GUEST: Johnny Thorsen Asks: To Bot Or Not In The Post-App World?

This guest column was submitted by Johnny Thorsen, who cofounded messaging service conTgo, which Concur acquired in 2013, and now serves as SAP Mobile Services ‎senior director of value solutions.

After years of relentless focus on the user experience, a new and interesting trend is emerging in the tech world: Simplicity—and ideally invisibility—is now at the forefront of user engagement. The potential benefits and challenges associated with this philosophy are likely to change the travel industry in dramatic ways.

In simple terms, the introduction of chatbots in channels like WeChat or Facebook Messenger potentially removes the need for users to install and manage separate apps for travel services. This raises an interesting question for both suppliers of travel services and corporate travel program owners: Should we stop mobile travel app development projects and divert investments into the new world of chatbots?

The answer to that question obviously depends on who you are and your appetite for trying new things. Here is a quick explanation of what a bot is and what it can do: A bot is a piece of software designed to have a conversation with you, the user, based on a number of pre-defined rules and a pool of digital knowledge stored in a dedicated database for the bot to pull information from. The bot can effectively answer any question from an unlimited number of users as long as the rules library can identify the answer and the associated response is available in the content database.

Examples of bots already in existence are weather bots, sports result bots and public transportation bots. Now, imagine how a bot might be able to eliminate a large number of travel information requests made by corporate travelers—all by enabling the traveler to write a plain-language sentence rather than launching a browser or an app or, even worse, writing an email or making a call to someone.

Even though mobile apps have been around for nine years now—yes, the iPhone turns 10 in October 2017—we are still in the early stages of embedding this technology into the digital core of the corporate travel program.

Considering that it took the travel industry almost 20 years for online booking engines to grow up and become a default component of the corporate travel technology platform, it might be worth taking a step back to ask yourself what the mobile technology world will look like in 2020.

Open Vs. Closed Technology: Your First Area Of Concern

Since Facebook launched the new API for the Messenger platform in early April, more than 11,000 bots have already been created, and 23,000 developers have signed up and started development projects. That means we will see an explosion of new services in the coming months.

Meanwhile, Chinese social network WeChat already has an estimated 10 million bot services connected to its platform, and Telegram, based in Berlin, has seen about 3,000 bots added since it opened its botstore in January 2016.

Each of these—and many other messaging services—will be knocking on your door in the coming months and years. The next major "land grab," or battle for market share, has started in the tech world.

For travel program managers, this means the world becomes a more complex place—yet again. Basically, there will be no single platform available for all your employees, and some bots will only work in some markets while others might only work on some networks or devices.

TMCs and travel suppliers will once again try to catch up and create their own bot solutions, but they will probably be limited in capability. More important, they will connect to a closed world, the world of the service provider. And finally, they will only be available for the travelers within the corporation.

Are Bots For The Few Or For The Masses?

In the managed travel space, travel technology has been developed on the assumption that it only had to be relevant for the corporate traveler, but this logic is now being challenged on a number of fronts and the bot revolution could mark the end of that era and mindset.

Over the past few years, the duty-of-care solutions for corporate travelers have come under pressure to expand and cover all employees as major incidents such as terror attacks and natural disasters potentially have a larger impact on local employees than on actual travelers.

As bots roll into the enterprise environment, it seems highly logical that this technology will be deployed for all employees and as a result it will be impossible for the travel program to deploy and sustain a bot dedicated to travelers only.

Enter the new employee-engagement manager. The bot revolution provides the traditional travel manager with a unique opportunity to get funding for new technology while expanding beyond the narrow business travel vertical at the same time.

By positioning the bot opportunity as a critical component in the future travel program and ensuring all employees can use the service for other purposes, the travel program manager can take the lead. But that strategy only works if the chosen solution is open, flexible and supplier agnostic. In other words, it cannot be limited to the service environment of one TMC, online booking engine, airline or hotel chain.

Bots and the underlying technology could potentially replace email communication with external service providers, and companies will therefore be looking for solutions with broad multi-vertical capabilities rather than narrow segment-specific ones. That is why a "travel-only" bot is likely to be the wrong strategy for a future-focused ambitious travel program manager.

Ten years after the likes of TripIt and conTgo introduced two-way mobile messaging services, we are finally ready to make messaging technology an integral and mandatory part of the travel experience. The question is, who will be the solution providers of the future, and are you ready to adapt?