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Moving On Mobile Travel Programs

March 06, 2012 - 05:15 PM ET

By David Jonas

Mobile technology is here, probably forever, and while questions of whether and how to apply it in a managed travel program no longer are new, few have all the answers. Each organization has its own emerging views, and keeping pace with evolving traveler behaviors and ever-accelerating tech advancements is no easy task.

Even so, given the near-ubiquity of mobile devices among professionals and the utility of a rapidly growing number of travel-related apps, it may be somewhat surprising that most companies don't address them in travel policies. According to BTN research, 72 percent of 186 travel buyers responding to a December 2011-February 2012 poll said their companies have no policies regarding mobile devices and/or apps for business travel. About one-fifth of those said their companies plan to implement such policies this year.

2012-03-06 BTN Mobile - Policy 


American Express Global Business Travel last year reviewed 100 travel policies and according to its February report found "none" that "mentioned mobile applications specifically as a means used officially by the company to provide connectivity for security purposes, such as tracking travelers during emergencies or communicating travel-related information." Amex noted that "companies may use separate technology policy documents to provide information about using mobile devices," but advocated for travel-related information to be "spelled out within travel policies as well."

Getting Started 

There are many reasons why companies have not written mobile travel policies. Though new, the challenges have a familiar feel. Who pays for the devices and apps? Who supports them? Do you want one provider to supply all technology, or is it more appropriate to stitch together multiple systems? How is security assured? Are virtual private networks easily accessible? How do you prevent employees from using smartphones for travel functions in ways that violate corporate policies? Is it OK for suppliers to market directly to travelers?

In some cases, travel program managers may want to answer as many of these questions as possible before formalizing a mobile technology program. In other cases, an organization's existing providers may have solutions that can be deployed quickly to provide a sufficient level of functionality and security.

Travel managers speaking in December at a New York conference held by The BTN Group provided pointers on how to start constructing a mobile program: gather feedback from employees about the apps they already use and what they want and need, discuss apps and related services available from existing preferred suppliers, involve the IT department at the earliest stages and determine whether the traveler or company owns the device and pays for apps and related costs.

"About a year and half ago, we started with an easy rollout of Concur Mobile, just to get some tools into our travelers' hands," said US Foods corporate travel, meetings and expense manager Jennifer Steinke. "We are building that trust, so they know we are not ignoring them. But that is one baby step in tackling the big issue of everything in our lives being on these phones."

Steinke said she conducted research—formally and informally—to engage her company's roughly 3,000 active travelers and determine which apps they already were using. She noted that US Foods, rather than issuing company BlackBerrys, "moved to individual device, individual liability, individual pay, with a stipend," enabling employees to choose a device.

Astellas Pharma US, an existing Concur Expense client with about $46 million in annual T&E expenditures, last year began using Concur Travel, and as part of that implementation began integrating mobile technology. The project requires coordination with IT, legal, human resources and, "by far our biggest user of the devices," sales and marketing, according to travel and expense manager Mary Alice Hansen. "Prior to our new telephone program rolling out [in 2012], if you wanted a corporate-liable device, you got a flip phone with no texting, no data. What sales rep in the field is going to work off a flip phone when you have smartphone technology out there?"

The company's new program includes BlackBerrys and iPhones for staff in the field. Owing to privacy concerns, personal phones will not be used for corporate business, and all apps on corporate phones will be controlled by program managers. "As a pharma company, we have a lot of data integrity issues," Hansen said. "If we can't manage those devices, then we have lost control of our business."

To ensure data protection, Hansen added, Astellas will monitor devices with MobileIron, a mobile security management system. "You have to encourage employees to use mobile technology, but to use it through your approved resources," she said.

The Advisory Board Co. has taken a different approach. "We've got BlackBerrys, iPhones and Androids. [Employees] own the devices; they put whatever they want on it," said vice president of information systems Steven Mandelbaum. A user of the Rearden Commerce booking platform, the company was an early adopter of Rearden Mobile Assistant.

Mandelbaum noted that mobile technology—aside from the devices themselves, which his organization does not pay for—is expensive. "Think about all the data going through," he said. On top of a voice plan and Wi-Fi connectivity fees at airports, on planes and in hotels, that "adds up to a lot of money really quickly." Therefore, his company, which fields about 700 very frequent travelers, is "moving to a program to put mobile costs all together—pick your device, pick your plan, here is your bucket, and you can work within that."

Popular Uses And New Opportunities 

The travel buyers speaking in December corroborated BTN research regarding the mobile functions that are most important to travelers: alerts of delays and cancellations, emergency notifications and the ability to review and share trip itineraries.

"These devices are really good for when you are on the move and have small bits of time," Mandelbaum said. "The thing that really made this take off was the gate alerts, the alerts on cancellations and flight delays ... that was number one. The number two feature is being able to view the itinerary."

Indeed, all three panelists cited itinerary-sharing TripIt as one of the most popular apps among their traveling employees. They each also mentioned dining-related apps. US Foods' Steinke specifically cited restaurant reviewer Yelp, but also described the Dine With Your Customers app, built internally by her company to help travelers find and visit customer locations.

2012-03-06 BTN Mobile - Functions 


Steinke also mentioned airport guide GateGuru and, perhaps "most surprising," ITA's OnTheFly flight-searching app. "Our travelers can't use it to book anything, but they use it for flight schedules," she said. "If I need to change my flight, I'll check ITA to see what the schedules are like, then call the agency."

Steinke also noted her travelers "love that they can take pictures of their receipts and upload them. That gets more people excited about going mobile than anything." New mobile expense capabilities, she added, have meant lower corporate card delinquency rates and quicker employee reimbursement.

Expense reporting in BTN's research ranked in the lower half of the most important mobile functions, but there's plenty of use. Nearly half of all those surveyed indicated employees can use mobile devices to submit and/or approve expenses through either email, mobile apps or websites. "My SVP was ecstatic that he could sit at the airport and approve expense reports while waiting for a flight," said Astellas' Hansen.

2012-03-06 BTN Mobile - Expense 


Discussing future mobile opportunities, the travel managers speaking at the conference touched on safety and security components (very desirable), the ability to change flights on the fly (also very desirable), apps provided by travel management companies (they must be better and more functional than what travelers can find on their own, panelists suggested, otherwise why bother?) and instant offers like those from Rearden's Homerun (possibly of interest, if travelers are clear on what is and is not reimbursable).

"We want to lower costs. It's a key objective always," Mandelbaum said. "If there are opportunities to pick up distressed inventory, whether that be for hotels or restaurants, we are interested. The best place to interact on that is through mobile devices on the go."


Sidebar: Mobile Corporate Air Bookings Finally Have Landed 

As mobile technology's role in managed corporate travel evolved, the seemingly inevitable next step of enabling air bookings was hampered by an obvious limitation: the relatively small smartphone screens that cannot convey to users all the flight options, fare flavors, product variables and policy components that a full-blown self-booking tool provides. (Tablets, of course, now are another, perhaps more promising, avenue.) Even so, the ability to initiate air bookings on mobile devices always seemed a question of when, not if. After all, the concept is reality in the B-to-C travel world.

Changing hotel and air reservations drew higher interest among BTN survey respondents than making bookings, and booking hotel stays was a more popular function than booking air tickets.

"I don't have a lot of people saying, 'I want to book flights on my mobile device,' " said travel manager Jennifer Steinke of US Foods. "For my travelers, it's for everything after they've done that, from the time they leave their house until the time they get back, filing expenses along the way."

Asellas Pharma US travel manager Mary Alice Hansen said she's all for airline bookings on mobile devices, "assuming it was in the preferred applications to make that booking," rather than booking directly with suppliers or through other unauthorized channels.

The Advisory Board Co.'s Steven Mandelbaum also does not object to mobile corporate air bookings, "but I don't see it as big an opportunity as other applications in the mobile space. If someone comes out with the right way to do it, and people want to use it, I am fine with it."

Despite some skepticism, Concur, GetThere and KDS separately claimed they have found the right way to do it. Each has said they now offer mobile users the ability to initiate policy-compliant air bookings.

Available on iPhone, BlackBerry and Android devices, GetThere Mobile since April 2011 has accommodated new hotel bookings. In November, it introduced the capability for "new air reservations within company policy and preferences for all carriers in the global distribution system," according to parent company Sabre. By the next month, mobile users were booking more air than hotel, according to GetThere chief product and strategy officer Paul Wiley.

The company indicated that additional mobile booking capabilities would be available "later this year." The mobile product does not offer ground transportation, but "we have the ability to integrate," Wiley said.

For such functions as itinerary management and delay and cancellation alerts, GetThere users can take advantage of Sabre's TripCase. Wiley said change and cancellation functions are under consideration. "All GetThere bookings are able to fully integrate into TripCase," he said. "Now we're working on having GetThere bookings start from TripCase."

KDS in January announced a fully functioning mobile corporate booking tool, offering negotiated airfares, a policy filter and content from GDSs, low-cost carriers and rail operators. The Book-on-Mobile app includes an expense approval facility for line managers and the ability to scan receipts into expense reports. KDS said the app is available for Android and BlackBerry devices, and is scheduled for iPhone deployment by summer.

Given the screen-size challenge, KDS opted to restrict initial search results to three options: best, cheapest and earliest. Travelers can request additional flight options; any outside policy are highlighted in red. Once the reservation is made, a fully integrated passenger name record is created. KDS vice president of product strategy Oliver Quayle said a simplified mobile display with reduced options encourages compliant and cheaper flight selections.

Concur in late 2011 also began providing in-policy airline bookings through its Concur Mobile product for Android, BlackBerry and iOS devices. "While we just recently launched air booking capability, we're seeing positive, early-stage usage and feedback from customers who appreciate the convenience of booking anywhere," according to executive vice president Mike Hilton. Meanwhile, CEO Steve Singh during a February conference call noted that TripIt, acquired by Concur in January 2011, now has nearly 4.5 million users.

— Jay Campbell and Amon Cohen contributed to this report 

This report originally appeared in the March 5, 2012, issue of Business Travel News. 

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