The Corporate Travel Managers Guide to Digital Transformation

October 26, 2021

Even before the global health crisis began, “92 percent of company leaders surveyed by McKinsey thought that their business model would not remain viable at the rates of digitization at that time.” Once the global pandemic hit, companies recognized an urgent need to drive change across their business and digitization became the catalyst for transformation. 

While ecommerce was already growing pre-pandemic, consumers pivoted to online platforms once the pandemic hit, driving 32% growth in online purchases — the highest annual growth rate of any year for which records are available. This $105B in retail spending in 2020 has accelerated ecommerce by two years.

Simultaneously, corporate investment in digital transformation has skyrocketed during the last year as companies have used this time to step back and evaluate their actions and processes. Organizations have shifted to new strategies to drive efficiencies and agility across the business, while targeting greater cost control.

Bar graph showing the increase in the number of digitally transformed enterprises, listed as GDP, from 2018 through forecast in 2023.
The increase in corporate investment in digital transformation year over year is reflected here as nominal GDP driven by digitally transformed enterprises; shown also with GDP of other enterprises worldwide from 2018 to 2023 (in trillions, USD.) Source: Statista

Striving for growth involves change, risk, big ideas, and new strategies. Today, the most progressive leaders are ensuring their organizations are agile and ready for their next phase by thinking, planning, and building digitally. Now more than ever, businesses must evolve in order to thrive, and digital transformation is changing the way business is done.

Business leaders and executives are focused on digitally driven workforces with the tools to quickly adapt to change, and be more efficient and competitive. But, while companies realize that finding and sharing information, working in new collaborative ways, and other areas of improving business are easier using a digital platform, they may discover they’re struggling when digital transformation reaches business travel programs. 

The idea of digital transformation isn’t about asking how much faster we can do things by simply automating existing processes. Digital transformation involves applying modern technology to create new, or sometimes overhaul existing, business processes. In the face of changing business and market requirements, the ability to re-think processes to improve performance can be a deciding factor in those businesses that grow and those that don’t.

Why is that? While the term digital transformation is widely used, it is often thought of as an activity that sits in one area of the enterprise. Given the influence of technology on every aspect of our business and personal lives, it is time for companies to look to digital transformation to align the travel program to strategic business priorities around digitization.

We’ve all had to adapt to relying on and using digital platforms in the workplace and in our daily lives. Travelers expect to have the same experiences in planning and booking travel as they have when they order food, packages, or any other on-demand service. It has to be intuitive, fast, and provide relevant information at the time it’s requested.

Digital transformation comes down to four distinct focus areas: people, strategies, processes, and technology. Let’s define what transformation means to each of these areas.

People: Focus on your travelers

In the case of business travel, digital transformation puts travelers squarely at the front of the decision tree. Travelers simply won’t buy into the program if they are forced to use outdated technology. In fact, in a 2019 poll conducted by Festive Road, even travel buyers expressed deep dissatisfaction with corporate travel booking tools: 73% of the buyers said that corporate travel booking tools are inferior to consumer booking tools, roughly half were dissatisfied with flight and hotel content, and fewer than 50% said that corporate booking sites “offer an enticing and intuitive interface.” If buyers are so disappointed in their travel technology options, it isn’t hard to believe that travelers are as well.

So where should corporations begin? First, conducting a comprehensive audit of your business travel requirements will help you avoid a range of irrelevant options that complicate the process and add friction to the travel experience. This is an important initiative that creates the foundation to evaluate the traveler experience across an organization’s entire traveler base.

Leaders are looking for ways to drive a better traveler experience through eliminating manual processes and services in favor of digital channels. So, the next step is to ask your travelers the questions that address their expectations from travel technology. It’s crucial to understand travelers’ pain points, for instance, how they search for content and why they’re doing that research off platform. You’ll need to learn which factors allow your people to have the best, most productive experience while traveling on company business. 

What if you have a digital solution already in place? On the surface it may seem that a consolidated travel and expense (T&E) platform — that is, one software tool that manages both travel and expense functions — is the easiest solution. While this may sound appealing, it only works if you have a best-in-class online booking and expense solution for your travelers. Otherwise, a consolidated platform that does not serve the content travelers are looking for, and is clunky and outdated, may be causing frustrated travelers to look outside of the managed travel program for the options they expect but aren’t getting. 

Legacy travel and expense software that is currently available is inflexible — it forces travelers to think, shop, and book their trips in a linear way. It wasn’t designed to operate the way people do, so it doesn’t allow them to create the best workflow for them. For example, one traveler may want to start their trip booking with a hotel, to ensure they’re close to a designated meeting place, while another traveler wants to book their car rental first. Inflexibility in the workflow introduces unnecessary complexity and frustration. 

Successful digitally driven businesses evaluate technology partners against what best fits their own business and traveler requirements, not by molding their business, people, and processes to fit into a dated and inflexible technology solution.

Another area of travel digitization organizations should consider is a mobile-first strategy to drive process efficiencies and elevate the employee experience. A mobile-first experience also provides faster, more accurate information for travelers when and where they need it. This will not only improve decision-making, it will increase satisfaction and support for the corporate travel program. It can also mean providing travelers with a more productive and seamless trip by enabling a better experience throughout all phases of the journey via the use of mobile devices.

The goal here is to put the right solutions in the hands of travelers to help them become more effective and self-reliant. The technology exists to support employees’ ability to plan, book, and make changes on their own time in their own way. And there are options that were designed specifically with flexibility and travelers’ needs in mind. Having a true understanding of both the business’ and travelers’ requirements helps make evaluating technology partners easier and less frustrating for decision-makers.

An organization’s culture should be closely aligned with its corporate travel culture. The benefits of following this traveler-focused process extend beyond enabling happier, more effective travelers. It can also increase employee retention and collaboration which helps drive company growth. 

A lot has changed over the last two years as we are consuming technology in unprecedented ways. So, if the last time you talked to an employee about business travel was before 2020, it’s time to conduct research on your employees expectations while traveling on company business.

Strategies: Partner with the right change agents

“We’ve always done it this way” thinking has stifled travel managers and their teams long enough. It is time to let go of that way of thinking. Your business may need to involve the right change agents who can help implement your digital transformation. Best practices in digital transformation of travel programs suggest that organizations define their travel technology strategy first, prioritizing mobile and online bookings solutions, and then align the best travel management company to support the small subset of bookings that require assistance. Through leading with technology and building the support structure around it, organizations better digitize and modernize their managed travel programs.

Management teams want to upgrade and uplift the traveler experience because that’s where their companies will see a return on their travel investment. When organizations think strategically about getting the right tools in place, they have higher and more reliable productivity and a leaner, more effective travel program.

Process: Adapt to the speed of change

In a traditional environment, it’s difficult to change once a strategy and associated processes are in place. A modern, digitized environment, however, is flexible enough to pivot more quickly and easily. This is what we mean by “agility.” The power of agility is in reducing the time to value.

Many corporate travel managers are taking advantage of the current lull in travel to overhaul manual, outdated processes and replace clunky technology. When travel demand picks up, they know they won’t have the luxury of time to think through sweeping changes to the tools, processes or policies. 

Consider how your travel program supports the overall culture and values of your company. Looking further, consider your level of confidence that you’re able to keep traveling employees engaged and safe. And, finally, examine whether your existing processes remove friction to help employees make better travel decisions.

From there, other process areas to revamp may include tracking client demand for in-person meetings, and accessing relevant data, such as the public health indicators at your travelers’ destinations.

Technology: What a best-in-class platform includes

Deploying the right technology is the keystone moment in the digitization effort. Yes, people, strategies, and processes cannot be overlooked, but these parts will fail to produce a profound transformation if they aren’t supported with the right tools.

At Deem, we spend a lot of time talking to, reading about, and polling travelers across the industry, and the data is astonishing. Employees are so frustrated with their organizations’ digital travel programs that they’re ditching the solutions altogether. According to a Business Travel News survey, companies are seeing up to 15% in productivity loss and a deficit of $12,000 per employee each year due to outdated travel management.

I hear about employees going off platform to research and book because it’s a better, more intuitive experience. While that may seem harmless in the short term, these external apps and platforms don’t deliver value, they increase risk, and they reduce visibility for forecasting and budgeting. 

Organizations have a massive opportunity to get employees to not only search on platform, but stay on platform to plan, book, and modify travel. Accomplishing that takes getting the technology and user experience right. 

Best-in-class travel technology platforms provide the flexibility and agility organizations need for today’s corporate travel. At the end of the day, it’s about delivering something better: the context travel managers, finance and procurement leaders, and travelers need to most effectively conduct business. 

A best-in-class platform should serve up useful content and meaningful capabilities such as:

  • Seamless booking
  • Intuitive navigation
  • Powerful reporting
  • Streamlined approvals
  • 24/7 support
  • Itinerary synching
  • Traveler safety data
  • Comprehensive integrations and reliability

Seamless, self-service booking is the baseline, but when considered as a whole in combination with these other major travel moments — traveler safety, approvals, on trip changes, etc. — teams are enabled to produce value and deliver impactful results. 

Best-in-class platforms include capabilities that drive visibility into your travel program, prevent policy violations, and help you and your team make smarter decisions. Additionally, the platforms themselves should drive value with a thoughtful user experience that reduces the frustration from having to search multiple off-program channels.

Balancing the various facets of a corporate travel program is challenging enough. With a focus toward digitization, travel managers and finance leaders can win traveler confidence and increase their satisfaction. This momentum toward modern travel solutions enables leaders to deliver value and enhance the employee experience. 

When it aligns with a comprehensive digital strategy, rather than an incremental hodgepodge of apps, organizations can meaningfully boost productivity, improve management of travel costs and efficiencies, and better support the travelers that support their clients.

Get your team back on the road

In the lull of COVID-19, the most progressive companies have used this time to step back, re-examine their goals and processes, and shift to new models to enable cost control and drive agility across their business.

Nowhere is that opportunity greater than in business travel.

As employees leave their home offices and get back on the road, it is paramount that companies get the travel experience right. To do that, they need to undergo a digital transformation that encourages business leaders to define their travel technology strategy first and reimagine the experiences that will delight their travelers. They should take those travelers’ personal preferences and appetites for risk into consideration, and align it all with a holistic digital strategy.

If they get this right, they are supporting broader corporate objectives and creating a better experience to engage travelers.

Discover how the award-winning Etta platform can help your business travel program thrive.


Shannon Garcia
VP, Strategic Sales

Shannon’s career spans more than 25 years in sales and business development leadership roles in the travel management, consulting, and hospitality sectors of the travel industry. She has extensive experience leading global sales and helping enterprises modernize and optimize their corporate travel programs. Most recently with American Express Global Business Travel, Shannon led the multinational sales team that signed numerous Fortune 500 clients representing some of the largest business travel buyers in the world.

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