Among all the photos of cheese sandwiches and disaster relief tents that lit up Twitter a few weeks ago, one tweet sublimely illustrated the power and prevalence of mobile travel apps today.

“@patricksurry I need @hopper to do an analysis on flights out of the Bahamas for #fyrefestival STAT,” a woman tweeted to Patrick Surry, chief data scientist at Montreal startup Hopper.

Hopper’s smartphone app uses predictive analytics to help people buy airline tickets at the cheapest price.

As Surry explains with a laugh, the woman wasn’t actually stranded at the Fyre Island music festival flameout.

“She’s a former Hopper employee who’s a big proponent of the music festival scene,” says Surry, born in London, Ont. and now based in Hopper’s Cambridge, Mass. office.

This humorous tweet illustrates the prevalence of mobile travel apps.

Although the tweet was sent as a joke, it does demonstrate how mobile apps like Hopper are becoming the go-to way to research, book and manage trips.

A few years ago, people stuck in a fiasco like Fyre Festival had to contact an airline or travel agent by phone or email (or spend time searching for options online) to get out of it. As that tweet suggests, today’s travelers can simply turn to a raft of mobile apps like Hopper – or pick the best options from the personalized recommendations delivered to their phones via automated push notifications.

Many companies – from startups like Hopper to traditional travel management firms – are using mobile, AI and analytics to disrupt every step of planning and purchasing a trip, whether it’s for business or pleasure.

“They’re making systems smarter as they go along. That takes data – lots of data,” says Norm Rose, a senior technology and corporate travel analyst based in the San Francisco office of Phocuswright, a travel sector research firm.

Data driven

Hopper certainly has no shortage of data to work with. The company has partnered with four of the five main companies that manage and distribute data on global airline schedules and fares. (This data isn’t publicly available but accessible only to accredited travel agencies.) Hopper also analyzes anonymous, real-time data from billions – yes, billions – of online trip searches.

“We started collecting data in large volumes at the end of 2013,” says Surry. “We collect data on about 10 to 15 billion trip itineraries every day.”

To plan a trip on Hopper, users enter their destination and potential travel dates into the app. Hopper predicts when flights will be cheapest, then suggests whether to “buy now” or “wait for a better price.”

To “buy now,” users can go ahead and book flights from within the Hopper app. If they decide to wait instead, the app alerts them when prices on those flights rise or fall.

Hopper’s smartphone app predicts the best time to book airline tickets in order to get the cheapest price. (Image: YouTube)

Hopper says its app saves the average user $50 per flight and can predict flight prices with 95 per cent accuracy up to six months before departure. Artificial intelligence (AI) is the latest addition to the Hopper mix.

“We get a lot of user behaviour data, so we’re starting to implement these kind of user-centric machine algorithms,” says Surry. “We’re trying to make intelligent recommendations about trips if you have some (itinerary) flexibility.”

This recent AI integration means Hopper can automatically suggest alternative destinations, routes or flights to users based on what it learns about similar search queries and bookings they’ve made in the past.

Travelers have hopped aboard Hopper in a huge way, downloading the app more than 12 million times since its 2015 launch. According to rankings by App Annie, Hopper is now the number one travel app in 37 countries.

Business travel

It’s notable that there’s no desktop version of Hopper; it’s available only as a smartphone app. When asked which technology is having the biggest impact on the travel sector overall, Phocuswright analyst Rose replies, “without question, it’s mobile.”

Just as smartphones led to the consumerization of corporate IT, they’re also leading to “the consumerization of corporate travel,” adds Kevin Craig, managing director at Concur Canada.

Acquired by SAP in 2014, Concur makes travel and expense management solutions. (Although Concur has acquired mobile consumer apps like Hipmunk and TripIt, it focuses mainly on the enterprise market.)

Craig says the current proliferation of mobile apps targeting corporate travel reminds him of the bring-your-own-device phenomenon. When employees started using their own mobile devices for work, it forced companies to enact BYOD policies so they could give staff the flexibility they wanted while still maintaining some control over corporate data, security and costs.

Now corporate travel is seeing a similar shift. Many companies have corporate travel policies stipulating that staff must use specific travel agents, websites or software to book business trips from a list of preferred airlines, hotels and car rental firms.

Concur Canada’s Kevin Craig: We’re seeing the “consumerization of corporate travel.”

For employees who’ve tried consumer apps like Hopper, that process can seem too complicated or time consuming; they want to plan business trips as easily and conveniently as they plan personal vacations on their phones.

That’s why companies like Concur are trying to make their apps and platforms more mobile and user friendly.

“The challenge in this space is how do you make it super simple for (business travelers) … to have that same consumer experience – but still give their companies the ability to see that employee-initiated travel spend,” says Craig.

Concur’s mobile travel and expense (T&E) app is a good example of how enterprise trip management solutions are emulating the convenience and UX of popular consumer apps. Right from their smartphones, users of this particular Concur app can book flights, hotels, rental cars, taxis and restaurant reservations, create and submit trip expense reports and attach photos they snap of related receipts.

Unlike most consumer apps, this one requires back-end integration with each user’s corporate travel policy. This automatically ensures the employee’s bookings and expenses comply with their employer’s rules on spending limits and preferred suppliers. Further Concur integration with the user’s personal credit card updates their travel expense report each time they use their card for a business trip.

According to Aberdeen Group research cited by Concur, smartphone apps can reduce the time spent processing travel expense reports by 40 per cent and boost corporate travel policy compliance by 10 per cent.

“Employees wanting to use (the mobile app) drives compliance and drives usability,” says Craig.

The lines between consumer and corporate travel technology are blurring. While corporate travel solution providers like Concur are consumerizing their offerings, consumer apps like Hopper are contemplating forays into the business travel market.

Hopper solely provides its users with data on economy class fares. Yet Surry concedes “we run into lots of people who use the app for business trips.” Adding business and first class fares to the app “is certainly one of the requests we hear pretty regularly,” he says. “We don’t have any announced plans yet but it’s obviously something we could expand to the broader experience of a trip.”

Managing travel risks

Big data and location-based technology are key components of the new emergency monitoring and messaging features Concur recently integrated into many of its business travel apps.

Companies can use the features to monitor a travelling employee’s location 24/7 and alert them to potential risks before or during their trip. In the event of terrorism or other disasters, employers can create customized incident analysis, situation updates and two-messaging alerts to keep workers safe.

Thanks to mobile and smart technologies “we will finally enter an environment where all types of business travel friction are removed,” predicts Norm Rose of Phocuswright.

“If there’s some kind of earthquake or upheaval, we’re able to allow travel managers to know not only where their travelers are, but also (use) their HR data to identify – within a certain radius of that area – how many employees they have there. They can instantly send out a message saying do you need help, are you okay?” says Craig.

Something like Fyre Festival’s dry cheese sandwiches obviously wouldn’t warrant that level of corporate travel emergency assistance. But new technologies are bringing more convenience and personalization to business travel.

In a Phocuswright report released last month, Rose paints a picture of a highly automated, AI-driven travel ecosystem where, in the next 10 years and beyond, “our needs are anticipated and proactively met automatically.”

“We will finally enter an environment where all types of business travel friction are removed,” he writes. “This ranges from automated security scans as travelers walk through the airport, to automatic check-in and check-out at the hotel. When we arrive at our destination, anything we’ve forgotten will automatically be provided (e.g., a hot meal, a spare power cord, a small conference room for a meeting) by analyzing individual travel patterns and purposes.”

For workers required to follow a corporate travel policy, “these services will be provided within a corporate-compliant setting that meets both the traveler’s personal needs and saves the corporation travel costs,” Rose concludes.

Airlines, hotels and other suppliers are already embracing chatbots that use AI and natural language processing to respond to travel queries almost the same way a customer service agent would. Will technology ultimately replace humans in the travel booking and management sector? Rose isn’t convinced it will happen any time soon.

“We’re not quite there yet. Most (chatbots) have a human element involved, at least as a fallback in case of a misunderstanding,” he says in a phone interview.

“Online booking has been here for 20 years and we still have (human) travel management agents,” he points out. “I think it’s a little bit like the analogy you’ve heard before with radio, TV and movies. But right now we still have all of those, even though they’re supposedly being threatened by Netflix or Spotify or whatever.”

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