Our industry has faced many crises before, but the current situation is unlike any other. Never before have we faced a global and highly sustained shutdown of travel with no clear view as to the future. Whilst the situation is bleak, I find it fascinating and am so excited to discover innovation in the face of this adversity. It seems that severe disruption sometimes brings opportunity and for those willing to grab that by the horns, there will no doubt be rewards.
My role at Focus Travel Partnership is to bring to the table the best tech & business solutions for a group of 60 SME TMCs. Through this period I am seeing innovation and new technology offerings being delivered by our strategic suppliers. The agility of a Focus TMC means that these solutions can be adopted and implemented rapidly.
The recipe of Business Travel has a number of ingredients, all are required, and none can be substituted or missed:
- Reason for the trip (ROI)
- Managed risks of travel (duty of care)
- The confidence of the traveller to travel
- The infrastructure to do so (airlines / airports / governments)
Zoom might reduce the need to travel but it certainly will not replace it
Right now, the reason for the trip is unchanged; corporates tell us that they still need to travel for business and are waiting to do so. Whilst many have been exposed to web conferencing technology such as Zoom it’s not uncommon to hear about fatigue in this area. Nothing can replace true face-to-face interaction and that’s not something that Zoom or its competitors will ever be able to deliver. Zoom might reduce the need to travel but it certainly will not replace it.
As much as corporates would like to travel, they simply cannot in the current climate because of the associated risks and the lack of infrastructure. In addition, travellers themselves will potentially not be comfortable to fly. Tech can play a role in various aspects, one key area where I am seeing innovation is around duty of care management.
One of the key obligations of a corporate with respect to duty of care is to know where their employees are at any given time. In addition, to assess the risk of traveling to a particular part of the world.
Covid-19 Tracker by Travelogix
This leads me to highlight an innovation coming from our strategic supplier, Travelogix. They have very quickly responded to the duty of care topic around Coronavirus and released a Covid-19 tracker. This is ‘people tracking’ essentially but overlaid with Covid-19 data on a country by country basis. A travel manager can easily see where their travellers have been, where they currently are and where they are due to go to. Overlaid on this data is a daily feed of info around Covid-19 from sources such as WHO showing the travel manager how many cases there are currently in any given destination.
With regards to people tracking, there are issues. Covid-19 has inadvertently broken one of the fundamental processes that allows for robust tracking. The issue comes as airlines have offered TMC’s vouchers instead of cash refunds. In some cases, the airline insists that they take on the onward rebooking directly in their systems and using their IATA for ticketing instead of the TMC’s. The TMC then loses control of the booking and loses all onward data capture and associated processes. This is highly impacting and introduces a major risk.
In other cases, the TMC can retain control of the future booking, but this leads to practical issues, how does the agent know that there is an E-ticket from a cancelled booking that can be used as payment towards a new one. Agentivity have responded to this since they have built containers in their reporting structure to hold info as to whether there is an unused E-Ticket. Using some innovative tech and with their collaboration with Navitas they can display that info in the agents booking system e.g. Travelport Smartpoint. Until now they have used that technology to give the TMC a level of personalisation, so the agent could see the past trips that someone had booked directly in Smartpoint. A useful tool to help the TMC up their game post Covid-19.
Travel approval processes driven by data
Corporate risk managers determine whether it’s safe to travel and who in the business is allowed to travel. They assess the situation at destinations and classify their risk rating e.g. safe, moderately risky or very risky. Travel policies and approval processes would be built around that data resulting in a managed booking process, triggering different types of alerts or controls. For now, the whole world is very risky so that’s a corporate hard stop with respect to travelling. As we come through this crisis, risk managers will determine that some countries ratings can be lowered to moderate or safe and therefore start to allow some travel. Technology to manage this is crucial.
Atriis is the Focus preferred online booking tool; the policy and approval workflow engine is highly sophisticated. It can be configured to recognise which destination the booker is searching and respond in a variety of ways. Locations can be blocked preventing the booking and approval workflows can be triggered so the right people are informed about the trip and can decide if it should go ahead. Content messaging can be displayed to the booker to warn them of potential risks, however this technology is not new and has been available in the product for some time. Where there proves to be a challenge is to reflect the constantly changing environment within the configuration of the tool.
Booking platforms need to introduce new data points to inform of risk
This leads me to consider whether the booking platforms needs to introduce new data points that automatically inform of risks, feed approval and travel policy engines. For example, taking data from the FCO or another third part, such as World Aware.
Travelport have produced a site that tracks travel suppliers rebooking policies. This is helpful and aims to assist the TMC in keeping up with the continuously changing rules.
Agentivity also shared their research in this area with Focus which has been very helpful. Whilst these information platforms are not integrated in booking systems they do serve as a library of data.
One big challenge for travel tech companies in this climate is keeping the development and delivery of innovation going whilst employees are furloughed or made redundant. Every great idea needs skills and resources to turn them into reality.
I’m sure we will see many more tech innovations before we get back to a new normal. Airports will develop sophisticated screening mechanisms to check for infected passengers, apps will help deliver contact tracing and in the end a vaccine will be developed. After which we can hopefully go back to our lives as we knew them.
Finally, a word of thanks to the Focus Supplier Partners, that have shared their innovation without any cost. The Covid-19 tracker from Travelogix, the Covid-19 resource site from Travelport and the shared research of Agentivity around airline policies. All very useful, innovative and very much appreciated. It shows how our industry comes together in times of need. We at Focus will remember this for a long time to come.