New Trends in Travel Innovation

Yesterday I watched 34 firms pitch their innovations at a PhoCusWright's travel innovation conference. Nearly all were aimed at the leisure travel segment, but keep reading, because innovations in the consumer market will shape the face of business travel.
In this post I’ll discuss the categories more than the individual entrants, as they reveal important trends in how we’ll be shopping for, booking and managing travel in the very near future. (These are my category headings, not the conference’s)

• Advertising and Analytics (6 firms)
• Fuzzy Shopping (9 firms)
• Niche Booking (6 firms)
• Local Knowledge (3 firms)
• Trip Management (2 firms)
• Social Scanning (3 firms)
• Ancillary Revenue (3 firms)
• Language Translation (2 firms)

Here’s my take on each category, and how it will relate to buying business travel:

Advertising and Analytics: It's all about serving up the highest-probability ads to each Web site visitor. By highest-probability ads, I mean whatever images and text will get you to stop, look and book. Travel Web sites have horribly high look-to-book ratios, so it is fertile ground for anyone who can improve the conversion of lookers to bookers. These guys pay a lot of attention to the behavior (click-through paths) and context (key words and pre- and post-site visits) of the Web site visitor. They use demographic data (from your internet connection’s zip code) to send you even more targeted ads. And of course, they are looking at how to use Twitter to distribute time-and-place sensitive ads. Implication for travel procurement: Corporate travelers are shielded from the overt ads as long as they book through an agency or self-booking tool. But expect these ads to reach your travelers after they book--and especially when they are on the road. The delivery vehicle will be the smartphone--which is smart enough to know where (GPS-wise) the traveler is, and which hotels, limos and restaurants are nearby.

Fuzzy Shopping: These Web sites want to make it easier for travelers to figure out where they can go, given their interests (which may be fuzzy) and their budget. The traveler enters some interests (ski, surf, Springsteen concert, Giants ballgame, etc.) and then narrows down the options ... or they start with a budget, and back into a small set of options based on further filters (dates, activities, cities, etc.). Implications for travel procurement: This category intrigues me the most, especially for groups and meetings events, whenever the location may be flexible. I could also see these types of fuzzy shopping filters apply to pre-trip assessments.

Niche Booking: We saw specialized sites for booking limos, rental cars via mobile phones, and hotels where the booker gets a gift. One Web site specializes in streamlining the RFP process for meetings, and another lets you book your travel from your Microsoft Outlook calendar. Implications for travel procurement: If there is good content (e.g., limos available in many cities) and the shopping/booking is easy, you can expect to see it made available through your travel agency or self-booking tool in some fashion.

Local Knowledge: These sites focus on building networks of people who have specific knowledge of local places. One site makes it easy for you to chat with a local tour operator before booking that Andean hiking tour you've been keen to do. Another can put you in touch with any of 100,000 local "guides" (voluntary contributors) in just about any place in the world. Great for pre-trip event planning, for sure. Implication for travel procurement: Imagine tapping into this network before you source hotels or rental cars in Uruguay or Hungary, or source a sales meeting in Barcelona.

Trip Management: Like TripIt--a lot like TripIt, from what I saw. These sites aggregate your itinerary from multiple sources (your air itin from booking on, your hotel res from and your car rental confirmation from, and make it easier for you to manage these items during your trip. A very useful service, really. Implications for travel procurement: If you have an unmanaged or lightly-managed travel program, then you could use these services to help you capture booking data. You'll need that data to do any serious sourcing work in the travel category.

Social Scanning: Travel suppliers are keenly aware that their brands are batted around in the blogosphere. Three firms have built tools allowing firms to scan Twitter, FaceBook and other social media sites for references to their brand. Once they know a comment has been posted, they can address it quickly and directly. Implications for travel procurement: I can see a corporate travel manager scanning the twitterverse for comments about his/her company's travel program, and for comments made by the company's travelers about travel suppliers. Privacy issues? Probably, but this is where the water cooler talk takes place these days. A poor supplier really has nowhere to hide.

Ancillary Revenue: These firms are trying to help travel suppliers sell more value-add items to travelers. Two of the firms sell travel insurance, and the third sells bag tags. Each has improved the buying process by making it easier for travelers to place the order. Implications for travel procurement: Expect to see many more of these extras and add-ons being offered to your travelers. You'll need to have policies in place covering what is reimbursable and what is not.

Language Translation: These two firms take on the hard job of making a Web site work in most any language you could want. Much is automated, but some parts will always need human intervention. Implications for travel procurement: Not really sure here ... guessing it will make it easier for travelers to work internationally as long as they're armed with a good smartphone.

Overall, I'd say that the fuzzy search and niche booking areas will have the biggest impact on business travel in the years ahead. Many of the firms are leveraging social media and mobile applications, but those factors by themselves aren't the game-changers ... it's what you do with the content and the process involved in arranging and consuming travel. Interesting times, for sure.

These thoughts are excerpted with permission from Scott Gillespie's blog, Gillespie's Guide to Travel Procurement.