Smaller companies are resuming business travel more quickly than their larger peers. Brandon Strauss, president of CapTrav and partner at KesselRun Corporate Travel Solutions, argues that products and processes designed for that market segment can help expand managed travel and provide best practices for larger programs.

It seems odd that less than 10 percent of the $1.4 trillion corporate travel industry is formally serviced under a traditional management model. Historically, industry suppliers have catered to larger, typically multinational organizations. Travel management companies have human and technology resources to handle large volumes and layers of complexity with a high degree of efficiency, and developed revenue models to accommodate this type of client. In many ways, these larger clients pose a distinct and opposite proposition to TMCs than clients considered small to midsize businesses, as the latter tends to have dissimilar service needs and be less lucrative business for a TMC. Despite some attempts to create solutions to better serve these clients, it is apparent that the SMB market segment has been largely ignored by traditional channels in lieu of the global corporate whale.

Even if corporate travel is forever hurt by the pandemic, the opportunity to address the underserved SMB market is big. Very big.

Investments in corporate travel-related startups haven’t slowed during this “things will never return to normal” period. If anything, money flowing into corporate travel has accelerated. Most new industry entrants seem laser-focused on filling the void; some spend millions on websites, search engine marketing and airport billboards — all geared toward creating brand awareness and a compelling management solution for the masses.

Brandon Strauss, KesselRun

Brandon Strauss, CapTrav president

In many ways, the timing couldn’t be better for customers as they consider how best to optimize their businesses, or suppliers as they tweak content distribution and incentive strategies. Airlines and hotels, in particular, are navigating an unstable business travel recovery. SMB clients are returning at a faster rate than larger, traditionally managed organizations.

At the same time, suppliers vie for the attention of a new generation of middle and senior management. The brand loyal Millennials, many of whom are pushing 40 years old and are in leadership positions, are business savvy and flexible. They won’t waste time on technology or processes that seem outdated or inefficient. In no way is this to insinuate that our current models aren’t effective. The industry has very good technology, but innovation is pushing the envelope to make it better.

This may play a huge role in an industry transformation. The massive investments into new industry technologies, along with some of the more familiar industry giants, are poised to make significant gains while many who would otherwise lead the way may end up ceding this underserved segment due to lack of resources or foresight. It seems reasonable that many of these new solutions ultimately find a home in larger clients’ tech stacks and have a lasting impact on how the industry conducts business.

What’s In Store?

Off-the-shelf technology looks rather unappealing at first glance but many of the one-size-fits-all products we see today enable slick, vertically integrated solutions that offer front-end booking technology with multiple content sources, and handle quality control, policy, expense and reimbursement.

The business acumen found among management teams at providers of these new technologies is part of the costly investment package but will prove critical to innovation. Business travel is complex and many of us lifers sometimes get lost in our narrow world of corporate travel (remember that less than 10 percent of the entire industry is managed). The industry is getting a breath of fresh air from many who may not totally understand this sometimes counterintuitive business but generally understand business. New thinking may come with a cost but I think skinning knees and bruising shins is part of the prospectus.

The result is investment to rethink how we do business. Mobile technology has evolved at an incredibly rapid pace in the past few years. The use of machine learning to service reservations and streamline the booking process is now a common practice. Integrated procure-to-pay solutions are no longer limited to that one vendor. The technology to measure carbon output in a way that is actionable is now gaining momentum and becoming a significant competitive advantage for those who promote sustainability initiatives. Management reporting is becoming more holistic and more detailed. Air, car and hotel suppliers are pushing better and more interactive direct client strategies.

While none of these examples may grow the corporate travel industry, all will help expand that tent we call “managed travel.” A broader base of corporate clients actively managing business travel spend will yield smarter thinking, better strategies and more robust product offerings.

With so much transaction volume at stake, it is not hard to see how new products and processes for SMBs become industrywide best practices. A transformation may require a push in the form of client demand to solve a lot of the problems the industry faces but if a better solution exists, a few marquee clients can help establish a new normal.

We’ve seen many examples of this type of change in the past. I think this time around we will ultimately come to thank the historically underserved SMBs.

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