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A healthy U.S. economy and growth in emerging markets are optimistic signs for the corporate travel industry in 2018. Yet in this age of Permanxiety, businesses have increased their emphasis on reassuring and accommodating harried travelers.

Skift asked leaders at companies that focus on corporate travel what their hopes, concerns, and priorities are for the coming year. Earlier, we asked about the biggest impacts on their business last year, what surprised them, and their breakthroughs; read those answers here. Interviews were conducted by phone and email.

For 2018, the goals include promoting engagement with diverse cultures and viewpoints, improving business travelers’ health, and updating corporate travel programs to better recruit and retain employees.

Hopes for safety

Following a year filled with surprises and turmoil, corporate travel leaders said they hope 2018 will bring political stability and continued economic growth.

Terrorism, changing immigration laws, and security concerns continue to be on the minds of many corporate travel leaders. Gabe Rizzi, chief sales officer and president of Travel Leaders Corporate, said what keeps him up at night are the factors he can’t control. “Winter storms, hurricanes, terrorism, global instability – all impact our business and the business of our clients,” he said. “But my biggest hope comes from seeing firsthand the importance of connecting people. Connection leads to meaningful business relationships, deals, and growth.”

Rob Greyber, president of Egencia, said he’s optimistic that the global community can move past divisive rhetoric and policies, if people are willing to respect differences and listen. “After a polarizing year (politically, socially, and economically), I hope we can start to understand one another more,” he said.

In 2017, terror attacks in Europe and the U.S. continued to keep travelers on edge. While security disruptions are relatively isolated, “they have a psychological impact that’s more widespread,” said Greeley Koch, executive director of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives.

For next year, “the biggest hope is that we have no terrorism activity, no more immigration bans, and no more security issues,” he said. “The reality will be something different — that’s what makes the corporate travel industry both challenging and exciting at the same time.”

Dr. Myles Druckman, senior vice president and Americas regional medical director at International SOS, a medical and travel security services firm, hopes that businesses begin to learn from having to respond to crises such as natural disasters and terrorism. “You find that the best prepared organizations are the ones that have been hit the hardest and the most times,” he said.

But it’s not just unexpected events that affect business travelers. Chronic health issues such as diabetes and heart disease also take their toll, Druckman noted: “We’ve got to get smarter at trying to make our travelers healthier.”

New concerns and opportunities in 2018 will require flexibility, and a commitment to respond to rapid change. The Global Business Travel Association made a significant investment in a new digital platform for its members in late 2017, said Mike McCormick, executive director and chief operating officer of the organization. He added, “We will be placing a huge emphasis on our global education programs in the year to come.”

Focus on traveler satisfaction

Frequent travelers are demanding that their companies treat them better, and hospitable travel policies are becoming a selling point in a tight job market. As a result, corporate travel leaders see a growing convergence between travel departments and human resources. “Companies will begin to tout their corporate travel program as a perk and benefit to attract top talent, and use it in their retention efforts,” said Dan Ruch, founder and chief executive of Rocketrip, which helps businesses reward employees for saving money on corporate travel.

A survey published in October by ACTE, in conjunction with American Express Global Business Travel, found that one-third of travel managers reported a growing number of job candidates asking to review the corporate travel policy. “This is happening in all age groups and different markets around the world where there’s a tight job market,” Koch said.

A related trend Koch sees is companies streamlining travel programs that have become overly complex and disjointed. Traveler satisfaction and program simplification were among the top five priorities for corporate travel managers in an October study conducted by ACTE and underwritten by HRS, the German online travel agency and corporate hotel booking specialist.

Several corporate travel leaders said the growing sophistication of artificial intelligence and chatbots will help businesses achieve these priorities by being better able to predict what travelers need. “Knowing what they want and how they want it will not only simplify the booking experience, but enhance the traveler’s engagement and satisfaction,” Rizzi said.

Steve Reynolds, CEO of hotel rate tracking tool Tripbam, said he sees technology changing corporate travel in other ways, such as disrupting the traditional hotel request for proposal, or RFP, process. He also expects to see more widespread hotel usage of dynamic pricing, or revenue management, as pioneered by the airline industry. In 2018, Tripbam will focus on continued growth in the U.S. and Europe, and on using its technology to support the U.S. federal government.

While corporate travel departments are trying to provide better service overall to business travelers, above all, they need to make sure employees are safe. McCormick sees a continued focus on risk management along with the heightened emphasis on traveler satisfaction. A GBTA and Concur report published in November found that about two-thirds of European business travelers whose employers use a travel management company agreed that not booking through company channels can harm their safety, by making it more difficult for their companies to contact them in an emergency. Despite this, about seven of 10 travelers booked outside of policy at least once in the past year.

“Companies will need to find a way to capture this data [in] real time and know where their travelers are to ensure they can fulfill their duty of care responsibilities,” McCormick said.
Greyber said one reason business travelers don’t comply with company booking policies is that technology used by many travel management companies is decades old, frustrating travelers and sending them off to find their own solution. “Because of that, the biggest trend will be TMCs continuing to invest and fully pivoting to the strategy of an integrated consumer-inspired offering,” he said. “Startups and the more established players will tackle it in different ways, and it will be interesting to see which method is successful.”

Photo Credit: Travelers are shown at Chicago O'Hare International Airport. A healthy U.S. economy and growth in emerging markets are optimistic signs for the corporate travel industry in 2018. leo gonzalez / Flickr