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No big bang for generative AI in corporate travel yet

Words such as excitement and nervousness sum up how the business travel community felt about generative artificial intelligence a year ago. 

Executives were excited about the potential not only for improving the traveler experience but also efficiency and productivity behind the scenes.

But they were also cautious. There was general concern about data privacy, hallucinations, the possibility for bias to creep in and whether the technology would threaten jobs.

Fast forward to 2024 and on the eve of the Business Travel Show, has anything changed?

A recent paper on emerging technology trends in corporate travel from PhocusWire sister brand BTN, and sponsored by travel management company CWT, revealed that for most businesses generative AI’s impact on travel “is more of a dream scenario than a reality at this early stage.”

Mat Orrego, CEO of Cornerstone Information Systems, said that a year ago “goals for AI in the travel industry were often too ambitious.”

“[They] were aiming to address complex challenges like travel planning and booking. However, many of us realized the need to focus on smaller, more manageable tasks. Concentrating on foundational areas, such as improving travel call center operations, proved more practical. This enabled us to help front-line agents better understand fare rules and process reissues, leading to improved customer service through reduced handle times.”

Keesup Choe, CEO of PredictX, agreed and said that the “biggest advances are being made within the T&E teams and their operations – we haven’t seen much for the end traveler.”

Choe had hoped AI agents would have made a bigger impact by now and someone in the industry might also have developed an AI-powered booking tool.

Less than a year ago at an Institute of Travel Management event, Choe described AI as the “most disruptive thing since fire, the wheel, the number zero, all of those things.” 

At the time, he also said that two to three years down the line travelers might not interact with online booking tools or agents any more with virtual assistants taking over.

Today, he acknowledges that while initial excitement around AI has waned a little among individuals, corporate adoption is gathering speed. Choe added that the typical technology adoption cycle is underway when it comes to AI where once 10% of the market embraces it, the remaining 80% follows fairly quickly.

Yet some of the same concerns voiced a year ago continue to be cause for concern today. And it’s not only around privacy where caution is urged, it’s also the sheer complexity of business travel processes.

“In the case of business travel, all your interactions need to have a policy consideration in how you leverage AI. Travel policy is often ruled by the exception vs. the rules, making it difficult for AI,” Orrego said.

A year ago, AI’s potential threat to jobs was also often highlighted as a barrier to adoption but urging the travel management community to get ahead of AI. “AI should be seen as a tool to augment human capabilities rather than replace them,” Choe said.

Orrego also pointed out that lessons have been learned in the short time that the industry has been grappling with the technology.

“Successful AI implementation begins with well-organized data, a key element for effectively training machine learning algorithms. Starting with small, incremental internal changes has proven the best strategy for gaining external customer adoption. Creating internal AI champions within travel operations can help tremendously when introducing AI to your customers. Moreover, fostering a culture of adaptability and continuous learning is vital to integrating AI tools effectively.”

It’s hard to predict how quickly and how far AI and generative AI will impact the corporate travel landscape but as the technology evolves so too will the uses cases from enhancing the traveler booking experience to removing the pain of expense management and improving complex back office processes.

As Andy Menkes, CEO of Partnership Travel Consulting, pointed out in the BTN white paper: “AI disrupted the status quo that existed for decades. I don’t see that as a problem.”

Hear more!

Mat Orrego of Cornerstone Information Systems and Keesup Choe of PredictX are speaking at this year’s Business Travel Show, June 19 to 20 at London’s ExCeL.

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