Mobile apps, sensor and data improve efficiency of business travel

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Leisure travelers have become used to controlling every step of a trip, from booking a flight 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 have used it in some travel-planning capacity, corporations still make it hard for their 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.

Travel policies traditionally focus on rules, enforcement and compliance. They typically run 50 or 60 pages and are written to deter a minority of travelers from doing the wrong thing, rather than to encourage the majority who are doing the right thing, Koch said.

“These policies were all-encompassing, from how you travel to who took care of your dog in your absence,” he said. “But people realized that when you have 60-page documents, no one knows what the policy contains anymore.”

Now, with the emphasis shifting toward flexibility, policies are getting shorter. At the same time, companies are also loosening travel budgets after the relative austerity that accompanied the recession. With the economy growing and fuel prices low, the Global Business Travel Association expects total U.S. business travel spending to grow by 3 percent this year, to about $300 billion, and by 6 percent in 2016.

As a benefit, corporations have the opportunity to use travel policies to attract new employees — for example, by offering them the ability to travel in business class during longer trips or on international flights. “The talent war is back,” said Caroline Strachan, a vice president at American Express Global Business Travel. “If companies are starting to be challenged in finding new talent, then a shift in policy is a good thing.”

“What has been really interesting, in the past couple of months, is seeing a shift where clients are understanding that their business travel policies are also an acquisition tool for talent,” she said, particularly for younger employees and among tech firms. In the changed economic climate, many companies are moving their travel departments into human resources.

Airlines and airports are already relying on sensors to track the flow of passengers and identify bottlenecks between the curb and the gate. And they alert passengers either through text messages or e-mails if a flight is delayed.

But technology in the future will allow them to see travelers’ positions — through the GPS device on their phones — to track their movements. If a passenger is late for a flight, for instance, an airline might decide to rebook the passenger on the next flight automatically. The car rental service or taxi service would know of the delay, and the hotel might be notified of a late arrival — all seamlessly.

“Today, this stuff is very manual and only happens primarily with the top executives of a company, who have someone who monitors their travel and takes care of them,” Koch said. “But in the future, that will all be linked together. All these things will trickle down and happen.”

What is missing, however, is for a tech innovator like Apple or Google to come up with technology that integrates all the disparate flows of information that are collected and make them work together. “This is kind of the holy grail,” Koch said. “We have all this power in our smartphones, but all the individual apps are not talking to each other yet.”

For now, there are more prosaic apps. Airlines have long sought a more direct relationship with business travelers. Through their mobile travel apps, they can already offer more personal service and provide easy check-in options and electronic boarding passes to passengers.

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