22 July 2020 - An article from Business Travel News Europe, written by Molly Dyson.
The global shut-down brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic has been devastating for the travel industry as a whole, with many companies still feeling the bite of a continued downturn in demand for their services. This is perhaps particularly true in the corporate travel world as many businesses and their employees are reluctant to return to travel.
But the pandemic seems to have carved out a niche for corporate travel technology start-ups, many of which managed to weather the storm, double down on innovation and as a result are now reaping the benefits in the form of new customers and, in some cases, a hiring spree.
So how did such young and sometimes-overlooked companies manage to survive such a harsh time for their industry?
According to Gavin Smith, director of travel technology reseller and support service provider Element, the mass disruption seen over the last four or five months has made the need for time-saving technology even more apparent. “As companies start allowing travel again, they will want to implement strict pre-trip approval processes, and I think that is likely to be a very manual process. We’re looking at technology that will move a lot of that to more automated systems so travel managers and team leaders don’t have to spend as much time looking at the details of every single trip. What might not have been of value to some organisations and TMCs before the pandemic will probably become fairly invaluable in a post-Covid environment.”
For Neil Ruth, CCO of travel management platform taptrip, the disruption has emphasised the importance of data in travel management. “Having access to live data from multiple sources at TMC, business and traveller level has never been so important,” he says. “This enables all stages of a trip to become far more defensible than a typically antiquated offline model.
“Duty of care must now become much more sophisticated and accessible, mobile-first technology; it puts the safety and wellbeing of the traveller literally in their own hands with immediate support and information just a few taps away.”
And Ruth agrees with Smith that automating processes in the offline environment will come to the fore as a result of the pandemic. “Robust automation is going to become more and more critical, again moving away from offline models and toward a more seamless and frictionless experience, within which are greater efficiencies pertaining to time saved and, consequently, less hassle and worry.”
JC Taunay-Bucalo, chief commercial officer at TravelPerk, believes the consumerisation of business travel will be accelerated as a result of the pandemic. “We have acquired a lot of new customers over the last few months, and many of them have never had a managed travel programme before but now see the value of gaining support from a company like ours or a TMC. I think technology will play a big part for those customers; travellers want a consumer-like experience and the ability to self-service their bookings. The majority of our bookings are made without the need for human interaction because that’s what people want. This was already happening before the pandemic, so I think development and innovation will only increase. The key for technology providers will be to stay flexible when it comes to self-servicing. I believe that there will come a time that business travel technology outpaces consumer technology.”
New products and innovation
Element, which was founded in 2019 as a technology reseller, provides implementation support, software outsourcing and consultancy services, mainly for small and medium-sized TMCs. Since the start of the year, the company has signed reseller agreements with dcs plus, 30SecondsToFly, Traveldoo and Zenmer. In addition, the company has launched its new service product, Accelerate, for both TMCs and corporates, which helps companies outsource their booking tool delivery and support, and it is currently developing a new product offering travel policy support.
Talking specifically about the coronavirus outbreak, Smith says: “We’re a very young company, but this situation has given us the opportunity to think about exactly what we offer our customers and how we can adapt to the changes that we’re seeing. For us it’s about what we can do to help our clients, all of whom have bills to pay and employees with families to support.”
In a recent blog post about Element’s upcoming policy tool, Smith wrote: “Being part of corporate and TMC forums, we have first-hand examples of the new complex processes that corporates have or are putting in place. We knew it was a major problem and wanted to get to the root of the issues.”
For young technology companies such as taptrip, the shutdown hit close to home for employees.
“Firstly, our initial approach was to ensure the team were supported in any capacity they needed to be, from a home office allowance to over communication and mental health support through services like Perkbox and the new [workplace mental health and wellbeing app] 87%,” says Ruth. “We recognised this was – and still is – an incredibly uncertain time, but all jobs were secure, and we needed to continually reiterate that.”
Taptrip is one of several start-ups that was able to close an investment round in the midst of the pandemic, which Ruth says has allowed the company to double its engineering team and grow its overall headcount to 19 staff members in recent weeks. “We’ve doubled down on product development since the world stopped, and we’re ready to go once the world starts going again,” Ruth adds.
TravelPerk, seeing the need to provide duty of care support through its technology, struck a partnership agreement with Riskline to integrate its destination information into its TravelCare platform. However, Taunay-Bucalo says recent local lockdowns to contain infection spikes created the need for city-specific information, so the company acquired start-up Albatross earlier this month, allowing the platform to provide clients with Covid-19 travel restrictions and local guidelines.
The company’s FlexiPerk offering, which was released in some markets in 2019 and allows corporates to cancel and get a refund on any booking for a 10 per cent up-front fee, was made available across the EU and Switzerland in April as the disruption of the pandemic hit. TravelPerk has also used the time to develop its GreenPerk carbon offsetting product and continues to develop its rail product that last year saw it integrate content from Trainline.
“This pandemic has definitely not been business as usual,” says Taunay-Bucalo. “In the beginning it was a shock to the system for us and the whole industry. We went from processing hundreds of transactions a day to no transactions and supporting our clients with cancellations and ticket changes, so we moved our sales team over to customer care to help with the volume of requests that were coming in. Then the attention turned to making sure people who were still on the road could get home and that refunds were processed, so we invested in our technology to make sure we could support that.
“Since around May I would say our focus has been on supporting the people who need to travel – those in the healthcare sector or engineers who can’t fix a machine via video call – and reassuring them, because a lot of people are nervous about travelling right now. Hence the investment in our duty of care offering and the acquisition of Albatross.”
While the companies interviewed by BTN Europe for this article seem to be thriving, the downturn caused by the pandemic has still not been kind. As Taunay-Bucalo said, like traditional TMCs, TravelPerk had a lot of work to do during the height of the disruption with very little revenue coming in from bookings. But the situation has also brought companies a wealth of new customers that now see the need for a managed travel programme and the technology to support that.
However, Taunay-Bucalo urges caution as businesses start considering whether to send their employees on trips. “We want people to get back on the road, but we want them to do it safely,” he says. “I think this pandemic will really change corporates’ habits. We have some customers who say they’re going to reduce their level of travel, while others are booking entire hotels just to have a place to get their team back together if they don’t have an office. Whatever you do, make sure the duty of care element is first and foremost.”
Smith and Ruth maintain an incredibly positive outlook for the industry but agree the recovery will be a long and winding road. “Travel will come back,” says Smith. “Where businesses have removed internal travel, I think that will probably continue at least in the medium term and client-facing meetings will be the focus. Businesses will really have to evaluate the value of travel for the business and it will be driven by both budget and duty of care considerations.”
Smith continues: “The one thing I really hope will come out of this is that organisations realise it shouldn’t be up to a single person to manage their travel programme – it should involve various parts of the company, from HR and compliance to finance and the c-suite.”
Ruth adds: “Our industry is incredibly resilient. This isn’t the first and certainly won’t be the last pandemic, but we will learn to be more adaptable and defensible to it happening again. I hope during the recovery there are opportunities to collaborate more, to support and share with each other.
“This pandemic has perhaps hit us harder than any other industry, but through such testing times our response will be through innovation. I’m excited to see what comes next, in particular a new wave of start-ups that are born in response.”