Leisure travelers have become used to controlling every step of a trip, from booking a flight or a car to making dinner reservations. Business travelers, less so; there has always been some corporate bean counter looking over their shoulders.
But that is changing as business travel picks up and the overseers of company budgets permit the digital empowerment of traveling employees and tentatively embrace the sharing economy.
Travel managers are calling this the age of traveler centricity, and apps from Uber, the ride-hailing service, and similar innovations are increasingly part of it. In the next few years, if company policies can keep up, the new era of personalized travel could lead to a host of new so-called intelligent services, delivered through apps and smartphones, that will automatically assist business travelers based on their profiles and preferences, potentially making what is typically a grind through traffic, airports and tight itineraries less stressful and more productive.
“There is a shift away from the command-and-control perspectives of the past,” said Greeley Koch, executive director of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives. “The focus now is more on the traveler and the productivity of each trip, so that travelers can have the greatest return on investment on each trip.”
The environment is much changed from that of a few years ago, after the Great Recession froze much of business travel. Since then, a revolution in mobile technology has taken firm hold. The business travel market seems ripe for the kind of disruption that has transformed retailing, entertainment and other areas, offering technological solutions to make cumbersome transactions more intuitive and seamless.
But while most business travelers have a smartphone and, according to a study by Expedia, 78 percent of them have used it in some travel-planning capacity, corporations still make it hard for their traveling employees to use current technology and integrate their own travel management tools with company programs. In part, this is a result of travel managers’ reluctance to give employees too much control over purchasing decisions, fearing that doing so will erode cost controls.
“There is a general dissatisfaction with the corporate travel technology,” said Mark Hollyhead, the senior vice president for Egencia Americas, a travel management company owned by Expedia. “In the 10 to 15 years the Internet has grown, travel management has been driven by corporations. Compliance and reporting have been the bedrock of these policies.”
Only one in four companies had a policy governing mobile devices as they related to employee travel, according to research by the travel distribution service Travelport and the Association of Corporate Travel Executives. But some are beginning to recognize the need for greater flexibility. They are acknowledging that their employees who travel on business are behaving the way they do on their leisure trips — looking for information online and gaining insights from a variety of sources.
They also recognize that a new generation of young employees and managers who grew up in a digital age are moving up the ranks, and they are used to dealing with technology more directly on handsets.