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No time like the present

Real-time data is the key to smooth travel, says ACTE Marketing and Operations Manager Peter Kane

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To many, disruption is a bad word – particularly in the travel industry. Disruption means delays and cancellations, wrong bookings, and random events driving the entire system into chaos.

At the Association of Corporate Travel Executives (ACTE), however, we don’t quite see disruption that way. We look at disruptions as opportunities – opportunities to learn, adapt, and grow; opportunities to create something new; and opportunities to redefine what is considered the norm.

To us, disruption, while initially chaotic and confusion, is a real opportunity to become better.

And, while the travel industry likes to think that it doesn’t handle disruption particularly well, few industries have actually dealt with disruptions as effectively and with as much courage and conviction as travel.

Look at the last ten years as an example. From the horrific terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001; to the increase in the cost of oil from US$30 in 2003 to a peak of US$147 in 2008; to the financial crises of 2008 and 2009, this decade has been a long one for travel.

Yet, the industry is still here and, as of late October, all signs pointed towards continued, steady growth through 2011.
More importantly, however, than how the travel industry handled these negative disruptions, is how effectively it has handled positive disruptions, as well.

The mid-1990’s saw the creation of the World Wide Web, as we have come to know it, and while it can never be stated how much of a disruption this was (and remains), what is impressive is just how quickly and effectively the travel industry was able to put it to use.

In 1993, a team of programmers led by Marc Andreesen at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign developed a graphical web browser called Mosaic that would essentially become the founding father of today’s web browsers (from the former Netscape Navigator to Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, Chrome, Opera, and others).

By 1996 (only three years later), consumers were already booking travel online and less than 15 years later, online travel has grown into nearly a $100bn industry.

Clearly, travel has the ability to take a disruption and run with it, reshaping not just itself, but also large facets of the general economy and culture.

But, while travel, as a whole, embraced and continues to embrace these disruptions, business travel lags behind, operating on strategies mostly devised and developed around the same time as Andreesen and his team were setting the stage for today’s concept of the Internet. The tools may have changed, but these strategies remain mostly the same. We are still making trip decisions based on historical – not real-time – data.

For example, let’s suppose that my company is based in London, my largest customer is in New York, and last year I had 13 trips between that city pair. Using today’s strategies, my company’s travel manager would negotiate air and hotel rates around those 13 trips between New York and London – using that historical data.
But, what if that travel was, instead, booked around real-time data?

What if next week my contact is going to be in Paris? Wouldn’t it make more sense for me to meet her there? I could take the train, or at least a shorter flight – rather than the long-haul intercontinental trip from London to New York. Or, how about if next month I’m in San Diego around the same time that she’s in Los Angeles? It would probably be better for me to take a quick flight to Los Angeles and meet her there, rather than schedule another trip from London to New York the following week.

Suddenly, those 13 trips I took last year between London and New York aren’t very good pieces of data.
Jason Fried of 37Signals, the maker of the popular Basecamp software, always says that the best data is the data you have right now – not the data you had last year and not the data you think you’re going to have next month. So, naturally, the best business decisions are made in the present – not the past or the future.

Wouldn’t business travel be so much more efficient if it worked the same way? The disruption of social networks like Facebook and Twitter, crowd sourcing like Wikipedia and TripAdvisor, and travel tools like TripIt and FlightCaster make this scenario a possibility.

With this sort of buying, would the industry still need the same magnitude of corporate pricing and negotiated programs beyond only the most frequented destinations? How much time and energy would that save, cutting back on the give-and-take between buyer and supplier? Imagine allowing market forces, coupled with personal circumstances, to drive buying behavior that genuinely does create the proverbial win-win scenario.

This is just one example of the type of disruption possible in the business travel industry. As technology continues to grow and improve, buying strategies also need to adapt in accordance with the technology’s capabilities – just like travel did with the creation of the graphical web browser nearly two decades ago.

This is why ACTE’s motto is, “Be Smart. Be Hip. Be Seen.”

Be smart. We want business travel industry professionals to pursue new knowledge to help them adapt to these disruptions and, in 2011, ACTE will take its educational offerings to new heights by adding an initiative called Around the World in 80 Hours, which is designed to bring students, travel buyers, and other executives to the markets they are most interested in – and for real educational credit through local Universities. Additionally, we are launching an Index that will let travel departments benchmark against other leading programmes on a monthly basis.
Be Hip. ACTE members, attendees, and sponsors have always been the “in” crowd – but in 2011, we want to push that further. We want our stakeholders to be on the leading edge of the industry, driving its future and growth by embracing disruptions. So, we are instituting a few additional initiatives to push that forward, including an Angel Investor Lounge, designed to bring together the best ideas in travel with the key investors who can help bring those ideas to life, and a new honor called 3 Under 33, which will showcase the leading young minds in business travel around the world at each of our conferences next year.

Be Seen. While most professionals may associate ACTE primarily with its educational content, our networking opportunities at all of our events and through our membership is just as important – bringing together the top key executives from around the world. 2011 will offer even new ways for our stakeholders to meet, talk, and get things done, including a partnership with Business Travel Market, which will reshape ACTE’s already successful TransACTE into InterACTE, and a Consultants Corner, where ACTE will offer certification to the industry’s leading consultants, providing them with greater visibility to help match them up with organisations from all sectors of the industry.

To quote Bob Dylan, “The times, they are a-changin’,” and it is vital to the success of the travel industry to change with them. ACTE hopes to lead that change through its executive level education and networking into 2011 and beyond.

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