Online business travel booking tools need a ‘serious wake-up call’

Despite all the talk of innovation in business travel, there is still a gap in the retail technology used by the industry.

That’s the message from Paul Tilstone, managing partner at Festive Road, speaking on the state of online booking tools (OBTs) at Beat Live in New York earlier this month.

Although OBTs have been around since the dawn of the internet, Tilstone says the “peak of inflated expectations” came after the technology became mainstream in the late 2000s, around the same time as the introduction generalization of the API and the arrival of the iPhone in 2007.

“From then on, disillusionment set in as the B2C experience developed rapidly and the gap between it and the more clumsy B2B experience widened,” he says. “And we think satisfaction with OBTs has since declined.”

To make their case, Festive Road surveyed and interviewed 100 top business travel buyers in the US and Europe.

“What we heard acts as a serious wake-up call for the OBT community,” says Tilstone.

What buyers are saying

About three-quarters (73%) of travel buyers say they feel corporate tools are inferior to travel tools available to their travelers elsewhere, according to the survey.

Buyers also say there is a lack of content, even in anchor segments like air and hotel: while 79% say they feel they get content from multiple channels, only around 50% report getting enough core content in anchor segments.

Some 51% say the content is sufficient in the air and 53% for the hotel. However, there is only a 10% satisfaction rate with the amount of content in the alternative hosting industry.

The survey also revealed that the tools are not intuitive for travellers, with less than half of travel buyers believing that OBTs offer an attractive and intuitive interface.

They give OBTs a score of 5 out of 10 for sharing their roadmap; a 3 out of 10 rating for engaging the buyer community in identifying improvements; and a 3 out of 10 for adding new features at the right pace.

Additionally, buyers are unhappy with the engagement of OBTs, both in current and future planning.

Only a third of travel buyers think procurement and contracts with OBTs are working well, and only half think the implementation is effective.

Evolving OBTs

As online travel agencies, which continue to invest in product development and marketing, become more attractive, OBTs need more dynamic offerings, which Tilstone says could be achieved through APIs.

APIs will help further democratize distribution, which will accelerate change and make distribution richer and broader, he says.

“We believe that many other vendors are beginning to shift distribution from the ‘first mile’ to the ‘last mile’, from source of offers at the PSS/CRS level to consumption of offers at the retail point of sale.

“This consumption will also go beyond today’s browser-based OBT through a variety of channels like WhatsApp, Outlook, LinkedIn, Salesforce, etc., to be where the traveler is.”

The change could come from big tech companies, startups in the OBT space, existing travel tech companies, or GDS, OBT, or TMC themselves, he says.

Tilstone also thinks the continued trend towards attribute-based shopping will accelerate. Although the concept is already being introduced in the world of business travel, there’s a lot more to it around things like sustainability, productivity, and industry performance indicators like on-time performance.

He says he also expects to see political polarization. With the increase in ancillary products and product diversity, companies will either need to simplify their travel policies to allow OBTs to more easily interpret and apply them, or policies will need to become much more sophisticated to cater for an increasing number variations, which will require OBT to develop sophisticated policy engines.

Ultimately, this API economy will help advance the concept of an “enterprise consumption engine” to create dynamic enterprise controls to break down legacy policy and authorization processes.

“We will see the inevitable reshaping of OBT business models,” says Tilstone. “And it will help fulfill the desires of business travelers in a managed environment of their businesses.”

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