With every breakthrough in artificial intelligence, we humans must adapt our expertise. Keesup Choe, CEO at data and intelligence firm PredictX, sees automation as a complement, handling what machines do best. At the same time, people continue doing what they do best: being creative, building relationships and thinking strategically. The key is figuring out how to mix both to our best advantage. With a backdrop of evolving AI, Choe discusses why travel management isn’t as advanced as it could be.
While various other industries and professions scramble to future-proof themselves, the travel management category is not as far ahead of the times as we sometimes like to think we are. Despite the stream of webinars, articles, roundtables and conferences talking about how the sharing economy is taking over and how artificial intelligence is the new normal, real and groundbreaking innovation is still very much on the sidelines. Where is the eruption of startups creating technology to track travel activity more efficiently, manage supplier contracts more intelligently and make the booking process more convenient? In an age where we can track our food deliveries all the way to our front doors, why is business travel not as transparent? When it comes to the user experience, what we see on the consumer side far outranks online booking tools in the corporate space. This is but one example. As much as I hate to say it, the future — as perceived by the industry — is pure linear evolution from the past.
The only question is why. From my experience, most of the time it has nothing to do with lack of inventiveness on the travel manager’s side. Most travel managers keep an eye on the future and have the drive to come up with new solutions. Rather, there are three major reasons for a lag in innovation: legacy systems in the supply chain, a corporate culture which discourages risk and a lack of time and resources.
1. Legacy systems are deeply integrated into the supply chain and difficult to change.
A travel program is the sum of multiple parts that need to work together to ensure success. Seamless workflows often improve day-to-day program management more than an extra feature that an innovative supplier can offer. As such, innovation is tossed aside in favor of keeping the peace. Most legacy systems are (often by design) supplier friendly and not disruptive. This makes it very difficult to introduce something that may reinvent the program for the better.
For example, we talk about how Airbnb and Uber are re-imagining the way we travel yet we have no real data visibility into these suppliers through the TMC. Often, it is not just the travel supply chain that is impacted. TMCs, booking tools and expense management systems that integrate better with standard software like Microsoft, for example, are preferred because the integration makes it easier, no matter how outdated or clunky these tools are. Despite travel managers’ ambitions to innovate and future-proof their programs, an entire system overhaul is often not feasible.
As such, travel teams do not go for an upgrade unless it’s 100 percent, undeniably necessary.
2. Travel managers often do not have the freedom to take a risk.
Introducing new systems always comes with a risk. In the technology and science fields, this risk is understood and embraced. Experimentation is at the core of adopting any new technology or technique. This is why smartphones are first to bring innovation and new methods to the market. Technological advancement is their key selling point and, as such, a core part of their budget.
In business travel, however, introducing a new TMC that later creates more cost than expected is not exactly built into the budget. Or, perhaps, the travelers do not appreciate it as much as initially thought. Travel managers must examine the expectations of all stakeholders, including travelers, while reviewing any major change, especially when it comes to technology.
It would be great to get the trust and the resources necessary to try until it’s perfect, or to switch out suppliers at will. In a corporate travel program involving thousands of employees, though, any lapse is simply not an option.
As Buying Business Travel journalist Nick Easen wrote in 2017, “the travel management business is, in effect, more about renovation than deep-seated evolution.”
3. Travel departments don’t have enough resources.
Not having the money or time is a well-used justification that slows the progress of many new initiatives. Often, it’s used to avoid prioritizing something we don’t really feel like doing, such as going to the gym, for example.
In travel, we know that being stretched too thin is more of a justified reason than an excuse. Most travel departments do not have much headcount or budget, yet some control the travel, risk and spending of thousands of employees every day. The day-to-day workflow is exhausting, and the company may not have a budget to sponsor forward-thinking initiatives.
This is why it is more important than ever to introduce new technologies like AI. Just as we don’t regret it when we eventually make the time to put some sneakers on and exercise, making the time to future-proof our travel program is not something we will be sorry about.
In travel, we manage data from multiple sources for thousands of trips. Humans do not have the time to go through all that data. It has to be matched, analyzed and, most importantly, made immediate. If actionable data is delayed, the action loses it’s value. Introducing intelligent machines in everyday data management and booking procedures is no longer revolutionary; it is a must, given today’s big data environment and the complex nature of managed travel.
On the supplier side, we know that adopting innovation is slower in the business travel market than the consumer market. Terms need to be negotiated and the rest of the supply chain needs to be considered. Buying into new practices and technologies is not the same as rushing out to buy the latest iPhone. Suppliers need to continue to develop new technology and reinvent standard practices even if it takes years to determine if they will generate new business. Again, this is easier said than done, but that does not make it any less necessary.
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