Zain Jaffer is a tech entrepreneur and the founder and CEO of Zain Ventures, an investment firm with more than $100 million in assets under management. Zain Ventures invests in a variety of initiatives, including commercial real estate, technology start-ups and private equity. Visit zain-ventures.com.
Under the restrictions of COVID-19, corporate travel was one of the first activities to meet its end, and it’s been one of the slower forms of travel to resume. Now, as the rollout of the vaccines slowly removes some of those barriers to corporate travel, experts and industry analysts are watching closely to see how the next phase of post-pandemic demand will take shape.
Video conferencing has made it possible for important meetings to transcend the physical realm, diminishing the necessity of travel in some cases. And new sustainability concerns are creating more pressure on employers to reduce their company’s carbon footprint, which, in some cases, means scaling back the amount of air travel.
Still, the end of corporate travel is nowhere in sight. Future business trips might be more localized, longer in length, and less frequent, but meaningful business takes people all around the world, and it will continue to do so in the post-pandemic landscape. Travel and hospitality professionals might see less volume and more repeat business. With that new model in mind, winning the post-pandemic demand is imperative. Here are a few important areas of focus for travel and hospitality professionals to prepare their offerings for the post-COVID executive.
Opulence has lost some of its shine in the post-pandemic economy. More than high-end, in-flight meals and massive first-class seats, professionals are looking for two things when they travel: safety and convenience. To that end, the right technological investment can help travel professionals offer more streamlined, more contact-free experiences at scale. Those who do will be distinguished, those who don’t risk falling behind.
A pillar of convenience and efficiency is the replacement of staff-customer interactions throughout the corporate travel experience. Born from the urgent need to social distance, contact-free operations are taking over every aspect of travel where person-to-person interactions are taking place.
Progress in biometric technology is leading the way. Facial recognition cameras are now populating airport screenings, helping lines move faster by cross-checking travelers’ facial scans with passport photos stored on a digital file. A potentially safer way to verify traveler identity, fully automatic biometric technology could create a new navigational strategy for airports, allowing travelers to bypass the well-known headache of TSA queues without compromising on protocol or safety.
Similarly, contact-free experiences are elevating corporate accommodations. Smartphone-enabled apps and booking platforms can virtually confirm a traveler’s identity, providing them with a digital room key for self-enabled room access. Hotel apps are becoming a one-stop-shop for processing payments, verifying guests, and extending services such as hotel reservations and room service without the need for any person-to-person engagement.
Biometrics and integrated hospitality apps are eradicating many of the staff-customer touch points. But for those processes that can’t be automated, guests are showing an overwhelming preference for tech-enabled self-service options. Companies like Amazon and Uber Eats have been at the forefront of the self-service trend, and travel and hospitality professionals have quickly followed suit.
Self-serve retail kiosks are seeing rapid adoption in airports, hotel gift shops, lounges and convenience shops along the travel experience. Purchase kiosks are the official preference among consumers who prefer contactless, efficient in-store experiences. Major players like Amazon Go are taking self-service to new levels; automated Seattle retail stores now allow shoppers to scan their phone and track their items with a camera throughout the store, routing the total charge to a payment solution on the customer’s smartphone before they go. Similar solutions will no doubt be integrated into hotel dining areas and in-flight guest services.
During the pandemic, people became more dependent on the powers of voice-activated smart home integration devices like Alexa. For executive travelers, it’s important that those voice-control capacities are a part of their travel experience. Forward-thinking accommodations are implementing iPad and mobile-based room controls that allow guests to toggle lighting, temperature, amenities, and steaming services with the use of their voice. And while the uptake has been slower in travel, it wouldn’t take much imagination to envision a first-class seat with voice-controlled air conditioning or a mobile concierge. Voice control is certainly not a new phenomenon, but it’s becoming more of an expectation than a value-add. Soon, executives will be able to restock their mini bar or order their favorite coffee simply by saying the magic words to an in-room iPad.
Months of COVID-era operations have blurred some of the lines between business and leisure. Living room spaces have become home offices. The previously reserved hours between 9 to 5 are more flexible; conference calls could be taken on a hike or on the way back from dropping the kids off at school. Business trips, too, are expected to slowly merge with leisure travel. A combination of the words ‘business’ and ‘leisure,’ many industry experts are pointing to the rise of “Bleisure” travel, where professionals will take a blended approach to responsibility and recreation.
If that trend continues to take shape, hoteliers and travel professionals have a chance to blend their offerings and elevate their business packages. Travelers might be looking for more spacious accommodations, such as homes, in which they can have ample outdoor space and enough bedrooms to bring their family. Hotels in meetings and conferencing areas might extend more experiential offerings; a shuttle to nearby hiking trails, or guided tours through nearby attractions to help travelers explore the local scene. Home and work are becoming more flexible, and executives are increasingly interested in longer stays in new locales with immersive cultural experiences. Hoteliers and travel professionals who can gear their offerings toward a blend of corporate and leisure offerings will be well-rewarded throughout the next phase of corporate travel.
The after-COVID market will begin to separate in several places. Technological investments could act like tectonic plates, separating companies that make the leap from those that fail to act. Among the highest priorities, tech that enables contact-free convenience, self-service, and voice activation are important areas of focus. Travel offerings that merge business and leisure will be properly positioned for the new approach to corporate experiences. Most importantly, business travel will come back online, but it won’t look the same. Smart tech solutions allow travel and hospitality professionals to pivot in accordance with the changing corporate consumer needs. C&IT