers everything from personal information and contact details to preferences, loyalty numbers, policy group, card in pocket, and copies of ID, passport, visa, vaccination and car licence documents.

Additional functionality includes all the traveller’s trips and itineraries, and an easy-to-use expense claim section. Here, for example, the traveller can take a picture of a particular slip – in any currency – and file it away.

There are a couple of other key features of the Travelit app. Firstly, its extension from the online portal means that it’s customizable to specific corporates and their travel policies, which was the main reason why Katz and his team couldn’t – or didn’t want to – take a white label app solution off the shelf.

“We believe it’s exactly the future of where travel is going,” says Katz.

That future hopefully includes a safer environment for travellers, but that isn’t a guarantee, particularly if you consider the current geopolitical landscape.

As a result, no big surprise that Wings Travel – one of the dominant players in the oil and gas space – is trumpeting its goSecure risk management solution, which is a travel risk management solution that allows customers to track and communicate directly with their travellers via a mobile application, coupled with its sophisticated Wings24 emergency contact centre, which proactively manages risk and traveller safety on behalf of its clients.

“There’s going to be an even greater focus from clients on traveller safety and duty of care, not only due to the ongoing threat of terrorism, but also geopolitical instability,” says Mark Enslin, Head of Corporate Business Development SA for Wings Travel. “Natural disasters such as hurricanes and volcanoes will also add to the complexities of travel. It goes without saying that safety will still be a priority given the nature of the destinations that energy sector companies are sending their travellers to. That includes airline safety, ground transport, transfers and the associated risks. Travellers want to get in and out as quickly and safely as possible.”

Wings also boasts a ‘best-in-class’ reporting tool which isaccessible via URL and includes live data with many enhanced features, offering clients a snapshot view of their travel spend, travel patterns and detailed insights into traveller behaviour, allowing for a proactive approach in terms of managing spend.

NEW DISTRIBUTION CAPABILITY

No technology discussion in the TMC space can take place currently without reference to, arguably, one of the biggest talking points, and that is IATA’s New Distribution Capability (NDC) programme.

For the uninitiated, it’s the “development and market adoption of a new, XML-based data transmission standard, which seeks to enhance the capability of communications between airlines and travel agents.”

It’s obviously in the tech space and it focuses on how airlines display their content (the actual product) to travel agents.

IATA has been pushing NDC for years, but only more recently has there been a surge in uptake, with the likes of Lufthansa, BA, and Air France-KLM moving away from the traditional, legacy GDS model and opting to sell their product direct to the consumer. This has driven a more direct approach to the selling of airline content and the rest of the industry has had to move with this change.

According to Van Zyl, some reluctantly.

“For the TMCs and for the trade, they obviously have their processes and their way of dealing with customers and I think they would, if they had the option, like to continue as long as possible, because it works for them and it doesn’t mean disruption and change,” he says.

He also has some thoughts on the evolution of the NDC offering, which has been through a few iterations.

“I believe that it’s hit the bottom of the curve, and it’s now on the rise again, in terms of reliability,” says Van Zyl. “They’ve seen the shortcomings, they’ve noticed where they have to fix it, and I think that technology’s going tobecome stronger and more reliable going forward.”

So, how do the other TMCs feel about NDC?

“It’s currently top of mind for TMCs,” says Enslin. “The benefit to airlines of selling content via this channel surpasses any current traditional method. This point is only reinforced by official plans from GDS companies such as Amadeus and Sabre embarking on huge development initiatives, ones that would completely change the traditional GDS business model. In a similar vein, smaller already-present content aggregators catering for regional and non- IATA content will start capitalising on this new approach of the GDS companies, thereby eliminating the major development costs of direct connects to established commercial airlines.”

Gaynor has an interesting take on NDC.

“The concept behind NDC is sound,” he says. “The airlines want to differentiate their product and be able to sell you everything from pre-boarding to a specific seat, wi-fi, meals etc. The problem is that NDC is not a uniform technology and differs from airline to airline, with some airlines not even looking at NDC at this stage. The GDS systems in use today are limited, but what they do offer is the ability to compare airlines, which is important for the TMC, as they need to be able to offer their client all the options – which is not necessarily what the individual airlines want. The good news is that the GDS companies are onboard and will soon offer the NDC content as well as their traditional offering, and that’s good news for TMCs and their clients.”

The Flight Centre Travel Group appears to be taking a more proactive approach and is actively involving itself in moving the NDC process forward.

FCM Travel Solutions and the group itself plan to start running several NDC pilots in the second quarter of 2019 that will allow travel bookers to search, book and service NDC content across multiple channels.

The NDC pilots follow the recent establishment by FCM Travel Solutions of a ‘Global Airline Distribution Team’ to spearhead industry collaboration between technology and GDS providers, TMCs and airlines in developing solutions to book and service NDC content.

This new team is already undertaking high-level workshops and meetings with Amadeus and British Airways. As an active member of IATA’s Global Travel Management Executive Council, FCM is also working collaboratively with other major TMCs to ensure NDC benefits all parties.

“FCM’s goal has always been to balance the short-term priorities of NDC with building a long-term sustainable booking solution with our technology partners, including Amadeus and Sabre, in collaboration with our key airline suppliers,” says Adonis.

According to Adonis, FCM have created the Global Airline Distribution Team to drive a long-term solution, not just for themselves as a TMC, but to also help airlines connect with their corporate customers and their travellers.

“We believe we are in a great position to drive adoption of NDC in 2019 and beyond,” she says.

CONCLUSION

Sometimes, the best approach is the simplest, and ultimately, as they develop new solutions, TMCs need to go back to basics, put themselves in the shoes of their customers, and remember why they are in business.

That means making life easier for their customers, and that can be broken down into creating a positive, personalized experience throughout the journey, from the booking to airline and hotel check-ins, to renting a car, making restaurant reservations and providing recommendations for tours and attractions.

If they can get their tech to achieve that, they’re on to a winner.

FIVE NDC BENEFITS FOR CORPORATE TRAVELLERS

This is according to FCM Travel Solutions:

  1. Offers tailored to your preferences – With NDC, travellers can choose to save their information to their profile. By saving your information, you can have the benefit of easily customising your search results. Thanks to NDC, airlines will also be able to access any personal information the customer is willing to share to construct an offer tailored to that specific client.
  2. Faster service from your travel agent – For the travel agent, the new communication standard means they can pay for a preferred seat, add additional baggage or re-order catering through any GDS they are using, instead of having to book this on the airline’s website. Right now, if you want to book pre-boarding or pre-pay for your luggage with the travel agent or the TMC, the consultant has to leave the GDS. With NDC, agents will be able to shop for all these services in a single transaction in one place. For the traveller, this means that the travel agent will be able to offer you a lot more options in a more efficient way, whether you would like extra legroom, extra baggage fees, comfort class upgrades or special meals.
  3. A visual representation of what to expect from your travels – Since NDC is based on a high-quality XML standard, both travellers and travel agents will have access to a rich content experience with pictures and videos. It also makes it easier for you to compare several items (and airlines) at once. For travel agents, the visual representation means it becomes easier to communicate with clients about product differentiation beyond price and schedule.
  4. The ability to compare apples with apples – It can sometimes be hard to understand exactly why your travel agent or TMC advises you to pay more for a flight that leaves at about the same time and follows the same itinerary. Thanks to NDC, the travel agent or TMC can show you what the seats on your chosen airline look like, help you compare what you can expect from the lounge, and what mileage you earn on each airline.
  5. An easier way to book low-cost carriers – The rise of low-cost carriers, which were traditionally outside the GDS, have seen travel managers lose visibility and control of a growing proportion of their air spend. NDC could help in this regard. IATA explains that for low-cost carriers with no GDS presence, NDC will enable such a carrier – which today only sells direct to the customer – to sell via travel agents and TMCs, using technology compatible with their website.
SA TMC NEWS

The last few months have seen a flurry of activity in the South African TMC space. First came the news that Rennies Travel had parted ways with HRG and joined the BCD Travel Global Network. Headquartered in South Africa, Rennies specializes in corporate travel, incentive and group travel, leisure travel and travel technologies, and is part of the Bidvest group.

“Because our focus is on service and technology leadership, we believe BCD’s Global Network best meets our commitment to our clients,” said Bronwyn Philipps, CEO of Rennies Travel. “We chose BCD Travel as our global partner because of their global reach, their consistent delivery of and roadmap for innovation, their global data consolidation expertise, and their service orientation across all markets around the world.”

That was followed fairly shortly by the news that American Express Global Business Travel (GBT) had confirmed Tourvest Travel Services as its partner in South Africa. Following the acquisition of HRG in July 2018, a best-of-both integration strategy had been pursued to create a new GBT that is expected to provide more value to clients. As it is, Tourvest has been a GBT partner for more than 20 years, trading as American Express GBT South Africa. HRG clients currently serviced by Rennies Travel will be supported by GBT in moving their programmes over to Tourvest, with Rennies Travel now no longer part of the HRG network.

“Building on existing relationships and enhancing our product offering to ensure best-in-class customer experiences is core to Tourvest’s philosophy,” said CEO Sean Joubert. “This exciting customer migration announced by GBT is testament to our long-standing partnership. The HRG clients will be made very welcome by the GBT South Africa family.”

Holger Luikenga, GBT Vice-President and head of the global travel partner network, said: “Tourvest is a perfect fit for our global network. The company has been part of the GBT network for more than two decades. We share the same culture and the same commitment to serving clients and their travellers, with great people and advanced travel technology platforms. During this transition phase, we will, as always, be laser-focused on client and traveller care.”