Prashant Kirtane, CEO & co-Founder of Travelstop, shares his thoughts about how an AI-centric future can benefit and assist in streamlining the ever-growing corporate travel sector in APAC.
Business travel encompasses all trips that are undertaken by employees on behalf of their companies or organisations, including attending meetings, sales missions, conferences, incentives and other events. Its contributions in driving global travel are considerable.
According to a study by the World Travel Tourism Council, global business travel spending is projected to be worth US$1,765 billion by 2028, commanding an impressive 23 to 25 per cent of the worldwide travel expenditure. Compared to the US and Latin America, Asia-Pacific (APAC) commands the most significant share of the global business travel market at 40 per cent, and that amount is growing year-on-year, owing to strong economic growth, increased infrastructure investment and high Internet penetration rates. Within the next few years, its significance will only grow.
In Singapore, revenue from business and Meetings, Incentive Travel, Conventions and Exhibitions (MICE) travellers witnessed tremendous growth. From January to September 2018, spending rose by 10 per cent to S$3.4 billion (US$2.5 billion), compared to the same period in 2017, while visitor arrivals rose 14 per cent year-on-year to hit two million.
Technology has changed the way humanity experiences travel as a collective society and culture, from sharing and hashtagging our holiday photos on Instagram to seeking hotel recommendations and exclusive discounts via mobile travel apps. As more people travel for leisure, it’s only natural for them to expect the same ease and efficiency for their corporate trips.
According to a 2015 joint study by the Singapore Tourism Board and McKinsey, ever-connected and autonomous digital consumers now expect a travel experience that is personalised to one’s needs and wants, reliable in its execution and engaging on all levels. In response to this, legacy brands such as Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines have invested millions into establishing innovation hubs that would usher in a new age of technology and innovation for the travel industry.
These macro-level developments not only reflect the growing valuation of business travel but also echo the shifts in perceptions and preferences among business travellers. With APAC’s position growing, the travel industry must resort to smart and more efficient ways to understand and accommodate the needs of the Asian business traveller.
The role of AI in creating intelligent travel experiences
Artificial intelligence (AI) in essence, generally refers to computer software or machines that function tasks typically reserved for human-level cognition and intelligence.
Globally, AI is rapidly becoming a commonly-used competitive tool for businesses; from safeguarding digital security for banks, chatbots managing customer service and voice-activated virtual assistants such as Siri and Alexa dutifully remind you to purchase groceries after work. AI’s inclusion for the global travel industry can only aid in enabling a more seamless travel experience than there has ever been possible before. A great example of this innovation is Roxy, a speech-enabled device that provides instant access to hotel information and services, it has been making headways in the United States with its in-suite AI for hotel guests.
Here are three ways that AI is impacting Asia’s multi-billion dollar business travel sector.
1. Corporate travel management
Guided by algorithms and non-hard coded programming essentials, AI’s machine learning capabilities have the propensity to process, learn and analyse corporate travel behaviour and preferences at breakneck speeds. This has given rise to the potential of predictive models and forecasts to manage compliance; ergo maintaining the delicate balance between employee travel behaviour and company travel policy.
AI can streamline and design trip budgets based on multiple data sources such as corporate hierarchies, rate cards and other assorted expenses to eliminate over-budgeting, booking duplication and provide clarity on your CEO’s yearly travel expenditure. Employers, as well as employees, benefit from a real-time view of travel and expense spending. With AI, organisations can get actionable insights to make cost-saving decisions.
With predictive analytics, AI can anticipate and make travel recommendations based on global factors such as incremental weather conditions, festive peak periods such as Christmas and even geopolitical events such as the upcoming Trump-Kim Summit in Vietnam. These are variables that will have on global travel pricing and availability.
2. Travel personalisation
Planning a trip can be a taxing experience for many a corporate traveller or travel manager faced with time or resource constraints. With hundreds and thousands of potential travel offerings available online, how does one sift through the noise and find the ideal hotel or airline?
By tracking and studying user searches online, AI can customise and recommend travel solutions based on search histories or location-based parameters. This creates the opportunity for travellers and companies to improve the speed and accuracy in personalising travel offerings such as airline preferences, hotels and car rental companies based on established parameters such as location, schedule disruptions and frequency of trips.
3. Keeping business travellers safe
The recent spate of terror attacks, political instability and social unrest around the world, together with disease outbreaks and the increased frequency of natural disasters, have all helped to push safety and security to the forefront when it comes to business travel.
Authorities are actively experimenting with broader adoption of AI powered-biometric recognition at significant transit locations. Singapore’s Changi Airport is already experimenting with facial recognition technology to pinpoint and identify straggling passengers. In the US, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) unveiled plans in October 2018 to utilise facial recognition software and biometric identification tools to improve traveller identification accuracy and accelerate wait times. These crucial investments will offer advantages in keeping travellers safe, as well as smoothing their journeys and preventing significant delays.
Within the global business travel sector, AI will offer all sorts of benefits. I imagine a future dominated by increasingly smart and predictive flight alerts, profoundly personalised booking experiences and more secure traffic management solutions for airports. More importantly, I believe that AI-backed business travel solutions will prove to be a vital tool in improving profit yields for hotels and airlines.
These are exciting times ahead for us and in order to enjoy the full benefits of intelligent corporate travel, corporates need to take the first steps towards adopting AI-driven platforms to manage their business travel, which can provide automated expense reporting, real-time view of travel and expense spending and tools to simplify the corporate travel booking process.
From a personal standpoint, I believe that to unlock the potential of today is to possess a mindset that would ensure incremental and impactful changes to the way companies travel, as well as an open mind about what is the infinite possibilities in an AI-centric future.
Prashant Kirtane is the CEO and co-founder of Travelstop. The Singapore-headquartered company aims to revolutionise business travel for SME’s by providing a flexible and integrated solutions for business travellers.
Prior to Travelstop, Kirtane co-founded vacation rental platform Travelmob, which was acquired by Expedia’s subsidiary Home Away. Prior to his ventures into startups and the travel/vacation industry, Kirtane worked for 12 years at Yahoo!, where he was senior director of engineering (video).