Innovation in the dynamic world of corporate travel

Panelists discuss corporate travel recovery, technology-driven innovation and its challenges in the Business Travel Trends and Forecasts series.

The panellists viewed AI as a promising technology that can revolutionise the corporate travel industry.
The panellists viewed AI as a promising technology that can revolutionise the corporate travel industry. Photo Credit: Adobe Stock/teerasub

In a panel session titled "Overcoming Hurdles to Business Travel Innovation" at the Business Travel Trends and Forecasts series in Singapore on 17 July 2023, corporate travel managers and procurement professionals gathered to discuss the importance of innovation in the corporate travel industry. The panelists shared insights into the current state of travel recovery, the role of technology in driving innovation, and the challenges faced by both buyers and startups in the industry.

Travel recovery in the corporate world

Kei Shibata, the moderator of the panel, who is also the co-founder & CEO of Travel.jp, Trip101 & WiT Japan & North Asia, kicked off the discussion by addressing the recovery of corporate travel post-pandemic. He highlighted the differences between the consumer and corporate travel sectors and expressed curiousity about the state of recovery in the corporate world.

Sani Gouw, head of product at TruTrip, shared that his startup had launched during the pandemic, making it challenging to compare recovery with pre-pandemic levels. However, he noted that they had experienced significant growth due to the absence of prior data for comparison. Sani also mentioned that "our customers' conversations have shifted from pandemic concerns to economical aspects, with a strong emphasis on sustainability and efficiency in business travel."

Ben Wedlock, senior vice president of global sales, Asia Pacific at BCD Travel, said that the travel recovery cannot be summed up as a total as “the return of business travel varies across different regions and countries in the Asia Pacific marketplace. We estimate a return rate of 75% to 80% compared to pre-pandemic levels at the moment." Wedlock expressed optimism for the future, projecting a return to near-normal levels by late 2023 or early 2024.

Brenda Quek, Asia-Pacific travel, meetings and events program and engagement leader at Ernst & Young, said that while the appetite for travel remained strong, sustainability was a significant concern for corporate travel management.

“Achieving a complete return to pre-pandemic levels is challenging due to the commitment to balance travel with sustainability goals. We need to constantly innovate and automate processes within the travel programme, encouraging a shift towards more sustainable practices,” Quek added.

Exciting innovations in business travel

From left: Kei Shibata, Travel.jp, Trip101 & WiT Japan & North Asia; Sani Gouw, TruTrip; Ben Wedlock, BCD Travel; Brenda Quek, Ernst & Young.
From left: Kei Shibata, Travel.jp, Trip101 & WiT Japan & North Asia; Sani Gouw, TruTrip; Ben Wedlock, BCD Travel; Brenda Quek, Ernst & Young. Photo Credit: Cheryl Teo

Ben Wedlock highlighted the transformative power of conversational artificial intelligence (AI): "Imagine having an executive assistant in every traveller's pocket, leveraging AI to provide a seamless travel experience from booking to reconciliation. AI is not intended to replace human interaction but rather to enhance and streamline travel processes."

Brenda Quek touched on the importance of innovation in everyday processes: "We need to continuously evaluate our existing practices to identify areas that can be automated or improved. Innovation encompasses both big and small changes, including creating new solutions and automating manual tasks, fostering a culture of continuous improvement." Quek also mentioned Ernst & Young’s success in using blockchain technology to increase visibility and promote sustainability in leisure travel bookings.

Overcoming challenges and embracing collaboration

The panelists addressed the challenges faced by corporate travel buyers in adopting new technologies and fostering innovation within their organisations.

Brenda Quek highlighted the need for market readiness and education: "Given the diverse nature of the Asia-Pacific region, collaboration with internal stakeholders and business units is essential to align on the adoption of new solutions. We've leveraged chatbot technology to enhance communication and provide timely information to travellers, reducing the burden on travel managers."

Sani Gouw emphasised the role of partnerships between traditional TMCs and startups in driving innovation: "Collaboration and due diligence are crucial when evaluating potential partners to ensure that the solutions align with customers' needs. We must understand the pain points of corporate travel buyers and address them collectively."

Market consolidation and opportunities

The panelists discussed the evolving landscape of mergers and acquisitions (M&A) in the industry.

Sani Gouw expressed confidence in their startup's growth potential: "While fundraising is always a challenge, our primary focus is on investment and collaboration with startups rather than pursuing M&A opportunities. Partnerships and collaborations are key to fostering innovation and growth within the industry."

Brenda Quek highlighted market readiness as a significant pain point, noting the diverse levels of technological maturity across different markets in the Asia-Pacific region. She emphasised the importance of education and working collaboratively with internal stakeholders to ensure successful adoption of innovative solutions.