Digital Transformation in Corporate Travel: Why It Starts with People

December 13, 2021

[Editor's note: this is the first entry in a Digital Transformation series from Deem VP of technology & engineering, Steven Lopez. You can read the next entry here.]

In the corporate travel industry, the appetite for transformation is apparent every day. Travelers are demanding new capabilities when booking travel. Additionally, corporate travel managers want more efficient ways to better support the needs of individual customers and the business at large. 

While digital transformation may sound confusing, complex or unattainable, it really boils down to a desire to provide the best possible user experience — and that change begins with people.

Questions drive creativity

Real transformation in this sense is not about doing better or faster what corporate travel offices do currently. It’s about restructuring the entire process. It’s about travel professionals in concert with their technology partners asking, “What if?”

In a travel manager’s daily job booking tickets or capturing reservations, for example, what if things worked better or were easier? What would that look like? What would be different? Maybe using a mobile app instead of a web page would make life easier. Maybe, using face recognition software or voice recognition could personalize a traveler’s experience. 

Or perhaps a platform automatically populates an individual’s preferences when booking based on previous itineraries. Perhaps, the travel service of the future is less about booking and more about a holistic approach that makes the whole trip streamlined and easy.

Asking, “What if?” breaks paradigms. It drives creativity and innovation. Once we can imagine what people might want, we know what the end game can look like and we can work backwards to reengineer and implement the tools and processes we need to get there.

The transformation pathway

Rethinking is at the core of transformation. In my view, three major benefits follow this approach to digital transformation:

  1. Teams unlock their potential: Successful teams embrace visionary “What if?” cultures. Embracing change unlocks an entire team’s potential, creating new opportunities for growth.
  2. Performance increases: Passion around collaborative problem solving creates a foundation for high-performance teams.
  3. Meaningful innovation happens: From a product perspective, teams can create something new and phenomenal.

Organizations can make space for transformation and realize the benefits when technology, processes, and people are aligned and working in harmony. I explain this alignment in depth in my article, “The Humanness of Digital Transformation.”


This Venn diagram shows the interconnectedness of people, technology and processes with digital transformation. Transformation can occur when all three are aligned.
This Venn diagram shows the interconnectedness of people, technology and processes with digital transformation. Transformation can occur when all three are aligned.

While there is no set roadmap for digital transformation in the corporate travel industry, one thing is always consistent: Successful transformations — of any sort — are impossible without the right people.

People, change, and opportunity

Digital transformation is neatly straightforward in some ways. The right technology will predictably enable work with built-in functions designed with certain tasks in mind. New processes naturally follow the technologies’ capabilities, and leaders can implement and change the processes at any time. The unpredictable part of the diagram above is the people.

When transformation projects fail, 90% of the time they fail because of people; change is difficult for some. Change requires a shift in mindset. It may require leaning into uncertainty; learning something new can be frustrating and uncomfortable.

Digital transformation has to start with people in order to succeed. If we look at our own corporate travel industry, it’s clear we’ve been doing the same things in the same way for a very long time. This is in large part because the travel industry has been underserved by its technology.

In the early 2000s, all travelers — for purposes of business and pleasure — moved away from travel agents to a self-service, web-based approach. The experience was fragmented with arrangements for rental cars, airline tickets, and hotels all siloed and separate. The role of the agent was to unify those disparate pieces of the puzzle, a function the web-based tools were never effectively able to replicate. 

Since that time, the experience has not been meaningfully rethought. When you check into a hotel today, for example, the hotel staff doesn’t know how you got there or where you need to go during your stay. And, frankly, they don’t care, not in the way that a travel agent of bygone days did. 

What’s the opportunity if we shift that paradigm? What happens when we approach travel from a customer’s perspective?

Relationships and a service shift

The notion of creating a personalized, all-encompassing travel experience has never been timelier. That is the future of the corporate travel industry, and is an example of a much-needed mindset shift. 

Travelers are demanding personalization, self-service, and deeper engagement and connection with their preferred providers. Meanwhile, business organizations are missing the opportunity to close gaps for those very same customers, because they are often focused on setting generalized, impersonal policies and supporting a large volume of users in an impersonal way.

Instead, corporate travel managers should know what a traveler is actually doing on their trip and offer personalized recommendations that provide better care. 

If executive Sarah Smith takes the same flight to San Francisco on Mondays and enjoys eating Italian food on Tuesdays while away, a traveler-focused platform could include nearby Italian restaurants with each hotel recommendation. After she selects an itinerary, the same one could be surfaced for her next trip for quicker, easier booking. 

We can take this a step further. What if John Burns, Sarah’s colleague, who typically doesn’t travel, suddenly has to make a San Francisco trip? Could the system propose Sarah’s itinerary to him as one that’s proven to work, making his decisions easier? It’s something to think about.

We could also consider enabling smoother local-area mobility. Today, taking rideshare from home to an airport requires inputting a new address at each step. 

But imagine if all the relevant information is integrated. Airport information is included in the rideshare app’s system, plane delays are communicated automatically, and timing is updated accordingly. 

An integrated travel plan would, at the outset, connect all modes of transportation and destinations so you can get from home to the airport, catch a flight, and arrive at your hotel without referring to slips of paper or emails. That would certainly alleviate stress. 

This also saves time and money. Where a traveler might currently exit an airport, catch a car or taxi to the office, and sit in traffic for $70, they may see that a two dollar train ride is just one stop away from the office. That type of service is not just facilitating a transaction, it is creating an experience — one that’s beneficial for both the traveler and the business.

In these instances, transformation relies on technology that connects all the pieces together for a personalized and smooth experience.

Managing people to manage change

The above scenarios hold exciting promise. They do, however, require change. This brings us back to the people involved. People form opinions and approaches based on their experiences. Team members are primed to go into a situation and get the job done, often incrementally.

Digital transformation is different. It is not stacking the next block on the tower; it’s building an entirely new structure from the foundation up. That can only happen when the right people with the right mindset are present.

Fundamentally, change is about people trying new things. This requires trust throughout an enterprise. Trust between individual contributors, leaders, and customers is critical. 

Organizations that are most successful are not afraid of failure. They view “failure” as an opportunity to learn, and they have the expectation that those lessons will be applied to future endeavors. Strong communication and collaboration methods can ensure that everyone benefits from lessons learned.

Leaders must also work closely with their teams right from the start of any transformation. Helping people understand new goals and showing them — by example — a new attitude are both effective motivation strategies. 

Generally speaking, transformations involve working with cutting-edge software. Encouraging company-wide shifts in mindset can be helpful here, too. It’s important for leaders to acknowledge that a growth mindset includes acquiring new skills, and that a learning curve is natural. 

Industry change agents

When the right people have the right mindset and are led to drive and embrace transformation, we can avoid becoming complacent. This is so important because the needs of businesses and travelers are evolving as we speak. The industry already needs higher quality and more scalable solutions, faster deployments, and systems that are nimbler and more cost effective.

Digital transformation is the required response. It takes change in all three pillars of transformation to achieve success, but people are the real change agents. By choosing and learning technology, creating processes around it, and embracing change through leadership, training, and iterative learning, people make it all possible.

Find out more about the award-winning, traveler and mobile-first Etta corporate travel booking and management software.

This blog is part of a digital transformation series by Deem VP engineering and technology, Steven Lopez. Read the other entries by using the links here:

Introduction: The Humanness of Digital Transformation

Part 1: People in the Digital Transformation Process

Part 2: Digital Transformation Strategy: Process

Part 3: Digital Transformation: Technology


Steven Lopez
VP, Engineering

Since 2019, Steven has been leading teams around the world through Deem’s modernization and transformation operations. Prior to joining Deem, he helped companies in technology, retail and other industries use their human resources in a changing technological world. Steven enjoys physical challenges, including completing a full Ironman triathlon, and is always looking for another marathon to run.

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