Editor’s Note: A year ago, Skift expanded its coverage of corporate travel with more frequent stories and a dedicated newsletter. The Corporate Travel Innovation Report focuses on the future of corporate travel by examining the big fault lines of disruption for travel managers and buyers, the innovations emerging from the sector, and the changing business traveler habits that are upending how corporate travel is packaged, bought, and sold.

In this series of stories and one-on-one interviews, we explore some of the latest trends, technology, and external forces causing corporate travel to evolve. You can read the rest of the articles in this series here.

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This year is shaping up to be a pivotal one for corporate travel management companies, with companies putting an emphasis on technological innovation. More important, however, is a newfound focus: on the user experience of travelers themselves.

Last year’s acquisition of booking technology provider KDS by American Express Global Business Travel showed one path for these giant, global companies to take; acquire technology and talent to give your travel company an edge in an increasingly complex digital marketplace. Concur’s acquisition of metasearch player Hipmunk was another example.

Another path, as evinced by companies like Carlson Wagonlit Travel, involves an internal restructuring to use already existing capabilities in a smarter way. Andrew Jordan, the company’s chief technology officer, recently told Skift the company will renew its focus on technology by providing a more inclusive online booking tool and focusing on more customer-facing products under the leadership of former Travelport CEO Kurt Ekert.

Skift spoke to several leaders at top global travel management companies about the technology trends that will most impact corporate travel in 2017, as well as the important lessons learned over the last few years.

Data and Extending Service

Foremost, it seems a wholesale shift towards capitalizing on the wealth of available data is in the offing. By using traveler preferences to present them with the trips they prefer, and provide custom service, travel management companies can enhance their value proposition to business travelers instead of limiting their access to the types of flights and hotels they prefer.

“Travel management companies are starting to recognize the need and opportunity to extend their service beyond the point of sale and the simple ticketing of a transaction,” said Mike Koetting, executive vice president of supplier and travel management company services at Concur. “There’s a generation of corporate travelers who are genuinely just unfamiliar with the benefits of using a travel management company or talking to a highly experienced travel consultant. I see travel management companies looking for ways to acquaint corporate travelers with their services and brand and more broadly extend that service beyond the point of generating tickets.”

This doesn’t mean using psychological tools to influence traveler behavior, as in gamification. It entails better customizing a trip to a traveler’s preference during the booking process, and then engaging with the traveler throughout their journey. Online travel booking sites used by travelers in their personal lives tend to do a much more effective job of this than their business travel options.

This starts, for many, with simply presenting better content when the traveler is ready to book; customization can help, even if the travel management company isn’t selling the exact product it wants. Expect common sense measures soon like adding sharing economy services like Airbnb to corporate travel policy and enabling travelers to book them through their corporate booking tool. Many have already integrated Uber booking capability into their apps.

“If you’re exchanging a trip in business to economy, and the only thing you’re getting is points that really don’t mean anything, you as a human being aren’t perceiving this as a fair exchange,” said Jean Noel Lau Keng Lun, senior director of global product marketing at Egencia. “Consumerization comes from a good thought, that people want to get the human back into business travel. But I would say that travel managers can no longer to be seen as the people having the hammer or being gatekeepers or people who enforce things. Culturally, that’s less and less possible because they don’t have the right power or the culture of the organization.”

Platforming

Another major problem many travel management companies grapple with is simply collecting data on every aspect of a trip and presenting all that information in one place. This represents a problem if younger travelers are booking their business travel through an online travel agency instead of their company’s preferred tool.

More corporate travel providers are trying to make their mobile and online tools easier to use in order to capture these bookings.

According to Lau Keng Lun, 90 percent of the silent generation use their phone to make business travel bookings, compared to just 40 percent of Gen Xers. He says the next frontier for Egencia is positioning the company for younger travelers who prefer to be communicated with through messaging apps instead of other channels.

There is also an element of education here; if business travelers understand they’re going to get a better deal using corporate tools, then they are more likely to use them.

“I see larger travel management companies pursuing an initiative to negotiate their own content, particularly on the hotel side,” said Concur’s Koetting. “The idea being that the travel management company can secure better rates and more ancillary benefits for their clients than a client may be able to negotiate on their own. They’re really trying to battle this perception that online travel agency and supplier direct has better content.”

This new focus on technology won’t deter travel management companies from promoting personal service to travelers through in-house travel consultants. Many business travelers may not realize these services are available to them, and travel management companies are usually able to charge a higher fee if one is involved in a transaction or service during a trip.

“Travel management companies are starting to recognize the need and opportunity to extend their service beyond the point of sale and the simple ticketing of a transaction,” said Koetting. “There’s a generation of corporate travelers who are genuinely just unfamiliar with the benefits of using a travel management company or talking to a highly experienced travel consultant. I see travel management companies looking for ways to acquaint corporate travelers with their services and brand and more broadly extend that service beyond the point of generating tickets.”

Going tech-first

Corporate travel giants are looking to become more like technology companies for various reasons. Corporate travel has historically lagged behind leisure travel in terms of innovation, and the rapid adoption of mobile devices by travelers has made it a necessity to become more focused on technology.

American Express Global Business Travel acquired booking software provider KDS last year in a deal that shows the perceived value of using an acquisition. KDS was best known for its Neo Travel booking engine that crunched the numbers based on various factors related to a trip, instead of showing the lowest-cost preferred options like many other booking tools.

“The idea is not to GBT-ify KDS, the idea is to KDS-ify GBT,” said Oliver Quayle, vice president of product marketing and innovation at American Express Global Business Travel, the former senior vice president of products, partners, and marketing at KDS.

The goal is to get better travel options in front of business travelers, while ensuring that in-trip communications take place through the channels they prefer. Watch for companies like American Express Global Business Travel to roll out new functionality in their apps and online tools to facilitate more a more effective dialogue throughout a trip.

“I think this notion that in the future we’re going to ask our travelers to go somewhere, to do something that is not convenient for them, is just ridiculous,” said Evan Konwiser, vice president of digital traveler at American Express Global Business Travel. “We’ve also had to completely imagine how we talk to our traveler and travel manager.”

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Photo Credit: Corporate travel management companies have finally figured out they need to provide better digital tools to their customers. Concur acquired consumer site Hipmunk to improve its offerings. Hipmunk