Of Elephants and Mice: Online Booking Tools of Today and Tomorrow

Let the corporate travel war begin? The market for business-trip booking tools is moving forward – one might even say it’s one "jumbo merger" after another.

What began in 2014 with the takeover of Concur by SAP continued in 2016. KDS will become part of American Express Global Business Travel (GBT) and Amadeus is well on its way to completely take over I-Fao with its online booking engine “Cytric”. At the same time, Sabre is increasingly pushing towards European markets. The winds of change are getting stronger: this is also demonstrated by the fact that GBT and SAP Concur have terminated their reseller partnership.

More consolidation means less competition

Recently, we have often been asked how we are planning to position ourselves as a (new) player in the arena. Our simple answer is that the market is big and can handle more than just a few “top dogs”. The bottom line is that the takeover will result in fewer competitors. Instead of SAP Travel Manager and Concur Cliqbook, there will only be one competitor. The same goes for Amadeus E-Travel and Cytric. What’s more, there are hardly any “newcomers” in this market and the big players are consolidating on the basis of older technologies. There couldn’t be a better starting position.

The current developments come as no surprise – we actually expected them to happen much sooner. Technology is and remains the central element in the business travel sector. It allows the players to set themselves apart from the competition and gauge the playing field more easily. It is therefore surprising that some TMCs are only now beginning to offer their own technology. To date, they have been heavily dependent on the GDS providers rather than creating their own added value. In this respect, I believe that GBT has chosen the right approach, but not necessarily the right path. Although purchasing a (costly) standard tool can generate a sales boost in the short term, sustainable investments in flexible and modern technology would be more promising.

Flexibility is the key

Modern travel technologies have to be flexible – only then can they maintain their long-term position in the ever-changing market. Changes should not require armies of developers. For this reason, we completely redesigned our online booking tool several years ago and got rid of all the old weight. Today, we offer turnkey solutions which can either be obtained on the basis of a usage fee via PNR or a source code. Furthermore, our technology is middleware-driven, meaning that the entire business logic is found in the middleware and the look and feel can be individually changed. This allows us to support agent desktops, online booking tools and mobile frontends as well as the latest gimmicks such as chatbots or virtual agents. Many of the big players carry around a lot of baggage and still have this road ahead of them. The pressure is therefore rather a result of market development itself than of the competitive situation: The increasing complexity (direct connects, country-specific rail traffic, ancillary services, etc.) and market dynamics must be easily implemented on a technical level over and over again. This is why we avoid long term planning, while managing our projects in a flexible fashion in accordance with market conditions and customer requirements.

Virtual agents will take the reins

We expect a high demand for modern online booking tools which are not only a carbon copy of consumer tools such as Expedia, but also provide significant added value for the company. Despite the fact that the digital age and virtualization have advanced, the business travel market is booming: In 2015 alone, $619 billion USD were spent in North America and Western Europe.

A trending topic that I predict has a bright future and which we are also working on is chatbots, virtual agents which will soon take over the role of humans. The challenge will be to process a large amount of data quickly and to filter out the essential information. Whereas eight seconds used to be tolerated while loading a page, the tolerance limit is now down to two seconds. Chatbots will become attractive once they have learned what the traveler prefers and can provide customized offers considering company and personal preferences, policies, routing, history, and calendar entries. Risk and security factors are also to be taken into consideration (e.g. avoidance of placing multiple employees with certain knowledge in the same means of transportation), whereas pricing needs to be broken down to a minimum number of options. Instead of me making all these choices myself, chatbots would therefore help me find the best instead of the cheapest offer – and in this case, the tolerated waiting times will increase again. Travel bookings in this scenario are then primarily made via mobile devices and using fully automated systems supported by artificial intelligence.

Websites and apps are losing relevance

My vision is that in two or three years, we won’t use websites anymore to book travel. It is ridiculous that I get an appointment which I need to put in my calendar, then I need to reach out to a website, put in my travel dates there, find suitable trip details, make that reservation, and then put it back in my calendar. We will tell Alexa, Siri or Cortana to find a suitable hotel etc. for that. I realize that a lot of companies currently ask what the best looking website is. While many designers may have great answers to this question, maybe it is the wrong question. To focus on a great look and feel would have been the right thing to do a couple of years ago. However, to invest and try to compete on a look and feel level on a browser-based website today might be a waste of money considering the tons of Echos and similar devices around the corner. In my eyes, even apps will soon be outdated. Some of the most successful apps only use text, e.g. WhatsApp. Messaging apps have surpassed social networks with over three billion active users per month (almost ½ of the world’s population). It’s powerful. It’s the simplicity that kills. From a designer’s perspective, the user interface is terrible but everybody uses it. Today, I believe it right to put a competitive technology in place which will allow me to instruct my Echo to display hotels in NYC on my TV – and which I can then book by clapping my hands.

Sluggish elephant or agile mouse?

And here we are back to the issue of market development: The complexity and dynamics resulting from the aforementioned scenarios require fast and flexible reactions – both at the business level and on the technical side. Companies that already rely on modern travel technologies today have a clear advantage. The development is definitely exciting! Find more information on this entire topic in my interview with Airline Information.

Picture credit: Shutterstock

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