As travel management companies and business travel upstarts alike have moved in unison toward providing their travelers a more seamless booking experience, integrating new technologies has proved a challenge.

Chatbots don’t seem to have caught on with users, and with advances like voice control on the horizon, it seems that foundational work is still being done to improve the infrastructure that powers these operations.

Skift spoke to leaders across corporate travel to ask what forces are going to determine the shape of the industry moving forward. The priority seems to be using machine learning to improve artificial intelligence as corporate travel continues to play catch-up with other industries.

“I would propose the majority of the investing has been in two areas: data strategy and infrastructure,” said Miriam Moscovici, director of emerging technologies at BCD Travel. “While that may not be sexy to more than a handful of people in the room, it is the bread and butter of what we build our platform on. Data visualization, predictive analytics, and some of the more sophisticated stuff isn’t that sophisticated in other industries.”

BCD Travel, for instance, spent 2017 rolling out a refined TripSource app for travelers with extended hotel content, eventually bringing that content to SAP Concur customers as well. More content means a stronger value proposition for TripSource and, of course, more money from bookings.

A shift is going on that involves a combination of booking and itinerary management tools into one app, instead of forcing travelers to juggle different apps. In consumer travel, and e-commerce apps in general, service and the ability to buy are usually available together.

Cohesive digital platforms are becoming the norm in corporate travel as customer satisfaction becomes a more important metric.

“A lot of the investing has been in digital channels,” said Moscovici. “We’ve launched digital channels, they started off as itinerary management solutions and now they’re morphing into [booking channels]. We’re turning a corner really where for the first time we are joining the digital with the service. If you were to be buying [travel management] services 15 years ago, you were choosing the tech and then you needed to choose us because our service is the best. Now, you’re seeing at BCD Travel and with others like us joining the service up with with digital platforms, building them, opening them up and continuing to update them with services.”

The big data and artificial intelligence revolution is still pending, as the big travel management companies scale up their data operations and figure out what to do with all the information on travel and expenses they’ve gobbled up.

The Data Challenge

For upstarts in the space, the data problem is especially challenging. Who, exactly, owns the data from a booking? It’s complicated.

“A few years ago we were struggling with getting our hands on a reliable data source for booking data, and it has not changed,” said Johnny Thorsen, vice president of travel strategy and partnerships at chat-powered travel concierge app Mezi and a longtime distribution technology executive.

He said that lack of reliable information has ramifications for the ability to keep track of travelers and deliver crucial information when needed.

“The reason it has stayed like this so long is the buyers’ fault,” Thorsen said, adding that buyers have accepted that the data generated by their purchases with a travel management company isn’t their own — and that they need to pay to access that information.

They need, Thorsen said, to “break the data monopoly.”

“I don’t think I need paywalls to be there,” he said. “The old players will do everything they can to delay and stall as usual.”

For the big players, getting everyone on one platform is a way to capture more data and prevent rogue booking.

“[Travel management companies] are realizing that so much of the experience is going to be revealed in a digital platform,” said Moscovici. “We need to begin integrating our entire way of being; it’s not just a third party we integrate, it’s everything digital. We’re all going towards a simul-channel experience, differing from omni-channel.”

In other words, sticking everything in one place, instead of making it available across many different channels, is the new goal. There are benefits for users, and for travel management companies as well.

Is Voice the Future?

Voice is rapidly emerging as both a search and sales channel for the travel industry, even if smart speakers have an unclear future in the hospitality environment.

Concur Labs, for instance, has been working on integrating its products with Alexa for Business, allowing users to ask Alexa for itinerary information and other things.

“It’s amazing the amount of money being spent by the top five companies in the space; it’s billions and not millions,” said John Dietz, vice president of Concur Labs. “We’ve done a few Alexa products and we are making the assumption that with all that money spent [by Amazon], we don’t have to crack the user experience. We believe that those large companies will educate the user as well as figure out what perfect means in a shorter amount of time. We need to be ready and have an answer for our customer base when that magic time happens.”

Concur Labs has also experimented with integrations with messaging app Slack and other tools.

As fragmentation in the voice-powered artificial intelligence space shakes out for consumers, corporate travel companies will have a better idea of which services they should experiment with.

Juxtapose this against an app like Mezi, which uses an artificial intelligence-powered chatbot instead of voice. Privacy concerns could lead bigger corporate travel companies to end up using bespoke or lesser-known enterprise voice solutions.

“How can you now ensure that what you do is staying with you and not the owner of that Alexa?” asked Thorsen. “How much of a data trail are you leaving out there? We gravitate towards assistants, but I don’t want to end up with five different assistants that know different things about me. I want them to understand one profile of me and the phone is the thing that knows most about us. What we’re seeing with Mezi is that once they’re comfortable with Mezi’s offering, they use it for other things.”

He continued: “Alexa is fantastic in a compact demo environment, but how can you use a voice-only channel when you need a picture to decide? It’s still going to be low-tech problems that will stop a lot of these high-tech capabilities.”

Photo Credit: Travelers are shown in the international arrivals terminal at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey. Julio Cortez / Associated Press