There was a time when a well-used eye mask and worn neck pillow identified a business traveller as a seasoned globetrotter – now it’s a smartphone and apps
A dizzying number of mobile icons now let executives manage their flights, hotels, rail tickets, security and expenses. You can scan your receipts, locate a taxi or track frequent flyer points across hundreds of airlines and access city maps without incurring roaming charges on a sophisticated, cost-effective device.
“In recent years technology and the mobile have dramatically revolutionised business travel,” says Paul Wait, chief executive of the Guild of Travel Management Companies (GTMC). Road warriors can now customise just about every conceivable aspect of their journey.
In one recent incident, an airline suffered a system outage, which grounded all its flights. Yet tracking technology identified the location of many on board. Some were rebooked automatically on to alternative carriers and sent notifications before they even realised there was a problem.
“We have come to expect the same level of tech to be available for business as we do in our private lives,” says Jason Geall, general manager at American Express Global Business Travel. “The fact is the availability of handheld devices gives travellers tremendous power when shopping for leisure travel; as a result they expect the executive trip to be similar.”
This convergence of the leisure and corporate worlds is pushing providers to deliver a consumer-like experience in the business travel space, as well as one that is seamless. This is why airlines, hotels and others have started to open up their own technology systems, so they can now participate in what is being termed as the “platform economy”.
“The business travel space is evolving into an ecosystem of platforms that work with each other in a bid to create frictionless experiences,” states Rajeev Kaul, managing director at Accenture Technology.
That’s because the vast majority of travel involves the interaction of many physical spaces – planes, airports, hire cars and accommodation. These are now starting to talk to each other via the internet and with the executive traveller.
“The trend is to digitally optimise the features of these spaces with the internet of things,” says Mr Kaul. “The idea is to make the door-to-door journey seamless, efficient and more enjoyable.”
The profile of business travellers is also changing rapidly in the UK. In 2013, 46 per cent were under the age of 45. This year it’s 73 per cent and the proportion of those under 30 has almost doubled, according to research commissioned by the GTMC.
“It isn’t the older white-haired male who’s travelling anymore,” declares Mr Wait. “We’ve got to start thinking differently – there are more, younger women and then there’s the rise of the millennials.”
Catering for this upcoming tech-savvy generation of go-jetters will be crucial. They have great expectations. They’re already using the likes of Uber and Airbnb in their private lives, and this slice of the shared economy is rearing its head in the business travel world too, especially in the United States, and the UK looks set to follow.
Business travellers will come to expect the same type of personalised experience they get at home with Amazon
“The bottom line is that the industry has to adapt,” says Adam Knights, managing director at ATPI, a travel management company. “If Airbnb and the like reflect the way travellers want to book, then the company and its service providers will need to find a way to accommodate this.”
In the coming months and years, expect to see more wearable tech and watch-based apps increasingly being used in the business traveller arena. Hyper-personalised trips will also become de rigueur. “It won’t just say ‘welcome Paul’ on the TV screen in the hotel room. It will have downloaded my music and movie playlist instead, and the hotelier will have filled the mini bar with my health food choices not alcohol,” says Mr Wait.
Business travellers will also come to expect the same type of personalised experience they get at home with Amazon. “We now expect services to learn our preferences and serve them up automatically, whether they are consumer or business services,” says Graham Kingsmill, managing director at Egencia, a subsidiary of Expedia that focuses on executive travel.
Productivity has also increased for executives on the road. The use of cloud computing and portable devices has effectively bridged the gap between the office, home, hotel or airport space. You can now start an activity on one mobile in the business lounge in Bangkok and finish it on another device in a hotel room in Baku.
Satellite wi-fi on airplanes is also a game-changer. This technology has been available on many US domestic flights for a while. It is being implemented on a larger scale across Europe now and this is helping business travellers navigate the gap between the office and an overseas destination.
“Increasingly, data connectivity as well as free, strong and reliable wi-fi is seen as a minimum requirement on trips,” says Professor Dimitrios Buhalis, head of department, tourism and hospitality, at Bournemouth University.
However, all too often this isn’t the case. “Even wi-fi can still be a challenge in some destinations,” says Mr Knights. This is particularly to do with a lack of infrastructure upgrades in airports, hotels, conference spaces and rail carriages. These are often still seen as cost prohibitive.
Yet it is singled out as the most important factor when it comes to productivity on a trip. “A lot of business travel is still dogged by legacy systems,” says Mr Wait. When this is fixed, then the business travel experience globally will be in another league.
This will also allow a whole new era when executives can be tracked wherever they are, managed by travel managers, targeted by service providers and appealed too via their mobile device.
“The biggest development we will start to see is how content gets distributed to travellers,” explains Mr Kaul. “They will receive information that is contextually aware of their current time and location, and it will enable actions to automatically take place.”
At one point in the future your mobile technology will know the answer before you, as the travelling executive, have the question, as it will understand patterns of behaviour, destination and context, and fetch the information proactively for you, potentially via chatbots. It’s a brave new world out there.