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- January 11, 2016
- Finance & AP
2016 will be a great year for business travel. Mobile and big data technologies will enable smartphone-wielding travelers to be insanely productive on the road. Those who manage travel programs will have new high-tech carrots and sticks at their disposal to automagically get expense reports in on time, manage policy compliance and accurately project costs. Here’s what we’re going to see.
1. Further simplification of expense reporting
I’ll start here because this is what I’m most excited about. I’m a long time road warrior, and these days I rarely interact with a desktop interface. Vendors have been perfecting the mobile experience so that everything you need to do to create and file an expense report can be done from a smartphone. The other day I pulled out of the airport parking lot, took a picture of my $60 parking receipt, dropped it into my expense report and submitted the whole report 30 seconds after my trip was over. Gone are the days of overstuffed wallets and briefcases filled with weeks’ worth of receipts. Everything is moving to real time.
The next step is for the phone to do a lot of the work for you. Improvements in GPS technology have led to precise geolocation accuracy. That combined with real-time data is enabling predictive recommendations that make compiling expense reports even easier. For example, if you’re at a restaurant for an extended period of time, you’ll get a prompt to take a picture of the receipt, which will drop right into a pre-populated line item. If you drive during a business trip, your mileage will be calculated and recorded automatically and dropped into an expense report, where all you have to do is approve it.
2. Influencing spend through feedback (and guilt)
More help with expense reports is a good thing, since you may be graded on them. Scoring and feedback are getting baked into expense report submission to help create better corporate citizens. For example, you might get feedback on a car rental or hotel stay, telling you if you paid an above average rate. Software can look at your airline ticket and compare the purchase date with the date of travel. Last minute ticket buyers may get a message such as, "Did you know that 21-day advance purchase leads to better pricing?"
Of course, you don't always have that option, so you might get a low score for factors outside your control. The technology isn’t perfect yet, but it definitely has an impact. I’m an A student and I always want to be an A student. When I fill out an expense report and I get a bad score, I try to figure out why. That has made me very familiar with costs and with company policies. Nobody wants to get sent to the principal's office for buying the most expensive airline tickets.
3. Automated compliant travel booking
Getting a grade on your expense report is after the fact. Proactive notifications during the booking process are the next frontier. Frequent travelers are already comfortable setting up alerts and getting real-time notifications of price drops and making on-the-fly changes to their travel. As we get tighter and tighter integration with booking tools, we will see more of this kind of thing, to the point where software can behave almost as an automated corporate travel agent influencing behavior before spend happens, so nobody ever has to be on the “naughty” list.
GPS technology could extend this capability to real-time activities as well, perhaps stopping a traveller from walking into a restaurant that’s too expensive and suggesting a more economical ones nearby that are in policy. These kinds of capabilities will become increasingly important as we continue to move in the direction of more online booking and less picking up the phone and talking to a travel advisor.
4. Data-driven gamification
Some companies are going beyond mere scoring to “gamify” good spend management practices by offering rewards to employees who meet targets—or beat them. People want to be good corporate citizens, and if you put some kind of incentive in front of them many will stretch themselves even further in that direction. With the sharing economy (Uber, Airbnb, Lyft, etc.) people have a lot more options to be frugal and earn these rewards.
I know of one program where the company gives travellers the benchmark for hotel pricing in their destination city, and if they beat that price, they get a travel reward for 50% of the difference. That could be for personal use, or to use as an upgrade on a future business trip. We will soon get to a point where some of these rewards can be offered in real time to make your stay more pleasant, as in, “Hey, we noticed that you booked a more economical hotel room. We’re going to reward you with a massage in the hotel spa, or dinner at a special restaurant, during your stay.”
5. Predictive recommendations for travel managers
Predictive recommendations aren’t just for travelers, they’re for travel managers too. Applications can provide suggestions such as, “Avoid San Francisco when these six conferences are taking place, because hotel rates will be really high."
These are based on years’ worth of historical data that shows, for example, that the third week of October is always the most expensive week. But, there's also enough real-time data in these tools now to spot trends where hotels are pre-booking fast. Again, you don’t always have a choice of when to travel, but you have information to enable better decisions.
Cost prediction is another area of innovation, and the concept is to use the organization’s historical travel spend data and mash that up with seasonal cost data and data from the internal booking and pre-approval process data so finance managers can better project costs and do their cash planning appropriately.
6. Analytics and reporting
Reporting and analytics are a huge growth category, and are being applied across a wide range of travel and expense functions. One area that stands out is "duty of care," which I think of as “find my travelers." This kind of capability has existed before, but it’s gotten much better with improvements in GPS and geolocation technology and by pulling in more data sources. All the travel manager has to do is press a button to see where everybody is. It’s especially critical when something happens such as last month’s attacks in Paris.
7. Data for sale
By now you’re getting the idea—data will be really big in 2016. Other people are getting the same idea. Providing managers with this kind of data intelligence used to be pretty much the domain of big travel management corporations such as American Express Global Business Travel and Carlson Wagonlit. Now, we're seeing new, specialized standalone data companies working with travel managers to give them better data. This data can get pretty granular, such as looking at travel patterns by age group, or the differing behaviors of online and offline bookers.
2016 will be all about smarter, more efficient travel through better data, better GPS capabilities, better predictive capabilities and innovative programs that reward good citizenship. Road warriors are going to be happier, and so are the people who manage them. And the frugal ones are going to be the happiest of all.
Roger Blumberg is a road warrior who files an expense report just about every single week.