Corporations are looking for an all-in-one business travel app that doesn’t, and won’t, exist. Developers think messaging, natural language and “deep linking” between apps bring the notion as close to reality as possible.
A single mobile app that does everything sounds great. Why? Simplicity. It’s natural for procurement pros to seek fewer suppliers. It’s easiest to point travelers to one thing. It’s better for compliance if that thing does more. It’s handy to have a single point of contact for help.
However, this scenario has drawbacks and loses out to realities. Not the least of these is the fact that employers can make suggestions but often they do not control what travelers download. They’ll always find something better if it exists.
“One of the cautionary tales of the all-in-one travel app, which a lot of corporations are asking for, is that the more things a mobile app does, the more watered-down it becomes,” said BCD Travel VP for digital and product strategy Will Pinnell during our mobile tech Teleconference last month. “The best apps and the ones that are most-used are the ones that have a single purpose — a weather app, Uber.”
“A lot of clients are interested in a Swiss Army Knife app,” said American Express Global Business Travel VP digital traveler Evan Konwiser. The industry debate over the right approach, he said, is “very real.”
Festive Road consultant Aurélie Krau had sparked the conversation by raising the idea of a “one-stop shop” or “single point of entry instead of having so many apps.” But she also agreed with Pinnell.
Others have raised the all-in-one idea, notably BCD Travel CEO John Snyder. In 2015 he told The Beat that buyers are “sort of waiting for that perfect travel app to be developed and be out on the market. We’re well along the way on that. By the middle to the end of next year, it will be the all-encompassing app that folks are looking for.”
Asked during a phone interview last week about the comments, Snyder conjured Bill Clinton: “It depends on how you define all-encompassing.” Later, he asked rhetorically and answered correctly, “Will it do everything every traveler wants it to do? No. That would be impossible.”
In a separate conversation, Konwiser agreed that such an app is a “hope and a prayer at this point. There isn’t a tool that can do everything, but you can tie together the right elements and be in the center of it to provide some key services.”
Business travel apps often do include simple functionality for ancillary needs. But those that specialize in a given service go deeper. These may appeal especially to frequent or international travelers, restaurant hunters or amateur weather gurus. Some like to explore when they have downtime. Others seek alternatives to typical transportation and lodging choices.
IT pro John Morhous is about to mark 10 years working in travel. Now chief strategy officer for Flight Centre USA’s corporate brands, Morhous cut the all-in-one seekers a break during an interview this week:
“Every client asks for the same thing. It’s around simplifying the traveler experience. I really think it comes down to them trying to find a way to provide an excellent user experience to travelers, knowing that what they do now is [junk]. And there’s some naiveté on what’s possible. Some travel managers don’t understand mobile. One app to rule them all? There’s no way to get a boarding pass without Delta’s app. You can’t get keyless entry without Hilton’s. It comes from the legacy command-and-control mindset with not as much understanding of some of the practical challenges.
Mobile deep linking, which allows apps to direct the user to a specific location in another app, helps cut through app clutter. FCM’s Sam app sends customers directly to taxi alternatives, for example.
“The beauty is we’re living in an API world and we’re supposed to be able to connect different services more easily,” said Krau.
Tell that to app developers, said Morhous. Some are more of a breeze than others.
“In the end, the app is just an interface,” said Roadmap CEO Jeroen van Velzen during the Teleconference. “Many people relate mobile to the app, but roughly 80 percent of the work we’re doing isn’t the work on the app but it’s trying to understand what the travelers are trying to figure out. Whether you put a bot on top of that or a voice interface, it’s just another interface.”
Van Velzen half-joked about a smartphone with a single button. The user presses the button and the software just does what it has to because it knows everything else that is going on. With a trip, that would be weather, flights, check-in status, etc.
Language parsing with regard to business travel apps isn’t just for non-techies and journalists. Roadmap bills itself as “the ultimate all-in-one white label business travel app.” Asked to explain that, van Velzen argued that inasmuch as Roadmap can guide the traveler to the appropriate tools, his app is all in one.
“My clients aren’t asking for, technically speaking, one app,” he said during a followup interview. “They want one interface. Through the eyes of the consumer, it’s one app.”
Van Velzen agreed that, technically, it’s not one app. “But that’s semantics, right?”