As little as a decade ago, the standard protocol for researching and reserving a business trip involved going through a local travel agent. Wall-to-wall brochures depicting every corner of the planet and experts making face-to-face recommendations was the traditional format that had been in place for years – and while, of course, such shops still exist, they are frequented by far fewer travelmakers. Travellers nowadays opt for experiencing the booking process from the comfort of their own homes – or, in fact, anywhere that they happen to be. “Whereas you used to take your travel agent’s word on whether a hotel was up to scratch, now you scroll through reviews on TripAdvisor as a first step before booking”, says Dan Kelly, Director of Product Marketing for Carlson Wagonlit Travel (CWT).
Technology has not just transformed this booking process – it has influenced how we live out our entire trips
Technology has not just transformed this booking process – it has influenced how we live out our entire trips. Whether a hotel offers free Wi-Fi is an increasingly influential decision when booking accommodation – we are so used to having a world of information at our fingertips that the notion of living without it for a week or two is simply not good enough. Even various airlines, including Emirates, Norwegian and Air China, are beginning to provide free inflight Wi-Fi. This is particularly important for the business traveller, who can now access emails throughout a trip and thereby maximise the limited time between meetings and visits.
While numerous sites are available for individuals looking to book their own travel, such as e-Bookers, Travelocity and TravelSupermarket.com, the one that has sent the biggest ripples through the travel industry is Airbnb: founded in 2008, the online platform offers people the chance to lease their homes for any given period; meaning that travellers have the option to stay in any type of accommodation, within any area of their choosing. The company states on its website, “Airbnb connects people to unique travel experiences, at any price point, in more than 34,000 cities and 190 countries.” The success of the firm highlights one area in particular where technology has made a substantial difference to travel – the level of choice now available for every aspect of a trip. In the case of Airbnb, individuals can choose accommodation that meets their every need and desire, whether it is staying in a house fit with a washing machine or renting a medieval castle complete with its own moat. Although such platforms are used largely for private travel, the fact that they offer more affordable options for businesses on a tight budget means that they are slowly starting to make headway in the corporate sector as well.
Social media has also revolutionised the industry, deeply influencing people’s travel choices and habits. For many, a picture or intermittent narrative is uploaded throughout their journey – from the moment that they check-in at the outbound airport to the final meal of the trip. Shots of beautiful scenery are posted as frequently as mentions of any encounter with bad service and poor facilities. For better or for worse, this has put a great deal of pressure on those in the travel industry, from airlines to hotels and hostels, and all of the restaurants inbetween.
As a result, those in the sector are finding new ways to adapt to the internet revolution and use it to their advantage. “We developed CWT Hotel Intel – a TripAdvisor-style platform”, Kelly told Business Destinations. “Each business we work with can have their own private reviews site, so their travellers can check out what their colleagues think of hotels. This works because business travellers often go to the same areas and need information that is relevant to them.” One major advantage of social media platforms is that small to medium-sized venues and businesses now have an opportunity to promote themselves to the world in a way that was never before possible.
People have become accustomed to immersing themselves in technology, and the convenience that this way of life brings with it. As such, a growing number of hotels are responding to changes in both consumer needs and personal habits. “The increase [in] millennial travellers has prompted hotel chains to update their facilities to allow better connectivity and more flexibility. Some brands have even launched new sub-brands to appeal to millennial travellers, such as Marriott’s Moxy hotels. These offer communal work areas, all-night stores instead of room service and are branded to be modern and relaxed”, Kelly explains.
One hotel that is leading the way in terms of technological facilities is Eccleston Square Hotel in Belgravia, London. Olivia Byrne, the founder and director of the hotel, told Business Destinations, “When we opened the hotel in 2011, we implemented a lot of technology, and we were quite forward-thinking back then. People had mixed reactions to it because they didn’t understand why we were so hi-tech, but I feel like, especially now, there’s a huge movement towards technology, and that’s all people can talk about in the hospitality industry.”
The Eccleston Square Hotel features iPads in every room, which act as a digital concierge for customised room service, as well as keypads that control everything from lighting to music. “We also created an app for the hotel that can be downloaded on your phone prior to checking in – once you’ve checked in you can make a request, even when you’re off property”, Byrne explains. Everything in the hotel screams high technology, from its 46-inch HD 3D Neo Plasma Panasonic TVs and state-of-the-art Hästens massage beds to bathroom mirrors that have been fitted with concealed flat-screen televisions. All clients’ technological needs are met, with an array of docking stations for smartphones and integrated UK, European and US plugs included in every room. “It’s really important to offer great connectivity to the guests”, says Byrne. The hotel certainly has a feel of the future, clearly marking the direction in which the rest of the industry is heading.
As technology continues to evolve, so do consumer expectations. Evan Konwiser, Vice President of the Digital Traveller department at American Express Global Business Travel, told Business Destinations, “This raises the bar for the kind of technology that we, as a travel management company, need to provide to our customers and their travellers, as their expectations and demands shift.” As such, greater convenience is a key factor in the wholehearted embrace of travel technology. On this subject, Kelly notes: “Business travellers will soon expect to be able to book all aspects of their trip from start to finish on one app, in one go, which is why we provide our customers with door-to-door booking and expense capability, and will be integrating this on CWT To Go in the early summer.”
Personalised travel is another key trend that comes hand-in-hand with technology, with examples including using browsing history to adapt search results, and utilising geolocation data to help customers navigate in unfamiliar surroundings. Even proactively re-booking when trips are disrupted is now possible. Technology therefore enables individuals to travel with increasingly greater ease and enables firms to provide even better customer service. “One recent area of focus is our traveller care solution, AX CONNECT. It’s a visual traveller tracking and two-way messaging communication tool that enables travel managers to alert and pinpoint travellers impacted by disruptions like natural disasters, [and] communicate with them via email and SMS”, says Konwiser.
The future is tech
“People have adopted technology in their homes and in their lives – the hospitality industry had to react to that”, says Byrne. Of course, there are various challenges that have arisen as a result of this makeover to the travel sector: out-dated companies are buckling under the pressure of new trends, and those that do not keep up with the pace are soon left behind.
The cost for hotels to transform their buildings into tech hubs is often unviable, while the threat of ‘sharing economy’ practices looms sternly. Although this type of accommodation has affected leisure travel far more acutely than its corporate counterpart, as those travelling on business often opt for better security and away from unwanted surprises, this too is beginning to change.
Despite the various challenges associated with it, technology has undoubtedly improved the travel experience, making it easier, more convenient and far safer. It offers both business and leisure tourists better service and value for money, while also expanding their level of choice exponentially. The explosion of variety as a result of technological innovation is not just limited to travel; it permeates every facet of life and can be attributed to the current era of globalisation. As technology continues to evolve, so will the advantages that it brings and the ability it has to bring people and nations closer together. As revolutionary as some aspects of it may seem, travel technology is not just the way of the future – it’s already here.