As more travel management companies have looked to more fully accommodate the needs of business travelers and provide a wider range of travel options, including the sharing economy, 2016 has becoming something a pivotal year for corporate travel.
Looking past recent news releases looking to peg the travel management company as finally connecting with Airbnb and Uber in a serious way, conversations during the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) Convention 2016 showed just how far corporate travel lags behind on elements of the leisure travel experience that most travelers take for granted.
The corporate travel ecosystem is still playing catch up to the leisure space in many respects, whether it’s fully embracing the sharing economy, providing an easy mobile tool for business travelers to book their travel on, or dealing with the realization that a travel services company is not a technology company at heart.
Here are four takeaways from this year’s GBTA Convention.
Who’s afraid of the sharing economy?
The biggest travel management companies announced connectivity with Airbnb in the lead up to the conference, and were touting this increased connectivity as a sign of being attuned to traveler behavior. Others like Concur wanted to talk about streamlining Uber into their booking and expense tools.
But in conversations with industry executives across the spectrum, most said these services still have a long way to go before they’re even close to hitting the mainstream in corporate travel.
“If you look at what the major [travel management companies] announced with Airbnb, it’s basically another fractured experience,” Egencia president Rob Greyber told Skift. “People are going to look at the sharing economy not as the sharing economy, but look at it in its component pieces and how that works for you as a business traveler. Some people are going to lean into it a lot. Other people are going to lean into a different piece of it. We’re looking at that on a pretty feature-by-feature, function-by-function kind of way.”
A new wave of consolidation is coming
While the hospitality space has seen the most consolidation lately, whether its Marriott’s acquisition of Starwood or Accorhotels ingesting Fairmont Raffles’ portfolio, the corporate travel space is now ripe for mergers and acquisitions.
“There was a period in corporate travel where there was a ton of consolidation, as far as American Express GBT and Carlson Wagonlit Travel go,” said Dara Khosrowshahi, Expedia CEO, during a panel on potential industry consolidation. “I do think there will be consolidation in the corporate travel space because some of these companies don’t have the scale to invest in technology… there’s going to be a lot of consolidation in this industry; financing is cheap and it’s driving acquisitions activity.”
During talks on the trade show floor, many shared the same opinion as Khosrowshahi. As travel management companies attempt to become more like technology companies, many are going to need external help to ramp up their operations.
On the hotel front, however, there was less concern about how consolidation will inevitably affect consumers and business travelers.
“Who the mothership is doesn’t matter to travelers,” said Kevin Frid, Accorhotels’ COO for North and Central America, in a conversation with Skift. “They just care about the experience.”
Car services are trying to evolve
It’s rare to see a heated conversation between two industry rivals onstage at a conference as well-attended as GBTA, but that’s exactly what took place with Lyft’s chief business officer David Baga squared off against David Solombrino, owner of car service Dav El.
It’s true that ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft have been hesitant to provide full background checks on drivers and provide full duty of care assurances to companies for their business travel.
When the crowd was asked if they had used a ridesharing service in the last 48 hours, most raised their hands.
Dav El’s Solombrino then protested that there is a huge difference between personal travel and travel done for business.
He didn’t realize the contradiction in his statement; everyone attending the conference was there for business purposes, yet still used a ridesharing service that may or may not have been a part of their company’s travel policy. And these are the same people who help determine company travel policy.
The line between personal travel and business travel seems blurrier than ever.
Online, mobile booking still have a long way to go
Travel management companies are still chugging along trying to improve their online booking tools and leverage the data they have on traveler wants and behavior. But statistics show that business travelers have yet to fully adopt mobile booking in the corporate travel space.
“Booking on mobile is still too hard,” American Express Global Business Travel’s Evan Konwiser told Skift. “But we have all the data that leisure companies wish they had.”
While some spoke about the power of artificial intelligence, algorithms, chat bots, or voice recognition to create a more user-friendly booking experience, many admitted that real change is probably years away.
“We’re in an artificial intelligence investment boom right now,” said Miriam Moscovici, BCD Travel’s head of emerging technologies, on a tech trends panel. “AI reveals itself in making a search experience better. It can also initiate contact with a human.”
It seems like travel management companies are now focused on fixing the traveler experience, but are still struggling to do so by pivoting into a more technology-centric business.