Age of disruption

ACTE Global Conference looks at change in the technology rich business travel world

January 16, 2018
by Michael Power

From the December 2017 print edition

Change was in the air in Toronto during the ACTE Global Conference last November, as members of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives gathered to discuss what’s new in the world of corporate travel. The organization’s executive director, Greeley Koch kicked off the event with a discussion of where the corporate travel industry is heading over the next several years.

That world of travel is changing, Koch told the audience. There is lots of disruption and travel managers can wake up on any day to news including natural disasters, political unrest or an immigration ban that can suddenly affect travellers’ mobility. The demands of corporate travellers are also changing, Koch noted. ACTE recently completed a research paper, entitled Managing The Modern Business Traveller, which noted that modern business travel buyers are looking for flexibility, work/life balance, along with an on-demand and consumer-like experience. Travel policies need to support these areas.

The use of technology among business travellers is also expanding, Koch noted. In 2016, a total of 67 percent of travellers used mobile apps for booking. This year, that number is 89 percent. Organizations need to allow travellers to perform these tasks from their mobile devices. “This is growing,” he said. “This is clearly a focus area in ways we never thought of before.”

Today’s travel program has also become increasingly complex, he said. The study asked travel buyers to rate their priorities and, as a result, 88 percent cited cost reduction as the most important factor in their programs. Data security came in second at 84 percent, while 47 percent of respondents are looking to improve duty of care as their first priority. Overall, 33 percent of candidates ask to see an organization’s travel policy while 31 percent of policy exceptions are linked to retention, Koch said.

Airline payments
Shifts in technology and the way in which business travel is done are also affecting payment methods, said fellow speaker Anthony Doyle, senior director of global sales, corporate development and operations, at Air Canada. From an airline perspective, Doyle predicted several changes in this area in the coming years, with several of those changes already underway. For its part, Air Canada introduced seven alternative forms of payment early in 2018 and in the coming year Doyle expects virtual accounts to gain prominence. One caution he gave in this area was that merchants will continue to monitor closely the situation with alternative payment forms to see how they affect payments overall.
Beyond 2018, Doyle notes that new and disruptive technologies like blockchain will also affect payments. Blockchain, he said, has the ability to revolutionize the way in which data flows.

Three Toronto students hit the spotlight during the ACTE conference. Andrik Ludavicius and Brenda Xia spoke about industry changes. Ludavicious focused on the future of flight, noting innovations like a “smart tunnel” using biometric identification and other technology to screen air passengers. Xia discussed collaboration. Hologram technology will allow businesses exchange ideas and information while building engagement. Imagine flying to one city while telecommuting to a meeting in another city, Xia said. Helen Acri spoke during a breakout session on the airline industry. From left: Ryerson professor Christopher Gibbs; Helen Acri; Andrik Ludavicious; Brenda Xia; and Ryerson professor Judy Healy. Image: Dorothy Jakovina

Speakers at the conference also discussed duty of care, with Michael Thomson, CEO of risk management company FocusPoint International, citing several reasons the topic has gotten attention recently. Legislation and liability are major factors, with governments around the world tightening rules surrounding duty of care. In Canada, for example, Bill C-45 established new legal duties for workplace health and safety and imposed serious penalties for violations that result in injury or death.

Another reason for duty of care hitting the spotlight is an increased frequency of events, Thomson noted. At one time, it was noteworthy if FocusPoint dealt with one or two major events a year. Recently, there have been 60 a day—which means two an hour. The variety of incidents has also increased, he said. Medical mishaps once accounted for the majority of adverse events his company dealt with. But today those incidents also include pandemics, political crime and terrorism. Finally, the proximity of incidents has changed, Thomson added. While locations like Iraq and Africa once dominated the list of hot spots, risk has come closer to home. Countries such as France, Belgium and the UK have also seen risk due to terrorist attacks. “These are not far away places,” he said.

Travel tracking is central in designing a best-in-class duty of care program, Thomson said. Start with a consistent policy, which should be documented, communicated and enforced. Since it’s a company’s responsibility that travellers understand risks, those employees should also sign off that they have read the policy. Pre-trip intelligence, risk ratings and recent alerts can help travellers understand the risks of the location they’re travelling to.

Ensure travellers can receive alerts in real time, Thompson advised. And while geo-tracking is important it has shortcomings. The “next big thing” in terms of knowing where employees are is most likely satellite tracking.
While costs are coming down, they remain a serious consideration for many companies when putting together a duty of care program, Thompson said. But that cost must be balanced with moral and legal obligations to safeguard the safety of employees. Confusion also sometimes crops up regarding who owns duty of care, so having a duty of care committee—as well as executive-level champion—can help keep the issue top of mind, Thompson said.

Cutting-edge technology
The theme of technology’s effects on the travel world continued throughout the conference, with Johnny Thorsen, VP of global travel strategy & partnership at chatbot startup Mezi. Thorsen discussed how advanced technology was becoming a part not only of travel programs but also of people’s daily lives. Travel, communication, pay, expense management and other aspects of the modern world are being disrupted by technology developments. Thorsen cited examples like Amazon Go, a new kind of cashless store in which shoppers select items and walk out without paying. The store’s items have been tagged with ID chips that connect to a shopper’s prime ID—shoppers are then billed for their items. As another example, nations like Estonia allow e-citizenship, where foreigners can run a company without having to live in there. Other examples Thorsen provided, including roll-up mobile phones and self-driving cars, were once strictly the realm of science fiction. “Those solutions are arriving,” Thorsen said.

A prediction Thorsen made during his discussion was that crypto-currencies would continue to gain in importance. Today, those currencies are growing fast, he noted. The coins have capabilities that traditional currencies don’t, such as the ability to be divided into more units than the 100 units a traditional dollar can be divided into. The money can also be tracked constantly. “We move away from trust to proof,” Thorsen noted. While banks favour the crypto-currency provided by Ethereum, IOTA is also an interesting example due to its ability to create endless lists of transactions. Still, Thorsen noted, the names of most crypto-currencies remain unknown in the travel world. However, he added that travel was such a large category that crypto-currencies would likely make inroads into the industry.

Some Swiss bankers have even started a blockchain bank that exists only in the digital world, although Switzerland is currently the only country that allows this. In the US and the EU blockchain has yet to gain as much ground because politicians have yet to grasp the concept and focus on other issues. Arizona is currently the only US state that allows e-contracts in crypto-currencies and blockchain.

Why are crypto-currencies based on blockchain gaining ground? One reason is the transparency and accessibility that the technology offers, Thorsen notes, with all parties able to see the same data at the same time. With blockchain, data are everywhere rather than stored on a single server. Security is another factor—while new blockchain records can be created, existing ones can’t be changed or hacked like a traditional database. “Those are some really compelling reasons to say my new project will be on blockchain,” Thorsen said.

While the ACTE Global Conference focused on core travel management skills, the curriculum remained forward-looking and technology focused. Travel managers and buyers alike would do well to verse themselves in both.