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Online booking tools historically have been designed with large enterprise users in mind, leaving small and midsize enterprises to make do with systems that are more complex than many SMEs require. BTN managing editor Amanda Metcalf and technology editor Adam Perrotta convened a roundtable including two SME buyers—Wiley global travel manager Nichole Enchelmaier and Sonepar USA T&E administrator Tricia Mauldin—along with the heads of two travel management companies/online booking tool providers serving SMEs—TravelBank CEO Duke Chung and AmTrav president Craig Fichtelberg. BTN intends for this meeting of the minds to accelerate the development of tools that truly serve SMEs—and to promote understanding of the hurdles.
BTN: Buyers, what do you want out of an OBT?
Tricia Mauldin: Number one: We've got to find a tool that's going to attract and entice the traveler to use it rather than going directly to the airline or the hotel website. We have leakage, and that's because many of our people are finding it easier to go directly to the merchant to do the booking with fewer issues.
BTN: Do you have ideas of what is driving them to book outside the tool?
Mauldin: What I find is our bookers will use the tool [to search], but then they go to direct sites to see if they can get better pricing, so the pricing is number one. And then, especially for air travel, our road warriors know what flight they want to take, so if the booking tool doesn't have it, that's a big issue.
BTN: What can online booking tool providers and travel management companies do as far as gathering content?
Craig Fichtelberg: This is a huge issue, and for TMCs to remain relevant, they need to be able to provide content that is equivalent or better than what you can get from the suppliers. Too many TMCs right now are sitting back and waiting on the [global distribution system] companies to figure out these content issues through [New Distribution Capability]. TMCs that own their own technology have the capability to work directly with suppliers. Even if [that means] bypassing the GDS relationship and a revenue stream from the GDS, the TMC's responsibility should be to provide the best content to the customer—and that's where these supplier relationships come in.RELATED: Read about corporate booking tools in BTN's Techbook
BTN: To that end, AmTrav developed its own booking tool and works with suppliers to get the content clients want. but in general, why is it so difficult for TMC booking tools to present the same content that a traveler can find directly on a supplier's site?
Fichtelberg: TMCs today are extremely dependent on the GDSs, and the problem is: Those systems were not set up for and aren't capable of supporting the type of merchandising the airlines would like to offer, like selecting a meal in advance, getting an Admirals Club pass before you fly or checking bags ahead of time. All those things are very difficult to do through the normal [corporate travel] distribution channels.
Mauldin: It seems, especially where airlines are concerned, that we're dealing with antiquated systems and processes and there's such a lag in accuracy in airline booking, and that's why we find a lot of people going directly to the airlines' sites; they're guaranteed to get what they know to be accurate. There's often some accuracy lost when going through the TMC, and that's where the frustration is because the traveler needs to minimize the time they spend booking.
BTN: It's interesting you use the term "accurate." We've heard terms like "transparency" to represent the idea that there are fares that exist but don't appear on every channel, but the concept of "accuracy" seems to describe a true source of all fares—the airline—as accurate and the options distributed to corporate travelers as incomplete.
Mauldin: It does, because what I find is a TMC will say, "If you couldn't find a flight [on our booking tool], it's not available or it's fully booked." But then, my traveler turns around and says, "Well, I went to Delta and got the flight." That's where the accuracy fails.
Duke Chung: The issue of content being opaque plagues this entire industry. Everyone's message is, "We have the most content," but actually nobody knows what the content is or where it came from.
BTN: It's clear content is a major issue in motivating travelers to use an online booking tool. What about user experience?
Chung: The industry really has an opportunity to begin to innovate a lot more by focusing on the traveler experience more than the administrative side. All of the booking products that have been around for more than five or 10 years have focused on the admin side, and none were focused as much on the traveler side. Current products in the booking market don't provide enough value for employees to want to use them, so therefore they go outside [preferred channels] to book in their favorite places. So focusing on why the traveler wants to book on a platform would really help with adoption.
BTN: What features do buyers dream of to improve the value proposition to travelers?
Nichole Enchelmaier: Some technologies that I would like to see would be more intuitive, possibly a "what if?" scenario for a traveler to influence behavior. For example, if I'm traveling from New York to London, what if I waited three days [to book]? Historically, what would that ticket price look like? What if I booked a week ago? How can I influence my travelers to make better decision using AI technology and historical data [to present] information the traveler could use to make better buying decisions? There's got to be a way to harness the data being put into the system to paint that picture for the traveler.
BTN: It would be great if there were a way to filter out search results that are against [traveler] preferences. For instance, if I only want to fly in an aisle seat, it could filter out flights where there are no aisle seats available. Things like that would take the guess work out of it for the traveler so they can see flights that would fill their needs. They're the ones that are traveling and travel is hard, so if there's a way to make them happy by getting exactly what they want at the beginning, that would be great.
Mauldin: Another issue we have is when you can't sort out basic economy [fares], which would not work for most of our travelers. So we need clear markings that they're not accidentally booking basic economy, or filters so that basic economy doesn't appear in the search results.
Fichtelberg: Or even Wi-Fi. If you're traveling for business, maybe you only want to search for flights that have fast Wi-Fi, as opposed to the standard speed.
BTN: Duke and Craig, is this filtering and sorting technologically possible for booking tools, based on the information you have at your fingertips?
Fichtelberg: That's what a lot of NDC content is going to drive. It's going to differentiate one flight from the next, either by the amount of seat pitch or what kind of Wi-Fi it has. Or maybe I'm flying on a Sunday and I really want to watch this football game, and [I can compare] three flights that are similar in price but one has live TV. That's totally the direction this is moving, and it benefits the traveler and the corporate because the more enriching [booking tools] can make the process, the more employees are going to want to travel.
Chung: For business travelers, we know It's not always about price; it's about comfort, as well, since they're on the road so much. And being able to compare by comfort, as well as price, is a value-added benefit [a booking tool can offer].
BTN: Let's talk implementation of the OBT. That's one area in which SMEs have different needs from larger enterprises.
Chung: Small businesses are really focused on having a solution they can get up and running really easily. They don't want to go through a drawn-out process to try something and see if it works. It's just too much friction for them.
Mauldin: We're actually transitioning from one booking tool to another, and we've been delaying our rollout because during our pilot, we've found too many uncertainties and issues [around content and customer support]. We started a year ago in March, and we haven't gone live because we don't feel comfortable rolling it out to the associates.
BTN: Why does implementation often take so long?
Fichtelberg: It's because the traditional TMC is completely dysfunctional. You have a separate travel company, a separate expense company, different reporting coming from each. You've got different contracts, different pricing models and a separate after-hours service. And you're trying to manage this and appear as one company; that comes across when you get tested with an implementation. I don't think that model is sustainable in the long run.
BTN: So how can providers offer quick, simple implementation?
Chung: It has a lot to do with the product design and experience. It has to be simple for your employees to try it. When running a pilot, it used to be, "Let's get everything scheduled and do a training and implementation and then collect feedback." That takes weeks and sometimes months. It should be something you can try in a matter of days by downloading an app and trying it out and seeing how it works. For TravelBank, we put a lot of energy into making the system easy to deploy to say, five people, and they can come back and tell you how they like it. Then as a travel manager, you can take that feedback to us as you continue to roll it out.
Fichtelberg: We also offer a model where you can try it out quick. In the past, [implementation] has been so much of a process. Booking tools today were all built for enterprise companies and then stripped down for the SME space, whereas our booking tool was built from the ground up to the needs of the SME customer, and that eliminates a lot of the baggage that's really unnecessary for SMEs.
BTN: What are some examples of things that might exist in an enterprise-serving booking tool that would just get in the way for an SME?
Fichtelberg: One is in the travel policy. We have about seven levers under air, car and hotel. Other booking tools have pages of information and they're not all in the same place, so you often have to pay someone else to manage that process. The second is in reporting, where tools built for enterprises give you hundreds of reports, and [SMEs] don't want hundreds of reports. We want to give you the five or six reports that are going to be most useful to you to manage your business.
Do you manage travel booking for a small or midsize enterprise? What features or capabilities do you dream of—whether to benefit your travelers or yourself? Send us your "wish list" to keep the discussion going. Email payment and technology editor Adam
Perrotta at email@example.com.
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