Outside our office doors, the democracy of the World Wide Web thrives. User reviews have become standard features across the web, notably on leisure-travel sites, and social networking sites allow everyone to have a voice. In corporate travel technology, however, much of this functionality is absent or in the nascent stages of development. Is corporate travel the wrong place for such democracy? Or should travelers be able to contribute and share information via the corporate travel platform?
The answers depend on whom you ask. Seventy-one percent of frequent business travelers would like to see managed business travel providers offer consumer-generated ratings and reviews, according to New York City-based JupiterResearch's U.S. Frequent Business Travel Executive Survey, released last year. Significantly, respondents specified that the feedback must be relevant to business travel. So, simply linking to leisure travel sites wouldn't suffice.
Belmont, Calif.-based consultant Norm Rose authored a report last fall, Corporate Travel Technology Today and Tomorrow, co-produced by travel-industry market research providers PhoCusWright, based in Sherman, Conn., and Rose's company, Travel Tech Consulting. In it, Rose writes of the "major impact" Web 2.0 technologies can have on the productivity of the self-booking process. Such emerging features as user-generated content, user-generated ratings, social networking, personalization, user customization, mobile notification and mash-ups (applications that mix information from multiple sources into a single display) are beginning to show up in the online booking process -- a trend Rose labels Travel 2.0 and expects to continue and flourish.
"When you bring in these Travel 2.0 elements," according to Rose, "what you should be bringing in is more user perspective during the booking process. That should help travelers make more informed decisions, especially if they're unfamiliar with the destination or with a hotel property. Ratings and feedback from users are going to be part of the process.
"And it will become standard," adds Rose. "But knowing the slow rate of change in our industry, it's going to take a couple of years before we see this standard across all the different platforms."
Resistance is futile
Not every travel manager is eager to head down this path, but it has certainly become a topic of discussion.
"I think that we're going to be forced to look at it," admits Doug Weeks, global sourcing manager at consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton in McLean, Va. "Not that we've addressed it yet -- but I think clearly, as a firm, we recognize that this is the way the younger generation of employees really operates."
Weeks has mixed feelings about incorporating such technology. "I am somewhat wary of it, from a management perspective. We could have users giving hotel reviews and the like that aren't very favorable to some of our preferred suppliers -- not necessarily information we want distributed throughout the company."
Michael Hall shares Weeks' concern. "I'm not sure that 2.0 wouldn't create an environment that might make policy compliance even more difficult to drive," says the Milwaukee-based manager of global travel services for Johnson Controls. A fan of Web 2.0 functionality in consumer travel, Hall isn't convinced the concept will translate that well to the corporate desktop. "Though the traveler is the user," says Hall, "the corporation is basically the consumer, as they're the ones that end up paying for it."
These thoughts are in line with the most commonly expressed fear among travel managers, according to Rose -- "that you're exposing two ends of the bell curve." Of particular concern is "the end with very angry people, who will be blasting the travel program." Anyone who has spent any time on Internet forums likely has witnessed the venting that can occur.
But Rose says the expectation that these sentiments wouldn't otherwise surface is naïve, and the corporate desktop can provide a more organized forum. "Marketing 101 says the average dissatisfied person tells about 11 people, and then about five of those people end up telling an additional person," notes Rose. "So when people are upset about something -- they're upset about a hotel, or they're upset about some other travel arrangement -- it gets communicated, whether you like it or not."
More good than harm
Doug Weeks is quick to point out he's also interested in seeing what his travelers have to say, good or bad. "It's easy enough for us to sit back and make decisions on hotels based on location and price, for example, but we're not the ones going there and staying in them. It could really be helpful to have that user-generated content when hotels or airlines or anyone else comes around to ask questions about volume and why they're not getting a certain market share."
Creating an organized forum for such gripes -- or praise -- might be a very useful tool, agrees Suzanne Neufang, vice president of product marketing and customer experience for Southlake, Texas-based GetThere. She says GetThere currently is working with sister company IgoUgo -- a leisure traveler review site acquired in 2005 by GetThere parent Sabre Holdings -- to launch a corporate traveler hotel review feature within GetThere by this summer.
"The key," explains Neufang, "isn't necessarily that all travel or procurement managers are interested in just the smiley faces or the stars that might appear. They really want to get more underlying metrics that the traveler reviews could capture. That's certainly a big piece of what we envision for that product -- the amalgamation of these reviews and the averages that would allow corporate travel managers to track how preferred properties are doing, in terms of their customer experience."
Not only might it provide leverage for yearly negotiations, Neufang adds, it's fairly immediate feedback that's available on a year-round basis. That's an aspect to user-generated reviews that Doug Weeks finds very appealing. "Right now we do an annual traveler survey," he says, "where we ask about all components of our travel program. Instead of waiting until year's end to help define and create the road map for the following year, we could be more dynamic and address things as the year goes on. So maybe there's a better chance of remedying things that aren't going well."
The ability for business travelers to share information regarding hotels, the surrounding area and the trip in general would likely improve the traveler experience, says Neufang, and it can enhance a sense of traveler security, as well. "As a solo woman traveler at times, there is a lot to be said for these travel reviews that can reassure me, or anyone else, that this is in a well-lit part of town, that the front desk is always open and that you feel secure when you're coming in after a late dinner," she says.
Keeping 'em in check
Not surprisingly, travel managers would like to maintain some degree of control so that online discussions don't get out of hand.
"The product that we would launch would have some edit controls," assures Neufang. "We don't have it all figured out yet who those editors would be and how that would work." But, she points out, IgoUgo functions with an editor who decides what traveler feedback gets published and what doesn't. For corporate clients, she adds, it will be "a matter of cost at that point, and a matter of trust, and the culture that you have in your corporation."
Neufang refers to this traveler-review capability as GetThere's "killer app" with respect to Web 2.0 technology. Sabre also is piloting a proprietary Facebook-type social-networking application in-house, called Cubeless, which eventually might find its way to market in some form, says Neufang. But she's also clear about such functionality not being among GetThere's top priorities.
"Any of our company customers would be cautious in advising us to go down this road too far," says Neufang. "In terms of what our customers want our priorities to be, it still has to be more about driving efficiencies, driving user satisfaction with the actual shopping and booking process, and finding ways to put things online that aren't managed at the moment," rather than "creating a warm and fuzzy spot to shop."
A traveler review feature is scheduled to debut "in fairly short order" this year in the Rearden Commerce platform, according to Tony D'Astolfo, vice president of worldwide sales at the Foster City, Calif.-based provider of online booking and travel-related procurement services. But Rearden's entire approach to technology, explains D'Astolfo, is founded on Web 2.0 principles; traveler reviews simply represent a new source of content.
"User-generated content is just one manifestation of what you should be doing," says D'Astolfo. Rearden's platform is based on the "mash-up" principle: taking the most valuable information from a wide variety of sources and delivering the most relevant content to the user.
"One of the best examples we have in our site today of a Web 2.0 concept is in the dining application," D'Astolfo explains, "and over time it will manifest itself more prevalently in the travel and hotel areas." In Rearden's dining app, "we're mashing up content from probably five or six sources today." Restaurant information -- some user-generated -- comes from sources like Zagat, Gayot and WCities; restaurant reservations capability comes by way of Open Table; mapping from Google Maps; and rebate information from Awards Network. Rearden integrates content from all of those sources, synthesizes it into a central platform and delivers it to the user. The newest version, introduced last month, builds in extra space designated for peer reviews and user feedback, when that feature becomes available.
But as D'Astolfo acknowledges, "not all user-generated content is created equal. I see a lot of different content on the Web, and the one thing that scares me, as a 51-year-old business traveler, is that I don't know who the content was generated by." Which is why, he continues, establishing user identity information is so crucial in the corporate setting. "I want to know I'm getting information from my peers."
User-generated content might be a relatively small part of Rearden's platform but, D'Astolfo admits, "it will probably become a more valuable and growing part because Generation Y people love communities and love interacting with their peers and love having information from trusted sources at their fingertips."
It won't be too long before that generation becomes a more influential part of the workplace. "There's a convergence taking place," warns D'Astolfo, "between the way Generation Y people use the Web and the corporate desktop. And you need to start morphing your corporate desktop into a much more user-friendly environment, or these people will reject it." -- M.J.S.