A batch of travel management startups are changing the face of corporate travel, focusing mainly on the employee rather than company administrators.
Two California-based startups, TravelBank and NexTravel, are doubling down on this strategy, finding that travelers increasingly have influence over company decisions. TravelBank, which just received funding from venture capital firm Dreamers VC for an undisclosed amount, is revamping its expense management tools and adding a slew of perks for travelers.
Meanwhile, NexTravel is focusing on bleisure, upgrading its expense system to allow travelers to add extra days onto their business trips to spend time exploring the destination.
“All of our incumbent competitors have built these marketplaces designed to empower only the administrators and to add on functionality for the administrators,” said Duke Chung, co-founder and CEO of TravelBank, referring to legacy travel management companies such as American Express GBT or BCD Travel. “But in today’s era, the traveler’s benefits and experiences are of equal or maybe even higher priority.”
Startups like TravelPerk and TripActions have also approached travel management in this way, aiming to make the booking process for corporate travel feel as seamless as that of leisure travel and winning over employees who are reluctant to use the clunky, old-fashioned tools of legacy companies.
TravelBank and NexTravel are focusing on the details of the trip itself, however, going beyond the booking interface.
With TravelBank’s new tool, TravelBank Marketplace, travelers get access to services like Wag, allowing them to expense dog-sitting while away, and Skyroam, a portable Wi-Fi hotspot. The platform also partners with Clear, a secure identity tool designed to make traveling through airport security faster, as well as a variety of rideshare companies, among many other partners.
TravelBank believes its bottom-up approach, targeting individual employees rather than companies, is the best way for it to grow.
“We believe if employees are happy with their expense systems, then they will go tell their company that they want to use TravelBank,” Chung said. “That’s what we’ve seen from how we’ve grown so far. When we let the employees decide, we don’t have to tell the companies. They do it for us.”
NexTravel, meanwhile, is giving travelers the opportunity to tack on extra nights to their hotel stays to make the trip feel less rushed and to add some leisure to the experience. NexTravel CEO Wen-Wen Lam said this was one of the top things she found employees wanted, especially among younger travelers.
In fact, millennials are more likely than older generations to expect companies to provide traveler-first services, she added. As they become a larger proportion of the business travel world, companies feel increasing pressure to meet those expectations.
“We’re seeing companies becoming more and more open to that. In large part it’s to prevent burnout, since business travel can be so taxing,” she said.
Is Big Change Coming?
Some industry players believe the travel management hierarchy will soon shift, due to innovative startups like NexTravel and TravelBank, along with competitors TravelPerk and TripActions. Still, the decades-old travel management companies are so massive, with so much market share, it’s hard to believe they will lose their place at the top.
Chung is unsure what will happen over the next few years, but he believes the best way for TravelBank to scale up is to target small companies and grow along with them. He pointed to DoorDash, one of the company’s larger accounts, as an example of this. TravelBank began working with the food delivery service when it was a relatively small startup, and in that time it has grown to thousands of employees, Chung said.
“Small businesses are a great place to start because they make decisions very quickly, and they’re innovators themselves because they’re competing with their own larger competitors,” he said. “So their mindsets are much more aligned around our way of thinking with technology.”
Targeting small to midsize businesses, which is a common strategy among corporate travel startups, means that TravelBank is often not competing directly with the older travel management companies for clients.
“About 90 percent of the time we’re going in to a business and replacing nothing — we’re the first travel management company in. But 10 percent of the time, we do replace these older travel agencies.”
Still, 10 percent is not insignificant, especially as other startups are likely claiming a similar, or even greater, percentage of the business. As these companies get stronger, there is reason to believe these numbers will grow.