Woman in headscarf at a laptop in front of light-filled windows

Travel Upgrade: Bold Digital Transformation Is Evolving Business Trips

Woman in headscarf at a laptop in front of light-filled windows
While grounded during the pandemic, progressive players doubled down on technology to create sustainable, smarter and slicker services for customers

It has been a bumpy ride. Corporate travel is emerging from a period of extreme turbulence during the coronavirus crisis. According to the Global Business Travel Association, worldwide corporate travel spending plummeted 54 percent in 2020 to US$661 billion in 2021.

However, instead of waiting for the dark clouds of the pandemic to pass, and the return of business as usual, the boldest hotels and airlines around the world used the time when shuttered and grounded, respectively, to upgrade their service offering for corporate travelers.

Progressive players sought to gain a competitive advantage by investing in innovation and doubling down on technology. They displayed boldness and innovation—two of The Art of Smart’s four pillars to smarter decision-making for business leaders.

Tomorrow’s forecast looks promising for climate-conscious business travelers, whether visiting any of world’s continents. There are glimpses today that hint at how innovation will transform their future journeys. So let’s pull up the window blind and look closely at what’s on the horizon.

Imagine a smartphone application that provides a simple booking and contactless check-in experience for the flight and beyond, enabling executives to avoid queueing, increase efficiency, and reduce stress. Then, as a driverless vehicle transports them from the airport to the hotel, a chat bot accessed in-app will answer any questions about facilities and perhaps help book a post-flight spa treatment.

The net-positive resort—committed to contributing more to society, the environment and the global economy than it takes out—will provide farm-to-fork food, plant trees to balance their carbon consumption, and more.

Mega apps to make travelers’ lives easier

James Chappell, Global Business Director at hotel, tourism, and leisure consulting firm Horwath HTL, is excited about the great potential of applications, and specifically the creation of a digital concierge. “Hotels could make the lives of business travelers easier by building a powerful mega app,” he says. “The app would allow them to check-in and check-out, order room service, and have conversations with people—if required—while on the property.”

Marriott International, the world’s largest hotel chain with more than 8,000 properties across 139 countries, is ahead of the game. It already offers contactless experiences to its visitors. It has designed a pilot program for hands-free check-in and check-out kiosks made from antimicrobial material. Other services include mobile keys, mobile dining, and real-time messaging via a tap on a smartphone.

This frictionless travel experience is what people want, according to research. Indeed, business-to-business travel tech platform Egencia found 73 percent of frequent business travelers are frustrated by disruptions, 34 percent want predictive flight alerts, and more than a quarter use automatic rebooking of flights. American Express Global Business Travel bought Egencia in May 2021 and is investing in a virtual mobile assistant to help business executives to plan, book, manage, and modify their trips.

More app-based interactions will also solve one of the biggest problems facing hotels right now. In an era where staff shortages are hurting hospitality brands, an app that delivers multiple services quickly, seamlessly, and often without waiting for a human to enter the chatroom will help companies keep their customers happy.

Hotels could make the lives of business travelers easier by building a powerful mega app. The app would allow them to check-in and check-out, order room service, and have conversations with people—if required—while on the property.
James Chappell
Global Business Director
Horwath HT

Sustainable and smart travel

A large majority of travelers want to do their bit for the environment. Business leaders might have to take a trip to visit suppliers or attend an important meeting or conference, but they are more eco-conscious than ever. Recent Booking.com research, which gathered insights from more than 32,000 travelers across 32 countries and territories, highlighted that the impact of their trips remains top of mind. Some 71 percent of global travelers said that they want to travel more sustainably, marking a 10% increase from 2021 data.

Danish hotel-booking company Goodwings is meeting this demand with an innovative solution. It is making business travel more sustainable by calculating travelers' carbon emissions during a trip and removing an equal amount of carbon from the environment. With 1.4 million hotels in its inventory, its goal to reduce 50 million metric tons of carbon by 2030 is well on track.

The organization’s CEO and Founder Christian Møller-Holst explains: “Goodwings is a hybrid between a hotel booking platform and a climate tech service. We offer subscriptions to small and medium-sized companies and, when we get a booking, we spend our sales commission on verified reforestation credits to remove the carbon emitted during a business trip.”

Elsewhere, ClubMed, a pioneer of all-inclusive holidays and owner of more than 70 resorts, is building travel destinations that blend harmoniously with nature. Business travelers exploring ClubMed’s North American resorts will, by the end of 2022, find a plastic-free environment and be served burgers and sausages made from plant-based meat. In 2025, they will be treated with 100 percent fair trade coffee and cage-free eggs. Looking to take a bite out of the growing remote-work market, ClubMed has launched #worktainment, an initiative that allows executives to work from forests and beaches.

Nature is at the heart of the offering at Hotel Belmar, nestled in Costa Rica’s lush highland forest. As owner Pedro Belmar says, it provides a “farm-to-table gastronomy program.” Meat, vegetables, fruit, herbs, and grains are all organic and free from any packaging as they come directly from the farm to the kitchen.

A holistic approach means waste is minimized. Belmar continues: “We also have a brewery where we make different ales. Then, we feed the spent grain to our cows. We then milk them and make cheese.”

Driverless cars could replace short-distance flights

Technology is accelerating the progress of business travel in other ways. For instance, in the United States, self-driving car companies Cruise and Waymo are competing to bring robotaxis onto the roads of San Francisco later in 2022. In addition, General Motors plans to launch 13 new electric vehicles in the Middle East by 2025. In Abu Dhabi, Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara, has already installed car charging stations at its resort for travelers arriving by electric vehicle.

Further, according to a report by Forbes, self-driving cars could soon replace short-distance domestic flights—not least to avoid long taxi queues at airports, and the overall stressful experience of flying. What executive wouldn’t jump at the chance to forego the tiresome lines at check-in and when they touch down, and reach their destinations peacefully in an eco-friendly car?

Similarly, hotels and travel booking companies are seeking to make travel more eco-friendly—partly as there is greater demand in light of the climate crisis. A great example stands at the base of the Svartisen glacier in the Norwegian Arctic Circle. When Six Senses Svart opens its doors in 2024, it will be the world’s first energy-positive hotel and raise the bar to set a new standard for carbon-neutral travel.

The 94-room resort, positioned on poles above the crystal-clear waters of the Holandsfjorden fjord—to minimize the on-site impact—will be completely off-grid and carbon neutral, running operations on solar power. “The concept has become bigger than the project itself, as it will provide a futuristic showcase for what can be achieved in terms of sustainability and energy solutions,” said Six Senses CEO Neil Jacobs recently.

The above examples highlight how the most progressive players in the travel and hospitality industry are experiencing a significant digital transformation journey following the disruption wrought by the pandemic. Pioneers are embracing new technologies to make business travel more efficient, app-enabled, and eco-friendly.

Business leaders in other spheres can learn much from the doubling down on tech solutions to drive environmentally conscious and customer-centered innovation. After all, digital enablement, tech integration, carbon offsetting, and better supply-chain management are essential for all companies with an eye on the future in whatever industry they operate. Finally, if becoming a sustainable organization is the end destination, it’s worth recalling Chinese philosopher Confucius’s words: “Wherever you go, go with all your heart."

Selected statistics

  • Worldwide corporate travel spending plummeted 54 percent in 2020 to US$661 billion in 2021 (Global Business Travel Association)
  • Some 73 percent of frequent business travelers are frustrated by disruptions (Egencia)
  • Over a third (34 percent) want predictive flight alerts (Egencia)
  • Some 71 percent of global travelers said that they want to travel more sustainably (Booking.com)