The headline of a recent, tongue-in-cheek article in The Wall Street Journal neatly sums up the mixed emotions of many corporate road warriors as they shelve plans to resume their travels in 2021: ‘Business travel was terrible – and I miss it so much.’
Huge adjustments have been made in response to COVID-19. Sales calls and board meetings have moved to video conferencing platforms; training sessions and networking events have gone virtual, too; and the halls of purpose-built conference centres in cities worldwide stand empty, while ‘attendees’ log on to watch keynotes and sessions from their own homes.
In short, it’s been terrible news all round for travel management companies (TMCs). For some of these companies, current business volumes stand at around 10% of what might usually be expected, according to reports. Opinion is divided as to whether pre-pandemic levels of business travel will ever return.
One TMC, UK-based Clarity Travel, is weathering the storm better than many. Just ahead of Christmas 2020, business volumes stood at around 25% of the norm, according to CEO Pat McDonagh, speaking on a recent podcast. He’s hopeful they might return to between 50% to 75% in the second half of 2021 – but that, of course, may be optimistic, given the current spike of COVID cases in many of the world’s major economies.
Either way, several factors have stood in Clarity’s favour. For a start, it went into the COVID crisis with a strong balance sheet behind it. Technology upgrades carried out in recent years have enabled the firm to stay responsive to ever-changing rules and restrictions on journeys.
In addition, Clarity also serves a wide variety of corporate clients, including those in sectors such as construction, infrastructure and utilities, where work – and necessary, project-related travel – has often resumed where restrictions have been eased. Sports and healthcare are important sectors for the company, too, as is the public sector. For example, Clarity assisted the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) with the repatriation of British nationals overseas during 2020 and handles the travel requirements of many Premier League football teams.
Demand for data
Staying on top of a rapidly changing situation has called for strong analytic capabilities, according to Darren Williams, Clarity’s head of data and information management. Revenues may have plunged, but calls and emails from clients have skyrocketed in the face of massive travel disruption and cancellations, he points out.
When COVID hit, all of a sudden, we saw a massive demand for data. We had people wanting to know where travellers were. We had customers needing to understand how delays and cancellations were likely to affect them. We had an executive team needing to understand very, very quickly the impact of all this on margins, on cash flow, on our resourcing requirements as a company. The demand for data hit us early and it’s just kept accelerating.
Compounding the situation have been changes to refund processes among suppliers such as airline companies – the introduction of vouchers in place of cash refunds, for example. For Clarity’s account managers and the corporate travel buyers they serve, solid information on the status of refunds has quickly become key.
To provide the necessary insight, the company is using ThoughtSpot, implemented back in 2017, when Williams first joined Clarity. ThoughtSpot’s search and AI-driven analytics already power a number of internal reports and dashboards, he says, as well as the company’s Go2Insight service that enables customers to quickly get a view on their organization’s travel history, future plans and spending levels.
ThoughtSpot delivers here by enabling users to search enterprise data using natural language processing (NLP) to get answers to very specific questions. For example, they might want to view a specific employee’s travel history, by transportation type and destination, between two particular dates – and they can get that information without having to stitch together endless spreadsheets or call on analytics specialists to help them out.
New opportunities to deliver
The pressure to stay on top of refunds has provided new opportunities for ThoughtSpot to deliver, says Williams:
We quickly saw that ThoughtSpot could also be a big help to us with refunds. That has involved us taking information from the global distribution systems (GDSs) that we use to make bookings for clients and mixing it with internal data on transactions and invoices from across the business.
That effort, he adds, is fairly manual, involving operations teams copying and pasting information daily from GDSs:
Then, we build ETL [extraction, transformation, load] around that data and pull it into ThoughtSpot. It’s a workaround, but the result is an aggregated dataset, presented via a dashboard that, when an account manager looks at it, gives a very clear picture of a customer’s total transactions, amounts refunded, the status of outstanding refunds and so on.
That’s been received incredibly well by our account managers, because it gives them instant visibility when a customer calls and says, ‘I need to know how much money I’m due to get back [from cancelled trips], because we need to reprovision that money internally.’ Our account manager can now get on the case and have an answer back to their customer within minutes.
Today, he says, this information plays a vital role in the account management team’s daily work – and looks set to do so for some time to come. Over time, he and his team have been kept busy expanding the data available beyond flights and hotel stays, to include other forms of transportation such as ferries and trains, for example.
When he first introduced ThoughtSpot at Clarity back in 2017, the idea that it would provide a foundation for the productization of management information was always foremost in Williams’ mind. In other words, he has been on the lookout for new use cases from the start.
The last twelve months, however, has thrown up use cases he might never have envisaged – but the speed at which he and his team have been able to take them from proof of concept to production, often in hours, he says, has been a huge help at a uniquely challenging time.