Clever startups operating in Asia are helping to reshape the future of travel booking in the region. Their innovations could soon spread across the world — benefiting business travelers everywhere.
By now, the global travel industry is fully aware of the massive scale of the market in Asia. Across the region, more than $30 billion in annual online travel spend is in play, according to a report by Google and Temasek. “Asia’s corporate travel market is booming,” according to Amadeus. “Driven by China, India, and the emerging economies of Southeast Asia, spending on business trips is expected to soar to $900 billion by 2025 from the current $400 billion,” the firm said. And that same year, corporate travel spending in the region will “account for half of the world’s total,” the report continued.
Yet business travelers, and particularly millennial business travelers, face many challenges in the Asia-Pacific region: Booking tools leave much to be desired, with limited inventory or a lack of local language support. Work-life balance can be a challenge given relentless travel schedules and the administrative headaches of managing multiple itineraries. Travel policies, if they even exist, can be confusing to employees and may inadvertently incentivize booking more expensive or less-than-ideal options. (These concerns parallel many of the concerns faced by business travelers globally, according to an American Express survey.)
But there’s some good news: Asia is fast becoming a test bed for the global travel industry, in part thanks to firms there working to solve the challenges facing this rapidly growing cohort of business travelers. Smart solutions to common friction points include new travel management platforms, creative mobility options, fresh alternative accommodations, and mobile payment technologies that are simple to use and make currency conversion a thing of the past. Many of these solutions are focused on the consumer experience and improving the lives of business travelers.
No wonder then that venture capital firms are “placing bets on a new class of travel startups outside of core geographies,” according to a 2018 study from Skift Research. “Growing, and increasingly wealthy, consumers in Latin America, China, India, and Southeast Asia, among other areas, continue to lure new businesses and investment.”
Tools to Make Life on the Road Better
One such newcomer is Travelstop, a software-as-a-service travel management platform that launched in Singapore in August 2018. While Asia’s travel market is booming, as many as nine in 10 business trips booked in the region are still totally unmanaged, meaning “not bound by preferred suppliers, and tools, formal policies, and compliance,” as Skift recently reported. (By contrast, about seven in 10 trips are unmanaged in the United States.) The few individuals that do undertake managed trips don’t always follow policy, according to a McKinsey survey on Asian business travel habits, which found that about one in three “business travelers do not always strictly adhere to their company policy.” Such situations raise both cost-overrun and risk management concerns for employers and make life more complicated for travelers.
Those are challenges that Travelstop is working to address. “Unfortunately, existing business travel tools have not kept pace with the modern business traveler in Asia, and are generally expensive and rigid for small to midsize companies to adopt,” said Travelstop CEO Prashant Kirtane. “This was the motivation and inspiration for Travelstop.”
“Our primary edge is our past experience and expertise in technology and travel domain,” Kirtane said of the company, which he co-founded alongside chief product officer Altaf Dhamani and chief technology officer Vijay Aggarwal. The trio previously worked at Yahoo, Travelmob, and HomeAway before launching their travel management tool. “We’re leveraging our strengths in building scalable consumer products and reimagining what a business travel tool should look like from a consumer point of view,” Kirtane said.
Key differentiators for Travelstop are AI-driven personalization, integrated expense management, and a data-driven insights for employers who are keen to track travel costs. Consider a hypothetical business traveler who needs to attend a conference along with colleagues. Travelstop can, of course, find well-priced air and hotel options for the traveler but also can use historic booking trends to spot the ideal flight that all employees can book together. Costs for flights, hotels, and any ancillary expenses like checked bags are all tracked within the app; employees can submit photographs of receipts rather than gathering (and possibly losing) paper slips along the way. And Travelstop insights give managers back home a bird’s-eye view of the total cost of the trip that can be weighed against the potential business value of sending the team.
In addition to solving those problems, Travelstop also offers localized support in eight languages (including Bahasa Indonesia, Japanese, and Traditional Chinese), plus affordable and scalable pricing that appeals to small- and medium-sized businesses. And given the fact that “more than 90 percent of Southeast Asians connecting to the internet primarily through their smartphones,” according to a Google and Temasek report, it makes perfect sense that Travelstop is built with responsive design that works on any device, giving users the full suite of tools on the go.
“Asian consumers are young and extremely engaged on mobile. For a lot of them, booking travel on mobile is the norm,” said Kirtane.
Of course there are other innovative companies growing in the Asia-Pacific region, or APAC, and pushing the global industry to innovate: Grab has raised billions and is on a hiring spree as it experiments with chat functionalities, delivery services, and road-mapping efforts, Skift has reported. The tours and activities platform Klook recently secured additional funding that could give the company room to expand beyond APAC. And everything-to-everyone platforms like WeChat and Alibaba continue to deepen their ties with enormous customer bases, making mobile wallets not just an option but the preferred way for consumers to pay for just about everything. (More than half of all transactions in APAC could be cashless by 2022, according to a recent Frost & Sullivan forecast.)
Investors meanwhile have been pouring money into these revolutionary startups. In all, online firms in APAC garnered $4.7 billion in funding in 2016 then $9.4 billion in 2017, according to the Google and Temasek research, “with $9.1 billion raised in the first half of .” By scaling their creative solutions globally, firms like Grab, Klook, Travelstop, and others could unlock even more returns than they’re already finding in APAC.
“Asia is the fastest-growing travel market, and a lot of that growth is fueled by a rising middle-class,” Kirtane said. “Local players, including us, are innovating by providing a localized experience, offering innovative digital mobile payment solutions, and a completely responsive platform that works really well on all devices.” And while all that plays well in the region, the true potential for these disruptive technologies is sure to be global.