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Picture: 123RF/KANTVER
Picture: 123RF/KANTVER

At the start of 2018, there were about 3.8million apps on Google’s Play store and more than two million on Apple’s App Store. Five percent of all apps were travel related and every travel app promised to streamline the travel experience or make the trip more comfortable and enjoyable. But have they delivered?

If we consider that the average travel app loses 64% of its users after just 30 days of signing up, it seems there is work to be done.

Alongside app fatigue, artificial intelligence and chatbots are only just being developed. Although chatbots have become more commonplace, few companies are leveraging what the chatbot offers.

Travel management companies too often use technology to enhance existing tools for online booking, expenses and reporting. They harness technology to make savings within travel policy spend, rather than to drive innovation in the business traveller’s experience.

It was this disconnect that fueled imaginations at FCM, which pioneered a specific traveller-focused mobile application, the Smart Assistant for Mobile or “Sam” for short. When the concept was initially conceived late in 2015, the brief for Sam was clear: create a mobile application for both Apple’s App Store and Google Play that puts business travellers’ needs first, with all the information, documentation and advice they need in one fun, easy-to-access place, and easy to use. The mission was not to create another itinerary app.

For Sam to work, it had to have personality and purpose and replicate the one-to-one personal service offered by FCM’s experienced travel consultants. The nature of one specific consultant influenced the tool's development. “She was extremely effective, very fun and not too formal,” says one of the developers involved in the Sam project. “We wanted to replicate the feeling of someone taking care of you, but in an app that had an emotional connection to the traveller.”

Sam has proved to be a game-changer and works using a simple and intuitive chatbot-based interface, meaning it operates in much the same way as Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp.

Picture: SUPPLIED/FCM TRAVEL SOLUTIONS
Picture: SUPPLIED/FCM TRAVEL SOLUTIONS

A free version of Sam allows travellers to upload itineraries, access weather reports, view traffic and flight alerts, and connect with local ground transport services.

Sam can also be configured for customers’ particular needs and to automatically synchronise itineraries, provide self-booking support with live chat connecting users with an FCM consultant who will assist with bookings, changes and other requirements while the traveller is on the road.

And, Sam has been getting smarter. The chatbot now offers transfers via Uber or Lyft. It also has city guides, filled with local hints and tips.

Sam can be regarded as the prototype for a single corporate travel app that supports airline, hotel and restaurant reservations, itinerary management, ground transportation, loyalty schemes and digital wallets. This app of the future would seamlessly integrate all of these services and allow for travel policy compliance, meet duty of care obligations, expense management and the all-important spend visibility. It would act as a digital companion with in-trip timely information for travellers and push notifications with helpful tips and tricks that could increase efficiency and even improve compliance.

About the author: Nicole Adonis is general manager at FCM Travel Solutions South Africa. Picture: SUPPLIED
About the author: Nicole Adonis is general manager at FCM Travel Solutions South Africa. Picture: SUPPLIED

That kind of development might sound far off, but we have already come a long way.

Despite the promise and potential of apps and mobile device use for travel, many companies still restrict which apps employees can download onto a work-owned mobile device. The consequence of these tight policies is disengaged travellers, greater travel policy non-compliance and missed savings.

As mobile is the most frequently used device for almost everyone today, it is crucial that corporate travel managers review their mobile strategy. It should be fully integrated with the company's travel policy, with clear guidelines for employees and buyers.

The merits of an effective mobile strategy are abundant, but companies have been slow to adapt. Security concerns, company culture, a general lack of trust and IT issues stand in the way. However, businesses that do not act are losing out on cost savings and remain disconnected from their travellers, which makes them vulnerable concerning duty of care obligations.

For advice on how to incorporate a mobile strategy into your corporate travel programme, see FCM Travel Solutions’ latest whitepaper

This article was paid for by FCM Travel Solutions.