An online booking tool (OBT) is an essential component of any modern managed travel program. OBTs offer companies a way to increase policy compliance and decrease transaction fees. However, these potential benefits will go unrealized if employees don't use the designated OBT when arranging their business trips.
Levels of OBT use vary widely across organizations. One estimate from Serko, a travel management company, suggests that “OBT penetration rates … range from 40% through to 95%, or even 100% in exceptional cases,” though “on average, organizations achieve somewhere between 45% and 55% penetration within 6 to 12 months,” which is “typically below the level forecast” before implementation.
Employees resist booking through their company’s OBT for several reasons, and chief among them is poor user experience. OBTs developed as a system for controlling corporate travel spending. In comparison to consumer-focused online travel agents (OTAs) such as Expedia, OBTs can be cumbersome, with interfaces that might seem like they were added as an afterthought.
One segment of employees reject OBTs because they prefer online alternatives, causing potential problems for reporting, policy compliance, and maintenance of a company’s negotiated rate agreements with preferred travel suppliers. Other employees will continue to book over the phone with a corporate travel agent. Offline booking, once the norm for corporate travelers, comes with transaction fees that can be several times higher than those for self-service bookings made through an OBT.
For a company to reduce travel spending and the cost of travel management, it needs to win over both groups of employees who are reluctant to use the official OBT. Here are six steps for successfully implementing an OBT.
Identify Key Users
A small group of employees who travel frequently account for a high portion of trips booked. Road-warriors are potential power users for an OBT. Focusing training and support resources on this group will have the greatest effect on the amount of travel spending that goes through an OBT.
A related group of power users is made up of the administrative assistants, office managers, and other travel admins who book trips on behalf of their colleagues. It’s critical to ensure that travel admins feel comfortable with a new OBT, since they will ultimately be responsible for using the system to arrange convenient, policy-compliant trips.
Select the Right Online Booking Tool
When it comes to driving internal adoption of any new technology, selecting the right provider is more than half the battle. An OBT that provides real value for employees will, of course, be easier to roll out than one that is seen as only serving the needs of travel managers. Simply mandating that employees use an OBT will fall short of adoption goals. Business travelers need their booking system to be convenient, and to provide a sufficiently wide range of choices. To help make the right choice, it's best to involve employees when evaluating OBTs. Travel managers should ask about employees' existing booking habits, identify their pain points, have them test drive potential OBTs to get their sense of usability.
Key features to look for in an online booking tool include:
- Integration with an expense reporting system.
- Real-time application of negotiated flight, hotel, and rental car rates.
- Availability of a mobile app.
- Best fare identification and/or loss savings calculation.
- Customizable pre-trip approval workflow.
OBTs can be procured directly from a vendor, or from a travel management company (TMC). A TMC might offer a proprietary booking tool, or resell one from a third party. In either case, the primary advantage of using a TMC-supplied OBT is ease of implementation. Full integration with a TMC ensures that relevant rates are displayed in the booking portal and creates a single source of reporting.
Contracting directly with an OBT vendor allows for greater platform customization and minimizes the potential disruption from switching TMCs. Additionally, direct purchase might offer a slight price advantage, particularly for large companies.
Below is a list of some of the most notable online booking technologies to be aware of:
- Concur Travel
- Deem Corporate Travel
- KDS (recently acquired by American Express Global Business Travel)
- Amadeus e-Travel Management (AeTM)
Ensure Access to the Right Content
In the parlance of travel management, content refers to the flights, hotels, rental cars, and other inventory that a traveler can shop. Corporate OBTs, like travel agents and consumer OTAs, access their content from a global distribution systems (GDS), a computerized reservation network with itinerary and price data supplied by travel vendors.
A GDS supplies a company’s OBT with the private negotiated rates using a pseudo-city code (PCC), a unique I.D. maintained by the organization’s travel agency of record. Setting up the correct PCC connection is a standard part of implementing an OBT, but the coordination required with a company's TMC is occasionally time-consuming, and shouldn’t be taken for granted.
Most airlines, hotel chains, and car companies are available in the major GDSs. (Sabre, Amadeus, and the Travelport network are the three largest.) There are, however, important travel suppliers that don’t list their content in any GDS, and hence won’t show up as options when employees search an OBT. Notable examples of travel suppliers not available through a GDS include Southwest Airlines, national rail systems outside the United States, and many non-chain hotels.
OBTs can be configured to access some (though by no means all) vendor rates directly using an application programming interface (API). Invariably there will be some some travel suppliers missing from an OBT. Airbnb, for instance, is an increasingly popular option for business travelers that falls outside most conventional booking systems. When employees are dissatisfied with their OBT’s available options, they are more likely to book outside of an approved channel, which results in policy non-compliant purchases and incomplete expense records.
Establish Booking Guidelines and Approval Process
OBTs offer a greater degree of influence over employee booking than do open market alternatives. OBTs can be configured to highlight preferred vendors, flag or remove out-of-policy options, provide employees with policy reminders, and refuse non-compliant bookings.
But an OBT on its own cannot guarantee cost control. It’s necessary to provide employees with clear guidelines on what type of travel purchases are considered in-policy. (If your organization doesn’t have a travel policy, you can create one with this customizable template from Rocketrip.) Two points are especially important to address:
- Mandatory vs. Optional Use of OBT - Are employees required to arrange their trips through the official OBT, or can they book on an online travel site, subject to policy guidelines?
- Trip Approval Process - Will special pre-trip approval be required in some instances? For instance, trips that are booked at the last minute, or that exceed spending recommendations, might require approval from the traveler’s manager.
Actively Promote OBT Use
Companies can force employees to adopt an OBT by mandating its use and refusing reimbursement requests for travel booked in other ways. This approach is inarguably effective, though even companies that “require” use of an OBT see lower than 100% compliance; enforcing a zero-tolerance policy for out-of-system bookings is easier said than done, especially when it requires team managers to reject their colleagues’ reimbursement requests on technical grounds.
Whether using an OBT is required or merely recommended, it’s advisable to have a plan for communicating with employees about potential benefits. OBTs can significantly reduce both booking fees and per-trip spending. OBTs make travel costs more tangible by letting employees see the price of the flights and hotels they book relative to other options. “Such point-of-sale information can be very persuasive,” says Juan Perez, vice president of Global Business Solutions for BCD Travel. “Some clients have seen online adoption climb as much as 70% after sharing these costs with travelers. The key is making it easy for travelers to see the savings.”
Create a Smart Incentives Program
Rocketrip boosts OBT adoption by rewarding employees for booking below-budget options through an approved channel. This incentives-based approach to controlling travel costs aligns employee and employer interests: the company saves on total trip cost and ensures all travel spending remains visible, while employees get to keep a portion of the savings they generate.
To learn more about how Rocketrip helps companies leverage the full potential of their managed travel program, get in touch to see the platform in action.