Everyone from executives at American Express Global Business Travel to online travel agencies have spoken about the consumerization of business travel and how road warriors demand access to the same kinds of booking features from their corporate booking tools that they can readily find on leisure travel sites.
United Airlines and Concur, the travel and expense tech company, are taking a significant step in that direction with their announcement July 10 of a partnership that enables employees of corporations that are clients of both United and Concur to book flights on United.com and still get the corporate discounts that their companies have negotiated with the airline.
The United deal, which would be implemented for beta testing in the fourth quarter of 2014, is the first such airline agreement for Concur’s TripLink solution, which previously was called Open Booking.
The idea is to cope with rogue behavior — employees booking their trips outside of designated channels — and to turn it into a benefit for both employees and corporations.
After all, Concur estimates that about 28% of business travel flight bookings and more than 50% of hotel bookings are already taking place directly on supplier websites.
Under the new partnership, employees of Concur customers that have negotiated airfare deals with United and use TripLink can link their Concur profiles with their United MileagePlus accounts, and then book flights on United.com instead of being required to use the approved corporate booking tool.
The benefits for business travelers are that they can book flights as a consumer would on United.com, still get the their corporate discounts, view a consolidated itinerary in Concur’s TripIt itinerary manager, and have their flight bookings automatically flow into their expense reports.
Tim MacDonald, Concur’s executive vice president for platform and data services, says there are a lot of advantages for corporations, too.
Among them, corporations immediately find out what their travelers have booked to ensure greater compliance with corporate policy, they can ensure travelers are getting low fares, and they can better track where travelers are located during trips in case there is an emergency, MacDonald says.
In the first six months since Concur launched TripLink about 1,000 corporations have signed up for the platform, MacDonald says.
In addition to the upcoming implementation of United.com on TripLink, booking on InterContinental Hotels sites went live a few weeks ago, Starwood is slated to be operational in the next few weeks, and Marriott is scheduled to participate in this TripLink direct booking by the end of the year, MacDonald says.
Avis-Budget is slated to come on board in a few months, MacDonald says.
MacDonald says that enabling road warriors to get their corporate rates through leisure travel sties via TripLink as well as gamification-oriented incentives for finding low fares are two elements of an overall push to help corporations achieve greater compliance with their travel policies.
From United’s perspective, John Slater, vice president of sales in the Americas, sees the airline gaining a first-mover advantage in partnering with Concur on open booking as United competes against other airlines for corporate accounts.
Slater says Concur was “a natural first partner” for open booking because Concur’s client base is “enormous” and the two companies have a substantial overlap in customers.
It fits in with United’s “omni-channel approach” to bookings, supporting them from corporate booking tools, travel management companies, online travel agencies and direct, Slater says. “We are not forcing the issue on anyone,” he adds.
Slater hopes the TripLink connection will spur incremental bookings for United, and may attract bookings from entities such as universities, which may not have a managed travel program, but can now take advantage of reporting features and duty of care capabilities.
He says universities such as this may now be able to approach United about negotiated deals and “have something to talk about.”
Other vendors, such as SAP and KDS, offer open booking-like products and Slater said he expects discussions with such vendors likely will heat up now that the Concur-United partnership has been implemented.