Microsoft's Travel Manifesto

(Credits: gettyimages)
(Credits: gettyimages)

Corporate travel is a $1.3 trillion global industry leveraged by every major company on the planet to build success. The industry relies heavily on technology and processes that have not changed significantly in one, two or even three decades. This document is meant to stimulate conversation and action to push the industry forward.

It's the second time in less than a decade industry provocateurs have issued a manifesto (a summary of the first one is here). This time, the voices are led by Microsoft global director of travel, venue sourcing and payment Eric Bailey, who engaged at least a dozen technology companies, supplier partners and like-minded travel buyers to join his team for a corporate travel innovation summit to map a vision of the corporate travel future.

A copy obtained by Business Travel News named Conichi, EY, Hyatt, NH Hotels, Roadmap, Tripbam, Tripism and Winding Tree as collaborators but also indicated additional unnamed participants. No agencies and no global distribution partners were named. Judging from the tenor of the document, their absence may have been purposeful.

It's worth reading the document here, but a summary follows:

Philosophical & Structural Change

The manifesto asserts that the future of managed travel depends on providing the right traveler experience, not just for employee satisfaction purposes but also for the best operational efficiencies. Corporations "cannot realize the full value of [travel] without owning the traveler as a customer and truly partnering with suppliers to define and deliver the optimal experience," the authors wrote. Putting the traveler first, however, will disrupt longstanding technologies and commercial relationships, particularly at the level of the travel management company and global distribution system.

The group called for transparency in TMC and distribution relationships and for mechanisms that would ensure transparency and the free flow of data. Corporate travel programs, they wrote, "cannot be predicated on the limitations of legacy system dependencies, opaque commercial relationships, backdoor financial incentives and locked up data." They name-checked buzzwords like blockchain, New Distribution Capability and smart contracts, but they also began to define possible paths forward.

Laying the Path

Microsoft's vision for corporate travel is clearly visible in the manifesto, and the company has already taken several steps along the defined innovation pathway, but there are miles to go.

Understanding Traveler Data: According to summit collaborators, the journey begins with data and using multiple sources of it to understand travelers. Microsoft pointed to its own data lake, which gleans traveler insights from 11 distinct sources, including traditional TMC, card and expense but also social media, GDSs and other sources. Microsoft has segmented that data into traveler personas around which it can craft relevant program offerings. Delivering those offerings is where the program breaks down, for now.

Owning the Traveler Profile: Customer, aka traveler, ownership was key for summit participants. Digitizing the traveler ultimately would result in creating a "smart" traveler profile that holds some traditional static data but also continuously collects booking and behavioral data. An artificial intelligence layer would interpret the data in order to grow and change the profile as the traveler changes. Participants predicted the "super profile will sit with the corporation or even a third party that would make this profile transferable when the employee moves, with data flowing in from multiple sources. Control of the profile, however, would largely fall to the individual traveler" to release data to trusted suppliers in return for personalization and relevance.

Distributing Customized Content: If independent profiles enable diverse systems to mine the information for preferences and relevant history, content providers must then deliver relevant results and recommendations. NDC figured prominently in the minds of meeting participants, based on the idea that airlines using the new model will customize fare bundles for different companies or even for different groups of travelers in the same company. "Sourcing managers at Microsoft, and other companies, are eager to negotiate on ancillary products, which drive value to the bottom line as well as to travelers," they wrote, predicting, however, that suppliers that fail to modernize their distribution strategies would begin to lose market share as they fall short of traveler experience expectations.

Advancing an AI Vision: The manifesto called on TMCs to evolve quickly with AI platforms that would act as the first line of contact, not only for reaccommodation during disruptions but for all traveler inquiries. Authors demanded anticipatory booking solutions that would scan calendars and meeting appointments and ping travelers to suggest travel options, considering the traveler's past bookings or those of similar colleagues, based on traveler segmentation.

Destination Experience: Collaborators forecast that AI also would find a place in destination-experience tools that eventually will act like concierges for corporate travelers. Drawing on traveler input and matching back to the smart traveler profile, the tools themselves will make recommendations to travelers headed to unfamiliar cities. With sufficient adoption and inputs, destination experience would earn traveler trust, "easing the trip planning process, forging social connections among employees and driving productivity," they wrote.

Payment Beyond the Transaction: Summit participants asked, "Why is any corporate traveler taking out a plastic card to pay a preferred supplier?" They envisioned a future of smart contracts in which direct payment flows to preferred suppliers across fintech rails that are independent of traditional payment suppliers. They stopped short of widespread cryptocurrency adoption but dreamed of a future in which travelers walked in and out of hotel lobbies without presenting a card or checking in. Such an arrangement also would save hundreds of thousands in transaction and merchant fees that could be turned into additional consideration on rate.

Taking Risks Together

What does it take for an industry to innovate? Summit participants encouraged buyers to band together to demand change and define the paths they want to take. Small innovations count in moving toward a goal, the authors noted, and taking calculated risks is key. Still, at least one participant favored revolution over evolution and predicted it could happen virtually overnight: "What would happen if industry intermediaries just evaporated overnight? Corporations would still be able to book and execute travel … [and] large corporate travel programs would finally be motivated to get together and define what they want from an end-to-end provider." He predicted that a venture capitalist would fund that company overnight. "The corporates would have to sign a letter or something, but somebody could build that company in 18 months."


Disclosure: BTN editor in chief Elizabeth West functioned as a facilitator for Microsoft's Corporate Travel Innovation Summit. 

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