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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.
Rob Greyber, president of Expedia Inc.’s corporate travel arm Egencia, has overseen the travel management company as it has worked to more quickly create innovations and refinements that make life easier for users. Most recently, Egencia revamped its expense connectivity to simplify the process of submitting receipts for travelers.
Greyber spoke to Skift about consumerization that won’t put you to sleep, the similarities between different generations of business travelers, and how the corporate travel technology arms race has the potential to buoy the entire industry.
Skift: There’s a big move to embracing customization for consumers in business travel, much like what has happened in leisure travel. How does more powerful technology make it easier for travel management companies to better serve their clients?
Greyber: First of all, I’ve got to tell you, I kind of hate the word consumerization, like you want to put someone to sleep on an airplane next to you, if they’re chatty when you’re on take off, just talk about consumerization and watch them nod off.
I do think it’s an important trend but the way we talk about it is business travel for the Expedia generation. The reason we talk about it that way, because, look, we talked about the consumerization of the enterprise versions of consumer technologies and I think there’s a whole economic current that is moving in that direction. I think you see if with companies like Workday, I think you see it with companies like Dropbox and Evernote and so it’s a real trend that started 15 years ago, not two years ago.
It’s a trend that is being driven by real changes, changes in computing technology in memory storage, in how it is that we all integrate technologies into our lives. It’s a trend that is being driven by the fact that your iPhone today has the processing power of two great super computers in 1985. Right? So that is an incredible change in our world and we don’t know as individuals, as companies, as an economy how we want to utilize that technology.
We use it today to play Angry Birds and it’s amazing right? Pokemon Go was incredible but even those experiences in the gaming space scratch the surface of what these machines are capable of today. There’s a lot of wide enterprise innovation used to drive the consumer space. Now the consumer space is driving the enterprise, that’s the trend.
Skift: What about the different behavior patterns and habits of the different generations of travelers? What a millennial in the workforce wants is probably different than what a baby boomer wants, right?
Greyber: There’s a generation of people today that were raised on using technology in travel in a profoundly different way. It’s not just generational. It’s not just the millennial. Almost all of the segments of the population that travel for business today, it’s been 20 years since they had the ability to turn the agents monitor around and manipulate it themselves. They’re never gonna be satisfied with two data points again. They want hundreds, they want thousands, they want those data points on price, on availability, integrated with content and room descriptions and reviews and photographs and all of that in a language, literally, that they understand.
If they do a Google search in French, they expect the landing page in French, the hotel description to be in French and the same thing if they do it in Arabic. You get to the checkout path and it’s in a different language than where you started, that feels wrong. When we talk about business travel for the Expedia generation, we’ve been working on this for more than a decade. We think about it through that lens. What will those people expect?
Skift: Every major travel management company has pivoted to becoming something of a technology company. Egencia has had a bit of a head start, due to its Expedia DNA. How do you look at competition in the space as competitors are looking to innovate more quickly?
Greyber: The top, the peloton, the group of riders, rides much faster than any individual rider is capable of. The speed at which you get up the mountain, to some extent, is a function of who you choose to ride with. We place ourselves, mentally, in the peloton with Facebook and Google and Expedia and Booking.com when it comes to how we think about innovation, how we think about integration, how we think about these different experiences. None of that’s to say that our competition isn’t doing interesting things, just we don’t think about it quite that way. We think that if we can keep pace with the very best technology companies in the world, then when people use our experiences it will feel natural.
Skift: One thing that gets lost in some of our conversations with major travel management companies is the human aspect of service, particularly when a traveler calls up a travel agent to plan or help fix an itinerary. How does Egencia look at the role of the human travel consultant in an age when more aspects of the travel experience are going digital?
Greyber: I think the human aspect is absolutely critical. We have thousands of travel consultants on a worldwide basis. I’ve visited and sat and listened to calls with our travel consultants teams in Sweden, in France, in the U.S., in Australia and it is always such an amazing process to see how it is that they solve those problems.
Sometimes those problems are that the CEO’s daughter found a cheaper fare over the weekend, and how could you possibly have missed that, and they have to in a moment say “Oh my gosh his daughter found a cheaper fare, what did we miss?” Then you realize instead of going from Dubai to London nonstop and being able to get an extra day, you’re sitting on a connect in Rome for eight hours, but yes it is cheaper. We put you on the nonstop. How they solve those problems is super important in our business.
We’re focused on how we can help travel consultants be smarter because of technology. I’ve give you two examples. The first is if you think about a traditional global distribution system green screen, booking a hotel, now can you imagine booking a hotel today, take one of our competitors, Booking.com. If you go to Booking.com, you have photos, you have descriptions, you have a map, you have insight into inventory levels and all of this different stuff. In a traditional global distribution system environment, and I know that they’re evolving, they’re doing a lot of work in those areas, there might be a photograph, the description might have been written within the last 15 years.
Skift: What about AI-assisted tools or using automated solutions like chat bots to deal with clients?
Greyber: There is another dynamic here which is generational: young people today don’t use the telephone … To the same extent as you and I do. We look at how we spend our time communicating. We have a large chart, a big part of that is telephone and social and media and email and blah, blah, blah. If you look at that chart for someone who’s graduating from college today or someone who’s in college today, the social and email, text is much bigger and telephone is losing share. Now what does that mean? That doesn’t mean those people don’t need service and won’t need assistance, it just means the way in which you engage is going to be different.
People talk about chat bots and all these things replacing travel consultants, I don’t see that happening. I see it as enhancing their work, it enhances their work. There’s a lot of anxiety about AI in general. The best chess computer in the world can beat a human but the best chest champion, the best chess player in the world is actually a combination of human working with a computer. That is the extreme example that points a direction toward, you know it’s not black and white, it’s not black and white. These are enabling technologies. The level of independence that’s shown in the movies, I don’t think it’s where we’re going to end up.
It’s about empowering those agents with the same levels of technology, the same levels of confidence and inside information that you have available to you.