Humans still have a future as the techy millennials set to take lead
If you're wondering what the future holds for how your company travel is managed, and what your personal experience will be like, a new tech survey throws up some interesting insights.
Travel commerce platform Travelport shows that while millennials are driving change, there are some conventional wisdoms about them worth taking a second look at.
"By 2023, 75pc of the world's workforce will be millennials," Simon Ferguson, Travelport's managing director, Northern Europe, told the Sunday Independent in London, adding that this figure is skewed by birth rates outside the Western world. While millennials are still seen as an emerging consumer force, their time is coming soon, with Ferguson revealing that "over 60pc of business travellers in the Asia-Pacific region today are millennials, while it's around 40pc in Europe".
The survey found that 44pc are unhappy that they can't access booking information across their devices 24/7 - compared to just 32pc of Generation X travellers (35- to 54-year-olds) and a mere 12pc of boomers (those over 55).
But he believes you can't put the younger generation "in a goldfish bowl", revealing: "They're as frustrated at not being able to contact a human being when things go wrong as the older generation. Even though they're described sometimes as the silent traveller because they self-serve and go through the whole booking process without physically speaking to someone, they need contact as well."
Colleague Steven Ratcliffe, who heads up digital strategy, believes that the travel sector needs to look at Apple, where humans take over when a chatbot can't solve your problem.
"If Apple are doing that, and that is becoming common in retail and elsewhere, that is the way the world will go in travel as well. It was really simple and seamless to jump between those channels," says Ratcliffe.
He says that while technology is key - both see their company as a technology platform that works in the area of travel, not the other way around - human interaction is vital for all age groups travelling. "User research has shown that as long as you know it's a bot, you forgive the bot quite a lot. But if it tries to pass itself off as human, then you react differently," Ratcliffe argues.
Ferguson says this will be the first time in history with possibly five generations in the workforce, and there are differences between them all. Millennials are more inclined towards 'bleisure' - tacking on leisure days at the end of a business trip - with almost two out of three doing this, compared with just over a quarter of baby boomers. But Ferguson says the view that millennials are shunning traditional hotels en masse in favour of Airbnb-style accommodation isn't being backed up. "It's a little bit of a stereotype," he feels. "Airbnb say, interestingly enough, they definitely think they're more geared towards SMEs than corporates", with larger companies stricter about duty of care in their travel policies, and leaning towards traditional hotels.
But he adds: "In the financial downturn many corporates had to trade down and some of those habits have stayed."
While more than half of millennials use voice search in the travel process - compared with just one in 20 baby boomers - they don't see Alexa or other voice controls managing our bookings any time soon. "Voice control will be more about the discovery, a little less for the booking," Ratcliffe believes. "Your brain can only hold three or five options before it shuts down - would you trust that many [ie, few] options with an airline booking?" He believes that "chat does have a role to play in simple queries: what terminal does my flight go from, what's my baggage allowance - that's perfect for a chat interface".
While twice as many millennials as those in the next age group up book through a smartphone when it's required, they caution that retailers can get mobile strategy badly wrong.
"People have treated mobile like it's the web - it's not," says Ratcliffe, whose company has developed apps for the likes of EasyJet, Amex and travel management company BCD. He says "your whole life is in the phone - any communication that comes through that is by its very nature intimate and personal". The key, he feels, is personal engagement, with airlines using apps to inform and alert passengers. Pointing to another consumer-centred app it developed - for airline Etihad - he says consumers reacted in an unforeseen way.
"Etihad were pleasantly surprised in the first few months that they developed $30m of bookings - but that wasn't why they did it." The motto was, if you engage, you sell, just without the hard sell.
Travel management companies are having to adopt to clients' needs across multiple platforms. Ferguson believes that the traveller is ahead of the layers - their company's travel managers and also travel management companies - above them. "The end business traveller will always be an early adopter of anything that makes it convenient for them, and travel experience has come right up in the ranks of what travellers want" he says.
"Travel managers have realised that they've got to deliver a consumer-grade experience for the business traveller."
Sunday Indo Business