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While it’s fun to gaze into the crystal ball and make predictions, sometimes it’s more productive to look backwards to take a deeper dive into what we’ve learned.  It seems like the corporate travel industry experiences one unprecedented event after another.  The rapidly changing landscape saw a huge comeback in 2023 from 2019 transaction levels, new technology challenged the old guard causing travel managers to think about how best to move their programs forward, and supplier distribution strategies caused chaos everywhere.

This retrospective is not about these broad changes nor is intended to help provide big picture strategic thinking.  Rather, the focus here is more tactical.  The key drivers that consume travel industry news have a ripple effect deep into how programs are managed daily with a direct impact on the traveler.  We explore some of these topics here.

Key Topics for Corporate Travel in 2023

Customer Service

Historically, customer service expectations and in particular service level agreements (SLA’s) from Travel Management Companies (TMC’s) were intended to strike the right balance between traveler satisfaction and cost savings.  Policy driven and compliance focused programs understood that not every traveler would necessarily be “happy”, but the goal was to make every traveler “satisfied”.  The balancing act came as a result of trying to give the traveler the best possible experience while enforcing sometimes unpopular policy rules where savings outweighed customer choice. 

Over the past few years, more customer choice emerged because of new technology, a focus by suppliers to push travelers directly to their consumer websites for bookings, and a propensity among a younger generation of senior level travelers toward self-reliance has changed the way many programs think about customer service.

Traditional telephone SLA’s come to mind, as an example of the shift in how programs think about servicing the traveler.  Historically, contractually obligated SLA’s dealing with hold times were front and center.  We knew that the commonly accepted metric of 70/60 (70% of all calls answered within 60 seconds) was minimally acceptable.  At this call metric, travelers were generally “satisfied”.  80/20 call metrics were typically reserved for VIP travelers, but we could measure and show that 80/20 call metrics always proved positive results.  This methodology extended to other success metrics as well including average abandon rates, dropped calls, email responses, et cetera. 

In 2023, we started to see a definite trend towards a more holistic approach in defining customer satisfaction.  With more choice than ever coupled with more competitive acquisition and talent retention strategies by corporations, traveler satisfaction is not only more important than ever but also needs to consider more than just purely objective statistics.  CSAT scores have become the norm.  Customer satisfaction scoring takes a broad brushstroke at satisfaction, measuring the positive response rate against total responses to develop an overall satisfaction percent.  Successful CSAT scores can provide a better perspective on traveler satisfaction and can paint a better picture to inform how well suppliers are performing and whether travelers are finding value from the travel program. We expect to see more of this type of thinking amongst travel managers and suppliers into 2024 as we consider how best to service travelers and forecast potential risks or threats to the program based on these types of satisfaction metrics.

Re-Defining the Value of TMC’s

One of the most difficult challenges the industry faces today is staffing. Travel counselors are getting harder to find and retain.  As travelers are exposed to more choice and programs put a heavier emphasis on traveler satisfaction, ensuring value is delivered by travel counselors is more challenging to measure and manage than ever. 

Historically, agent productivity in terms of number of booked reservations was a focus to determine efficiency and simple traveler surveys were completed periodically to measure performance.  In addition, quality control mechanisms could track basic agent errors as well as automation issues dealing with ticketing or file finishing.  Today, we recognize that many agent errors go unreported which can cause a lot of issues when dealing with inexperienced agents both in terms of training opportunities and identifying bad hires.  Best in class travel programs today are conducting in-depth “quality” conversations internally and with their TMC’s to determine how best to leverage self-reporting of agent errors as well as new technologies to interpret broader data sets.  Newer technology and even Artificial Intelligence applications can review and make decisions based on the number of times a record is reviewed, for example.  

Email correspondence between the agent and traveler, chat, and PNR data can now all be combined to paint a picture of agent efficiency and service at a level we haven’t seen in years past.  As we continue to see industry change and particularly as new technologies push the envelope of what can be possible for a travel program, TMC’s are looking to redefine how their most valuable asset, human resources, can improve and create a competitive advantage and happy customer.

Changes in Data Management

Historically, managing travel data in support of preferred supplier discounts was both art and science driven by trusting client relationships and supported by clean management reporting.  Strong vendor programs sufficed with travel managers largely siloed from other functional areas within an organization if budgets and commission revenue worked out as planned.  Today, we are seeing travel program strategy more intimately tied to an organization’s overall business strategy.  The role of the travel category owner has become more challenging and the need for strong data management skills has never been more important.  In addition to having access to good travel data, the travel manager must be more adept at communicating the importance of the data and how it impacts the business more broadly. 

What Does This Mean for Corporate Travel?

As with many business functions, tactics sometimes drive strategy.  Perhaps the biggest lesson we learned in 2023 was that travel programs began to adapt to industry change by implementing new internal processes that had an impact on their daily operations.  We expect to see more of this in 2024 and believe that continued strategic thinking will be critical to help balance customer satisfaction and cost savings as the industry continues to evolve.

If you need a partner to help you audit your corporate travel program or outsource it entirely, reach out to us online to see how KesselRun Corporate Travel Solutions can help your business.