Shree Partners chief technology officer and former BCD Travel research, statistics and analytics manager Nicolas Dahbi opines on myths about data.
I recently had a conversation with an old colleague who left the travel industry a few years ago. We talked about recent technology advances, such as how personalization is driving consumer behavior and how data is the basis for engagement (i.e., Uber, Airbnb and Amazon). Then my colleague asked how these changes have impacted the travel industry, and I regretfully found myself responding, “Not much, yet.”
In my view, it’s time to change the way we think about data. Here are three misconceptions that are holding us back and the ways travel management professionals can re-think them.
1. Data is just another term for reporting
Excel spreadsheets and reporting still have their place. But that’s only a fraction of what data can do for today’s travel providers. When you expand your data sources, you find new context for the data. You get not just the “what” but also the “why.” Knowing why employees book a certain carrier over another means better negotiating leverage.
There’s even more you can do with contextual data. For example, say your company is exploring opening up a new office overseas. You know travel costs to that destination will increase but you don’t know much about suppliers in that area. You also don’t know the market or necessary information required to keep travelers safe. To prepare your travel program for this change, you can’t simply look at past transaction data to project what is likely to happen. You need external data sources.
Are you paying a fair price for a hotel? Historical data may offer past indicators but you’ll gain a whole lot more certainty about what “fair” actually looks like when you combine it with current pricing and behavior information.
2. Data analysis tools are expensive (and beyond my budget)
This may have once been the case, yet new technology developments have made data analysis tools more scalable and affordable for smaller budgets. The results these tools bring will positively impact your bottom line, as well as deliver a whole range of additional benefits.
Whether you view investing in data as too expensive or not a priority, it’s time to re-think your data mindset. Put simply, it’s time for organizations to implement a global data strategy. This involves taking siloed data from the departments and looking at the information as a coherent whole.
Why should you care? Employee turnover is an example that hits close to home. Companies that dig deeper and review which positions generate high turnover start to see the cost of losing an employee in a whole new light. They come to see that added time (and money) is required to find another candidate and train the new employee for the specific role. Digging even deeper, they may discover that employees who travel a lot are usually in high-turnover positions.
Can your company afford to lose a management-level employee every 18 months because the travel policy was too rigid? While having this view across company departments isn’t going to change things immediately, you can still start understanding the data differently. Use what you have today and try to add little things you can easily access. For example, add you travelers’ home addresses to your database to understand which airports are most important. Add the frequent flyer programs your employees have signed up for to understand which suppliers they might favor. Do they have little children at home impacting their travel decisions? Have they had a bad experience with a particular airline? The goal should be to create a complete view of travelers and then layer on advanced analytics, but don’t shy away from starting with only a partial view.
3. Data isn’t useful to my daily travel management
If you’re thinking in terms of numbers on an Excel spreadsheet, you’re probably right. But looking beyond the numbers, data impacts your entire travel program. It helps with risk management, price monitoring and negotiations. It empowers travelers to engage more meaningfully with your program. Use data to your advantage. Think of it as an essential component that fuels greater productivity and efficiency while driving down costs.
So what can you do? First, challenge your travel management company to engage with your data more proactively. TMCs have access to a myriad of information about traveler behavior and may be able to recommend better deals or travel times. This is similar to what’s happening in the retail environment with Amazon and Uber. In Uber’s case, for example, data makes it easy to see when demand is high and how that demand affects pricing.
For your overall travel program, the TMC could use AI and machine learning to discern travel patterns and make suggestions based on that information. For example, if I travel each month from London to Seattle to meet a client, the TMC knows. Over time, the TMC or the self-booking tool it supports recognizes my preferences for airline, flight timing, airports, hotels and ground transportation. At the beginning of the month, the TMC could recommend the best offer and date/time for my next trip. I just need to check it and click to book.
With the availability of Big Data technologies, integrating your TMC’s contact center data with bookings isn’t as big a task as it once was. By connecting that data you can build a more accurate traveler profile — including traveler feedback — and make better recommendations using a search engine powered by artificial intelligence and machine learning. These technologies are now mature and in production in many travel organizations.
Don’t fear that you’re losing control. Even when your company implements a global data strategy, you play an integral role in its success. Think about how much better your program can be when you base your decisions on factual information over suppositions. Think how much more engaged your travelers will be when they realize you’re giving them great travel options. Think about how you can support other departments in your company by sharing information to facilitate streamlined, safe and user-friendly processes.
Changing your data mindset isn’t as complicated (or costly) as you may think. There’s never been a better time than the present to get your data ready and make all of this happen. Start small, then go big!
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