How smart phones are changing business travel

Written by on 3rd June 2011
Category: Business Travel

Who would have thought such a small device could be so powerful? In the years since their invention, smartphones have catalysed numerous changes in the way we communicate and do business, from the success of social networking sites such as Twitter, which thrive through hand-held portable devices, to the growth of mobile apps and websites. Now the way people book business travel is changing: at the Business Travel and Meetings Show in March this year, a speaker stated that 10% of bookings are currently being made through mobile devices.

These changes have already altered the business travel industry dramatically and it’s vital that businesses continue to adapt. Since the release of SilverDoor’s iPhone app and the mobile version of our website several months ago, hundreds of apps have been downloaded and the mobile version accessed thousands of times. To meet the ever-increasing popularity of tablet computers, we’re also currently developing an iPad app to ensure our customers experience the same functionality as the iPhone app on larger screens.

Writing on the Air & Business Travel News website, Stanley Slaughter argues that the new-found freedom provided by smartphones is altering the way people see business travel: “An essence of this fundamental change is that business travellers see themselves now as much more like leisure consumers who want a greater say in how and by what class they travel”. If employees can shape their travel according to their personal preferences, this should make business trips more appealing and make it easier for travellers to unwind outside of work – which can only be a good thing.

However, there’s been concern in the business travel industry that these changes could ultimately spell the end of the travel policy, and make it more difficult for companies to regulate their business travel: smartphones make it easier for employees to make bookings themselves using their company credit cards, rather than going through office managers or travel bookers. Slaughter reports that two travel managers called for increased regulation at the Advantage Conference in Madrid last month. Their principal concerns were that these developments will make it difficult for companies to monitor their employees’ travel, or to help them should they have any difficulties abroad.

For most companies, it’s vital to retain some control over employees’ business travel expenses. Our Office and HR Manager, Raimonda Kiausaite, who books travel for SilverDoor staff, explains: “The main difference is that, when employees book travel for themselves, they don’t have the time or resources to seek out the best deal and will often go for the one they find first, rather than the cheapest.” Most agents – including SilverDoor – are also able to offer discounted rates for bulk bookings.

Furthermore, at SilverDoor we find that having one point of contact, rather than several, at an organisation makes the booking process run much more smoothly. Building relationships with travel bookers or office managers allows us to communicate more easily and it helps to work with one or two people who understand how our system works and know the industry well.

For businesses concerned about balancing their employees’ requirements with their own, there are ways to strike a compromise. Google’s pioneering Travel Manager, Mike Tangney, has created a system called ‘Trips’ which provides staff with a travel budget and allows them to spend it as they wish: if they save on one business trip, they gain credit to spend on their next one, creating an incentive to find cheap travel. The system gives staff the freedom to choose when they save and when they spend, but this doesn’t mean Google has lost control: a database of every journey employees make provides the company with invaluable information. Like most organisations, Google has preferred supplier deals; employees aren’t obliged to use them, but they still book 65% of their accommodation at preferred properties simply because they offer better prices.

Few companies have the budget to develop such a system, but Google’s approach points to the compromises they can make. It seems inevitable that control will shift from the hands of business travel bookers to those doing the travel themselves, and it’s important that companies adapt rather than resist. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: companies just need to decide how much control they can relinquish.