By Ron Santiago, VP International Sales and Marketing EMEA, National Car Rental
There is no doubt that business travel is undergoing something of a technological revolution. Booking business travel is becoming increasingly easy as internet sites become more sophisticated and innovations continue. In addition, business travellers are now easily contactable throughout their journey via mobiles and blackberry, laptops and ‘Wi-Fi’ connections. This is fundamentally changing how business people travel, how they book their travel - and how they think about travel. I believe, for those individuals and companies willing to invest in and embrace new opportunities, this can only be a good thing.
In the past year there has been a massive increase in internet travel booking, driven by both leisure and business travellers. Recent surveys reveal that over 53% of business travellers have purchased business travel online over the past 12 months*. In fact, across the UK 28% of companies now dictate that professionals must make their business travel arrangements online, a massive increase from the 2% instructed to make their travel arrangements that way in the previous year.*
Another recent survey, undertaken during the 2005 London Business Travel Show, found that 75% of respondents believed that online booking and e-tickets were the most significant developments in business travel in the past three years. Evidently, business travellers are embracing online travel booking procedures in some form, probably lured by the perceived cost and efficiency advantages.
Business Travel Agents would perhaps argue that this is a false economy. They may say that if a business traveller’s lost productivity while booking travel is considered, then any self-booking savings actually amount to very little. But I believe that there is a very real and important place within the market for such systems - so long as they offer considered and practical solutions. As such it is becoming necessary for both the business traveller and business travel providers to adapt.
The boom in the internet has led to increased choice - but it has also created confusion. In the distant past it was possible to review just a few websites and retrieve all the information necessary to complete business travel arrangements. This situation has changed dramatically following the air travel market liberalisation. On the positive side this has led to increasing choice and competition, and therefore lower cost flights. But the down side is that self-bookers are now overwhelmed with information and could even be unaware of the best options for their specific travel requirements. In my view, this is because some sites are neither comprehensive enough nor technologically advanced enough for the needs of the sophisticated business traveller.
An obvious example of this phenomenon is booking flights. Self-booking business travellers can visit flight ‘scanner sites’ that scan through airlines’ websites to find the best tariffs. Unfortunately, these sites do not list all the options and travellers are often forced to visit another site to book the flight, wasting valuable time, effort and ultimately money.
Alternatively, there are electronic agents, usually powered by one of the major Global Distribution Systems (GDS). Again, these are not comprehensive, as they exclude budget airlines and others that are not prepared to pay the registration fee. These sites are frequently used by the self-employed business traveller or those without the option of a Business Travel Agent. But then how do they know they’re getting the best deal when budgets are tight?
The confusion doesn’t stop there. Air travel is not the only element a business traveller needs to consider. There are hotels, entertainment and of course ground transportation such as car rental. To some, it may seem like the only way to integrate these aspects of travel into one manageable transaction is to use a travel expert, in other words a Business Travel Agent. And, certainly there are some advantages to this:
1) Business Travel Agents are best placed to utilise a large company’s purchasing power, using numbers to get deals that individuals just can’t. If a company desires its employees to book their own travel online, without a clear policy in place, the company’s negotiating position will deteriorate.
2) Business Travel Agents can also be a great help should it become necessary to make alterations to travel plans. It is often possible to make one call to a Business Travel Agent, who will make all the necessary revisions and traditionally this has been seen as less effort and stress than doing it yourself.
3) Business Travel Agent can prove invaluable for the business traveller with a more complex, or multi-sector itinerary, for example journeys encompassing several locations in one trip. Agents are also able to book all the elements of travelling, such as car hire, hotels, and flights in one transaction or PNR.
4) By using a Business Travel Agent, there is a person at the other end of the phone to provide support.
However, these traditional advantages can be countered with the advantages of self-booking and they do not take into consideration the needs and capabilities of the business traveller, nor the growing sophistication of online tools and management capabilities. Here is why:
1) 64% of business travellers who have booked travel online citied convenience as the main reason for using this method - the ability to book and change travel at any time of the day or night*. A further 16% cited a need to manage travel costs and 11% the reliability of the service*.
2) The business traveller is becoming increasingly technologically adept. 33% of business travellers** said the ability to change, re-book and obtain travel alerts via cell phone, PDA, or Blackberry was invaluable in making business travel as productive as possible. As this trend continues to grow, business travellers will become aware of the ease and speed with which these amendments can be undertaken.
3) A new generation of booking services are evolving, combining online, immediate booking systems with a dedicated phone line. The best of both worlds!
Within the competitive car rental industry it is easy to see just how far online initiatives and technology have come. National Car Rental’s policy is to work proactively and carefully tailor online booking systems for a company’s needs. As such, we have developed a comprehensive range of e-business solutions that optimise efficiency by providing maximum control of expenditure with minimal costs. There are three specific systems that are designed to effectively manage every element of a rental service and provide real benefit to customers.
? Carhirebooker.com is an online, real-time rental management system - developed specifically to meet the needs of today’s business traveller. This online system complements existing rental management solutions. Business travellers can place or amend reservations from anywhere in the UK, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, throughout the year.
? E-billing, meaning that all Clients, large and small, can receive and pay their invoices online with this specialist web application. Invoices may be queried and corrected online, duplicate invoices can be produced and management data provided straight to customers’ desktops.
? Online Management Information. National is unique in providing its customers with access to Online MI Reports. Online MI reports on vehicle usage can be accessed at any time with total flexibility over the level and frequency of reporting, to suit a business’s own requirements. Reports are extremely comprehensive and allow extensive comparison and trends reporting for a business. This allows review and changes to be made, in line with the organisations specific travel policy or budget requirements.
In my opinion, used correctly and with a clear and consistent company policy, self-booking tools add flexibility to business travellers. They can also be managed to allow employees to book their own travel, while preventing them from spending excessive amounts at company expense. When self-booking tools work, they can add significant benefits to the business traveller, and their business - the trick is to make sure the right systems are used.
And there is still room for improvement. A survey by Harris Interactive identified that more than half (56%) of business travellers said that logistical challenges such as knowing where to go to reach their destination easily after arriving at a new airport, changing travel plans on the road or finding a good place to eat were the most difficult to manage while on a business trip.
This indicates clear opportunities for online travel booking facilities to implement new technologies and features that fit directly into a business traveller’s workflow, taking advantage of familiar desktop applications and the ever increasing quality and use of portable electronic devices.
Looking to the future, the next generation of travel services will include proactive booking and customer care services via mobile phone, PDA and Blackberry to aid travellers on the road. Self-booking will be made even more accessible via applications such as instant messaging, e-mail and calendar programs, being able to book and manage more elements of a trip in one location such as restaurants and event tickets.
These changes will eliminate the primary reasons to visit a ‘traditional’ web site or Business Travel Agent. This is real change and it is happening now.
So, should the business traveller become the business travel agent? My answer is that business travellers should embrace the new opportunities, but not ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’. Self-booking works well, once the basic principles of travel arrangements have been negotiated by the experts. And that’s where Business Travel Managers and Agents will continue to play a significant role.
The next challenge is for business travellers and business travel providers to recognise this and produce solutions to solve existing problems, fill market gaps and take the self-booking generation into new and innovative directions.
* Barclaycard Business Travel Survey 2004/05
** Harris Interactive