Aurélie Krau, a France-based travel management and technology consultant with Festive Road, submitted the following guest column on the changing requirements for a successful online booking tool in the Covid-19 era and beyond.
Travel management companies and online booking tools have been in the spotlight, and this doesn't really come as a surprise.
Along with the travel management team and an effective policy, the distribution and service platform is the third foundational component in Festive Road's Managed Travel Model, ideally bringing all the supplier services to life for travelers and enabling them to search, shop and book travel seamlessly.
In the current Covid-19 world, three major shifts have been initiated in the management of travel programs that directly affect OBT service delivery:
- Technology development appears to be accelerating and TMCs and OBTs are adding and enhancing capabilities where they can to service new needs.
- Traveler confidence is top of mind and critical to getting business travel back as companies deem safe, adding a new dimension to traveler well-being.
- "Permissible travel" that accounts for company confidence, traveler confidence and government permission is becoming the lens by which travel managers consider the needs for their travel programs as they work towards a return to travel.
As confidence starts to return, government restrictions gradually ease and companies deem travel safe, the increases in travel volume and trip complexity will need to be supported by effective technology, since manual processes can't be sustained at scale.
So, how does a travel manager assess OBT value with "permissible travel" top of mind?
We suggest a focus on service delivery across the three Cs, each of which are OBT essentials: content, customer experience and control. Every corporate tool should have the right balance of these three essentials to bring value to travel managers and travelers. Getting this balance right is amplified in a Covid-19 world.
Content is the essence of any booking tool. It's what prevents travelers from saying, "I can’t find the same flight, lodging, etc. in our company booking tool." The increase in available content and the sourcing of it have long presented aggregation challenges.
What’s new in a "permissible travel" era is that aggregated, real-time content beyond inventory is required at the point of sale. Consider the following content needs:
- What type of traveler messaging is supported during the shopping process? Post-booking? On trip? Post-trip?
- Which suppliers are bookable? What are their health and hygiene protocols? Do they meet the company’s duty-of-care policy?
- What borders are open? What’s the infection rate of the destination? What measures are being enforced locally?
- What type of safety data or ratings do you wish to see in the tool to assess travel suitability? Should ratings be provided for the destination or the suppliers used to get there, or both? What information is determining that rating and what is the credibility of the sources of information?
Solutions that address these questions will enable travel managers to meet their duty-of-care obligations. For example, consider new data points about travel requirements, such as Covid-19 tests, or cleanliness data that will instill confidence. For example, one of the winning ideas of a recent travel hackathon we supported provides real-time cleaning information to travelers.
Beyond the pandemic, in a context where travel patterns are likely to change, additional content needs may include employee well-being, sustainability or work-from-home/work-from-anywhere options, such as alternative lodging, extended-stay offers, co-working spaces and meeting rooms. So, while the need for content beyond traditional inventory has become evident in the Covid-19 era, the reality is that it was being shaped pre-Covid. Its need goes well beyond the now.
Great and contextual content, though, needs to be easily consumable, which leads us to the second C.
Customer Experience (CX)
It is no secret that an enjoyable CX drives user adoption, and OBTs are challenged to bring new rich information in a user-friendly way as the situation evolves. CX now goes beyond the look and feel. For example, crowd-sourced content is going to gain tremendous importance. Supplier videos demonstrating health and hygiene protocols are blooming. Further, peer reviews and the sharing of their travel experiences are going to be more relevant. This will instill confidence and has the potential to drive more engagement in a context of "phased travel policies" with a progressive return to travel.
One of the biggest challenges for OBTs is to make travelers want to use them. Our sector has not been particularly focused on creating brand affinity or corporate loyalty. There is a great opportunity in this area for the value chain, and OBTs play a central role.
For example, why not consider making corporate platforms a travel hub, allowing employees to book their personal trips while letting them enjoy exclusive perks brought to them by their company. This involves better capabilities, such as supporting multiple methods of payment, and enhanced profile management. The tech capabilities to power this exist, and some progressive companies are already there.
However, the third C is gaining more importance in this new world and might delay such progressive strategies.
If content is the essence of any booking tool, control is its counterpart. After all, this is one of the primary reasons, alongside efficiency, why corporate booking tools were created. In the past months, approval levels have been elevated, programs have become mandated, and most bookings systematically have gone through the TMC.
Control can be looked at from two viewpoints, traditional and progressive. Traditional is the desire to control every aspect of the shopping and booking process. This can result in over-thought booking tools and overwhelming control panels, resulting in a cumbersome CX.
Through the progressive viewpoint, meanwhile, traveler- and travel manager-friendly, intelligent tools result in dynamic and contextual policies supported by machine learning that make appropriate recommendations to travelers.
The existing needs during the pandemic may not reflect the longer-term "control" needs, so it's important to consider how a company culture and policies will evolve once we move beyond 2020 and how they are reflected in OBT choice.
What’s An OBT To Do?
It's perfect timing for every OBT to think about what they are today and more importantly what they want to be in the future. We believe there are different OBT personas that aim to serve different customers. After considerable amounts of investigation, we've detailed 10 distinct personas to illustrate how we think about OBT technology in its widest sense.
Let me highlight two of them:
Product Junkies: The best for both worlds: the traveler and the company. Consumer-like mindset and a CX that leads to affinity; a product that users love, creating high adoption and satisfaction, with new features available at a fast pace.
The Magnet: A managed open booking model that can capture booking data made by travelers "off-channel," such as through supplier websites, and can offer access to corporate rates and corporate payment methods to enforce policy.
There is a lot at stake for OBTs in this unique era to help buyers future-proof travel programs and design the right experiences. We are fortunate that the landscape is attracting interesting new players in the OBT market. As illustrated in our 10 personas, we are seeing interesting differentiators.
The OBT's time is upon us. Digitization is the way forward. So, the opportunity to consider the requirements for the three Cs of your booking tool and match your travel program needs with the emerging technology personas, in both the short and long term, is crucially important.