Have app, will (business) travel

by Guang-Jie Ren, PhD, Research Staff Member, Cloud & Mobile Enterprise Research, IBM Almaden Lab

I still remember my first business trip to the United States, while still a PhD student in the UK. It was to present a research paper at the Frontiers in Service Conference in San Francisco, back in October of 2007. It turned out that writing and publishing a paper about service transformation in industrial companies was not the only hard part. Coordinating the trip was also a major challenge.

A lot of my time and energy was spent applying for scholarships to cover the travel budget; appearing in the embassy to obtain a business visa; searching online for the least expensive flights and hotels; planning in advance the best route from one place to another; staring at the airports’ blue screens for flight status and gate number; and keeping all the receipts that were later stacked and stapled on the expense report. Every step of way was manual and every piece of information on paper.

Thanks to the release of the first generation iPhone that year, it became easier and easier for leisure travelers to make reservations, check in flights and get directions, anywhere anytime, with just a few taps on mobile devices. But business travelers have largely been left out.

The reality is enterprises have been slow to adapt to making the process of business travel mobile and connected. That’s why my team has been working on Project eTraveler, and two apps that tackle all those extras, from meeting schedules to expense reports.

Too Many Processes Trip Up Today’s Business Traveler 

Much of the mobile experience is a retrofit of web applications. Most business travel mobile apps have a similar look and feel and functionalities as their counterparts on the web; they neglect smaller screen sizes and fail to take advantage of capabilities unique to mobile devices, including software platform and embedded sensors. The user interface and interaction also lacks design intuition, forcing system workflows and constraints onto user behaviors rather than the other way around. Consequently, mobile adoption and engagement is low among business travelers. So travel apps are missing opportunities to motivate and empower end users for long-lasting business benefits.

And business travel processes and tools are disjointed. For a typical business trip, the traveler starts with an internal pre-trip approval app to justify the business reason and provide cost estimate. They then make reservations through an online booking tool or travel management agency. Meanwhile, they must also assess their immigration compliance in the case of a cross-border trip. Once that’s settled, they’ll use a calendar or third-party app for itinerary management. And it all finally goes through yet another process for expense reimbursement. 

These tools are not integrated, and information is not shared or synchronized, both internally or with the external ecosystem. A lot of time is wasted in re-typing or carrying over the same information from one tool to another. Equally important, the isolated processes make it difficult and time-consuming for corporate travel program managers, who manage these processes for a business, to get visibility at both traveler and corporate levels.

Business travel systems also don’t know you as an individual. They offer the same list of air, hotel and car rental options to everyone, regardless of your job role, business needs, traveler profile, travel history, or if you’re traveling alone or in a group, let alone any reasonable personal preferences and family constraints. They provide you with information that is often entirely out of context, from alerts about a union strike in France when Germany is the only country on your itinerary, to notifications about flight delay or gate change that are received hours after you board the plane. And they make very few if any recommendations in areas where advice is most needed, from ground transportation in an unfamiliar place, to restaurant choices for a client dinner.

Existing business travel processes and tools are focused entirely on the travel side of the equation. And yet the whole purpose of any business trip is to achieve business outcomes, such as promoting products, closing deals, evaluating ideas, learning skills, and so on. There is usually no connection between business and travel, leaving it to business travelers to figure out how to make travel arrangements that best serve business needs; how to prepare for business meetings while on the go; and how to coordinate with others in order to maximize collaboration. Meanwhile, very little effort is in place to understand the relationship between travel activities and business outcomes, and establish the return on investment of business travel. As a consequence, travel spending is the primary concern, making spending control the only tool that’s widely used at the enterprise level, often at the expense of business outcomes.

First Class Connection With New Apps 

Screenshot of Travel Plan app
Recognizing these limitations, about a year ago we started a research project code-named eTraveler with colleagues from IBM Corporate Travel Program and IBM Travel Industry Units. In our vision, business travel tools on mobile platforms would no longer fly second-class. They should be built and run on the mobile-first principle, using intuitive design and mobile capabilities for the best possible user experience. We want the business travel processes transparent and integrated so data is shared without duplication or contradiction. And also make business travel services personal, and cater to explicit and implicit needs of individual business travelers -- being fully aware of their contexts and preferences, while still adhering to the enterprise’s need for policy compliance and cost optimization. Business trips should no longer just focus on travel cost, when they are really carefully organized business activities meant to maximize ROI.

It was with this idea that we conceived, designed and developed the Travel Plan and Travel Track apps as part of the IBM-Apple Partnership on Mobile Enterprise. Available on iPhone, Travel Plan lets business travelers plan trips in a simple, intuitive manner. It derives trip dates and locations from the user’s meeting schedules or frequent destinations, rather than asking the user to fill in the blanks from scratch. In addition, the app is integrated with pre-trip approval and immigration compliance tools, saving the extra time and effort to go through those processes.  Advanced analytics is also applied to provide trip cost estimate based on historical and real-time data, and make reservation recommendations that take into account company policies, personal preferences and past choices. 

Screenshot of Travel Track app
After a trip is booked, Travel Track keeps business travelers informed on the iPhone and Apple Watch. It provides trip itineraries, upcoming to-dos, status updates and major disruptions, such as traffic jams or flight delays. And it offers additional meeting intelligence, pulling data from internal and external sources about meeting participants and their affiliated organizations. The app also connects colleagues who attend the same meeting, fly on the same route, or stay in nearby hotels, and facilitates group coordination and networking. It recommends to first-time visitors local services, such as ground transportation options and restaurant choices, and encourages users to review their travel experiences, which can be used by corporate travel program managers to detect service issues and evaluate supplier performance.

Travel Plan and Travel Track enterprise apps are the first milestone of our eTraveler project, and IBM is starting to introduce them to travel-intensive clients and partners.  Once implemented, the apps are available for download from an enterprise’s own app store, to ensure security protection and policy compliance. Meanwhile, our research team continues to work on other components of the business travel ecosystem, including pre-trip approval, immigration compliance, meeting briefcase, travel kit, corporate kit, and travel program analytics. The same set of principles is applied, from mobile-first and seamless integration to personalization and business centricity. And our vision remains the same, that is, to strike a healthy balance between compelling, engaging and empowering experience for business travelers, and travel spending, policy compliance and business outcomes for enterprises.

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