By Bryan Yurcan
Despite advancements in the digitization of financial services and payments in many aspects of everyday life, corporate travel booking and expense management are still largely manual – and often paper-based – processes. The promise of an all-in-one, booking-to-settlement travel expense solution is not a reality yet, though the industry is drawing closer by the minute as virtual card and payment technologies grow more robust.
A key driver towards this is the increasing demand from business travelers themselves for such a solution. They see how digital advancements have made their lives as consumers easier in a number of different ways, and they wonder why it can’t be the same when it comes to business travel.
“They know what’s possible from experiences in their consumer lives,” says Duke Chung, CEO of TravelBank, an expense and travel management platform that was acquired by U.S. Bank last year. “They have seamless apps they use on their phone for food or car service or for their finances and they don’t have that same experience on the B2B side. What’s driving change now really is employee expectations. They want more.”
Indeed, business travelers are growing increasingly frustrated with the sheer number of platforms and systems they must access for travel booking and expenses, and the clunky user experience that comes with them.
“They want one solution; they don’t want to have to log into three different solutions,” says Chung. “And they want a seamless experience as well. From a software perspective, the best UI you can have is no UI at all.”
Digital innovation in the B2B world has “always lagged from a product experience perspective compared to the consumer side,” he adds. “That should not be the case. Our vision is to bring a complete, all-in-one solution for business travelers and enterprises.”
Chung believes that in the near future, the space will be dominated by “a few vendors that provide everything in one place.” He added that the first generation of travel management and expense solutions were characterized by “point solutions” that were each focused on a limited aspect of the entire process, built primarily with admins in mind. The focus was on pragmatism rather than usability for the end-user, aka, the business traveler.
“In the second generation, you are going to see a consolidated experience for both admins and the end users that mirrors the best-in-class experience of an Amazon,” he notes. “Employees should be wowed and delighted when they book travel and do expenses.”
Speed Bumps Ahead
Despite how close this is to becoming a reality, there are still challenges ahead for the industry before achieving this idealized state. For one, many large businesses have legacy systems and processes in place, and it can be difficult to overcome internal inertia. Ironically, small-to-mid size businesses can often more easily pursue digitization efforts, as many of them may not even have an expense solution in place, and thus don’t have to worry about the onerous process of replacing one solution with another.
While TravelBank’s solution can plug into and connect with any system a large enterprise may already have in place via APIs, Chung notes that larger businesses often have to overcome a psychological hurdle when it comes to implementing new technology. “There’s always internal inertia when it comes to change,” he adds. “You have to demonstrate how the experience will be better.”
Larger companies usually have ERP systems that require feeds directly to their general ledgers, adds Tony D’Astolfo, SVP of North America for Serko, a travel management and expense tech provider.
“We also have to consider the regulatory requirements regarding expenses and how companies manage data flows to their general ledger and store data to meet accounting requirements,” D’astolfo notes. “But all that said, depending on the size and complexity of the company, a more streamlined end-to-end process could be right around the corner.”
Expansion and new competitive entrants in the expense system marketplace is something that is also helping to bring innovation and technological advancements that can help solve some of these issues, notes Zach Ornelas, vice president of global network sales for UATP.
“Working with vendors to see what exactly is needed for a corporates’ specific program will help overcome challenges,” he says. “Is an out of the box system workable? Are all the bells and whistles needed? Working with vendors to find what is truly needed for a corporates’ program is essential. Then it will be easier to identify what needs to be built to connect programs and expense management systems. This remains a challenge. As noted, not all systems are the same, and there is likely to be customization needed to bring all systems working together.”
Virtual Card Promise & Peril
The development of virtual card technology is playing a big role in bringing this streamlined, end-to-end process to reality. But the technology is not perfect. For example, some hotels may not recognize or honor virtual payments, which can produce problems around double billing.
“Recognition at the hotel that payment was done virtually is still an issue given the wide disparity in technological sophistication at the properties,” says D’astolfo. “That we still have issues with the check-in process is perplexing, given that many hotel brands tout skipping the ‘front desk’ entirely by using their apps, but to do that the form of payment must be on file. While we still have issues with the process at the front desk, I think technology and awareness are getting better quickly.”
Another issue worth mentioning is managing the hotel folio, he adds. “Years ago, expense solutions were seeking direct integrations to the major hotel brands to secure feeds which would then be aligned to the general ledger,” explains D’astolfo. “But OCR (optical character recognition) services today are more advanced to the point where they actually itemize the folio items, which significantly enhances the user experience. We’re testing a new system as we speak that will likely launch later this year in Zeno Expense, so technology is definitely making the processing of expenses easier in a number of ways.”
While virtual card acceptance has made progress with hotels in recent years, there is still work to be done, notes UATP’s Ornelas. To combat some of these existing challenges, technology companies are working towards solutions, he adds, alongside associations such as the Hotel Electronic Distribution Network Association, a trade association whose worldwide membership includes the leaders of some of the largest companies in the hospitality industry.
“Companies are building apps and interconnectivity between the payment brand and booking to counter these challenges,” explains Ornelas. “UATP built PAXVIA, a virtual account number used for hotel payments, in partnership with WEX, which is complementary to UATP accounts in the marketplace. UATP has seen success here for corporate account holders to have more visibility into the entire trip cost. VANs continue to see demand in the marketplace and will be an interesting space to watch as technology advances the acceptance methodology.”
Such features as D’astolfo describes are leading the industry towards the highly sought-after end-to-end process for managing, booking and expensing travel. He says Zeno Expense has a feature called Line-Item Submission that allows the expense filer to send any item through for approval (or for reimbursement if approval is not required), without “filing” anything. “The user simply snaps a photo or forwards an e-mail of a receipt for processing, and they’re done,” he says.
TravelBank also syncs with common accounting systems, automating much of the formerly manual booking and expense work, and allowing the solution to be tailored to meet the unique needs of each organization. It offers business travelers functions such as automatically creating expense reports, auto-categorizing based on date and location and proactively offer suggestions, says Chung. The goal is to enable business travelers “to curate their trip without having to do anything,” he says.
While a true 100 percent end-to-end solution is not in the marketplace currently, Ornelas says that with a number of vendors working towards this goal it is bound to happen sooner rather than later. “UATP, along with its partners and network, have been working towards this,” he adds. “We’ve seen numerous good things happen in the industry over the last couple of years, and we, like everyone else, are working to make this want for travel managers a reality, as much as possible.”
However, Ornelas adds, there are many components and technology compatibilities that need to be met for this scenario to come to fruition. There is no one-size fits all solution at this point.
“For example, how is the booking done?” Ornelas asks. “Direct? Agency? TMC? Payment brands and expense management companies need to fit into this scenario as well. How much detail and data do travel managers want? Is this going to be the exact same across the industry? Likely, no. Customization will need to happen,” he cautions.
Alongside existing companies, other new players are also entering the fray with the promise of an end-to-end, all-in-one platform for booking, travel and expense. One such firm is Ardor Travel Technologies, launched in 2022 as a subsidiary of Ardor Holdings, which acquires as well as develops and builds B2B travel technologies.
The SaaS platform offers features and functionality such as advanced workflows, detailed reporting, and AI-powered automation tools. It also claims to offer business travelers access to wholesale rates that are not available on public sites, and is coupled with manager approval functionality and the power to download detailed reports instantly.
“In a rising cost environment, we built Ardor Travels to help businesses and employees take control of and improve the overall travel spend, process, and expense experience,” said Ardor Travels CEO and founder Keith Lamb, in a press statement. “The system is customized to their specific needs, providing peace of mind to the traveler knowing everything is taken care of at the touch of a button.”
With the breadth of companies working on an all-in-one solution, what’s clear is that the industry will get there sooner rather than later. “We are getting much closer to this becoming a reality,” said TravelBank’s Chung. “I think we are on our way and almost there.”
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