The Digital Transformation Series: What is digital transformation?

May 18, 2021

Even some of the most digitally averse folks found themselves turning to technology to meet basic needs during the Covid-19 pandemic. Many of us ordered our groceries via delivery apps for the first time, rather than shopping in person. We scoured the web to search for household essentials sold out in neighborhood stores. We connected with friends, family, and colleagues via video conferencing. We streamed our entertainment instead of going out to theaters or venues. Sound familiar?

What’s more, many of the digital platforms we’ve turned to have served up smart recommendations, suggesting what we should watch next based on our interests, or offering to populate our virtual grocery cart with our favorite snacks. Not only is technology assisting with basic tasks, it’s also personalized to each shopper’s tastes and preferences.

While none of this may seem remarkable anymore, it represents another digital transformation in our lives. These personal examples are a relatable way to illustrate and explain the impact of digital transformation. They also show that it doesn’t have to be intimidating or esoteric. And this is important because digital transformation is changing how we operate in our jobs and industry.

Digital transformation may be a phrase that you’re familiar with, or maybe you haven’t heard of it before. There are still many areas that are overdue for digital transformation, and business travel is one of them.

We’ve found that as the industry undergoes some major changes in response to the events of this last year, there is some confusion around what digital transformation is and its importance to the business travel industry. So this will be the first in a new series we’re creating around this topic. We’ll define digital transformation, provide examples, and explain what it means to you and to business travel programs.

What is digital transformation?

A simple definition of digital transformation is replacing manual processes with digital technology. It can also refer to updating legacy tech and processes with new technologies that offer better efficiency.

“Everyone’s definition of digital transformation is different,” said Charlie Mitchell, CTO of DealCaptains. “I would argue that probably 100% of programs are always going to be in progress of digitally transforming in some way, at the rate that technology is currently rolling out.”

We need only to look at our daily interactions with technology to see the benefits: we save time, we save money, we reduce anxieties, and — in the best cases — we feel personally cared for when technology intuits our specific needs.

That’s a key component of digitization, says Sean Parham, a global travel manager with Snap. “Amazon makes it so easy for us to shop; they already know what you want before you know it. That's what I'm thinking about when I think about ‘digital.’ I think about smart technology that is a step ahead of me, and makes it so simple and so easy.”

What makes these continued innovations even more exciting is the knowledge that practically every industry has an unprecedented opportunity to digitize its own work, positively impacting clients, customers, and employees. This is something we think about every day at Deem, where we pioneered corporate travel management software more than 15 years ago. 

We also know first hand that technology changes quickly, and innovation is a state of mind; to that end, in February, we unveiled Etta, our mobile-first platform that makes booking and managing business travel easier than ever.

Barriers to digital transformation

Ease of use is key when implementing any new program, but so is thinking carefully about your customer’s needs. In fact, the desire for accommodating, helping, and delighting customers is often a driving force for these efforts. But ultimately, digital transformation can and should meet companies where they are.

"We work with a wide range of customers — universities, small companies, nonprofits — and, for us, digital transformation is whatever the next step is for [our customers],” says Trevor Smith, CEO of travel management company Maupin Travel.

For some companies, that step could be going from calling an advisor on the phone to instead going online for travel booking. For more advanced companies already online, digital transformation can be adding in seamless integration between their booking platform and their expense platform. "We want to push them to take a step forward,” says Smith, “but it would be unrealistic for some of our customers to go from zero to 60 right away."

That also means that some travelers may not feel ready for the mobile-first approach that innovative segments of the industry are implementing.

Charlie Mitchell agrees with that holistic approach. “My advice to travel managers is, don’t look at it as an either/or conversation, but do guide your travelers on the latest strategy,” he said. “It’s really hard to make them choose a lane, but you can be that guiding piece for them, to say, ‘Here’s what the best options are for you, and here’s what can give you the best experience.’”

That proactive and ongoing educational component is crucial to travelers embracing a new digital experience. “I think the success of their adoption and use of that technology is determined, oftentimes, well before we roll out the technology,” said Smith, who over the past six months implemented Deem’s product with several Maupin Travel customers. Deem replaced a previous online booking tool (OBT) they widely used. 

He says the success of new platforms is highly dependent on how much time is spent onboarding users to the technology before rolling it out. For Maupin Travel and Deem, the process included seven interactive webinars for customers, with lots of opportunities for questions and answers.

At the same time, the most foundational component to successful implementation is the product itself. “[Deem] is providing us with some really good tools to go to our customers with, and I think that’s critical,” said Smith. “Just having it be technical and digital and AI-driven isn’t enough. It needs to be elegant,” and to be user friendly no matter the demographic. “Where there’s good technology and companies are willing to dedicate the time and effort, we love that.”

Change management in transformation

Ultimately, said Smith, “We need to have a good product to make people want to be willing to look at change. And, admittedly, change is hard. 

Parham, Smith, and Mitchell were all panelists at The Power of Digital Transformation, a session during February’s Miles Ahead Virtual Summit, hosted by Deem. The summit brought together the business travel community for insightful discussions on the future of our industry. And although the future (and present) includes digitization, there are some clear roadblocks in implementing such programs. 

Jen Bankard, a director at BTN Group, conducted a flash poll during the event asking the audience if they (or their customers) had what they would consider a digitally transformed program. Only 23% of participants said “yes.” Bankard pointed out that there appears to be a constant push and pull in the industry when it comes to digitization. 

These are efforts that companies want to implement for very good reasons — for compliance, for cost savings, for booking within approved channels and with approved partners, to make travel itself and the expense side easy. But they continually hit roadblocks. 

Another flash poll asked about the barriers to moving forward, and audiences were unequivocal in their responses: 

  • “Change is hard”
  • “Fear of change”
  • “Resistance to change”
  • “Legacy thinking”
  • “Reluctance to change”
  • “Change averse” 

But this moment in 2021 is exactly the right time to try something new, argues Mitchell. “The last year and a half has been super difficult for this industry as a whole. But the silver lining is now is the look at all those archaic systems, all those ‘It’s how it’s always been done’ responses,” he said. “We’ll maybe never have an opportunity like this to revamp the entire industry or your travel program.”

“And if you want to say, ‘Hey, we want to try this online booking tool,’ the good thing is: travel is still low right now. If something breaks, it’s easy to fix and to adjust to what your strategy is going to be. I would really encourage all people to continue to be strategic in this way. Change is hard, change is scary, but you’re not going to know until you try it — and now is a great opportunity.”

Learn more about digital transformation by unlocking the entire Power of Digital Transformation webinar for FREE here.


Tahnee Perry
VP, Marketing

Tahnee Perry is a marketing executive with 15+ years of travel industry experience. She fosters a passion for excellence in execution and builds high-performance teams. Previously, Tahnee drove creative and marketing strategy for B2B information solutions company, Northstar Travel Group, and for travel research authority Phocuswright. She's a frequent industry speaker and guest lecturer at Stanford University.

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