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Twenty Years of Change in the Travel Industry

Twenty Years of Change in the Travel Industry

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Shaka Senghor

7 Mar 2023
9 minute read
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Last week, I was sitting down at LAX airport waiting to board my flight to New York when I overheard a grandfather and his grandson talking about their first trip together. The grandson, who appeared to be around 11 years old, asked the grandfather what travel was like when he was younger. Amidst their banter, the grandfather said something that caught my attention: He told his grandson that it had been nearly 20 years since he had traveled by plane and that things were very different back then.

A smile spread across my face as I listened to the heartwarming chat between a curious grandson and his wise grandfather. I found myself lost in deep reflection about my own travel experiences and the privilege of working alongside the exceptional team at Navan.

Before joining Navan, my travel was limited to personal trips and harried business excursions as a lone entrepreneur. Back then, booking flights was a frustrating and tedious process filled with headaches and hassles. However, since becoming a part of the Navan team, my outlook on travel has been transformed. Our commitment to providing unparalleled service and attention to detail has revolutionized the way I see the travel industry.

As I pondered the progress that has been made in the field over the last two decades, I became increasingly curious about the history and evolution of business travel. Driven by my passion for learning and discovery, I reached out to a colleague to gain a deeper understanding of how travel has transformed over the years.

Q: Dane, it's a pleasure to have you here today. As an expert in the travel industry, I couldn't think of anyone better to provide insights on some questions that have been on my mind for a while now. To kick off our discussion, I'd like to take us back in time to the year 2003. Picture someone who's about to book a business trip, what was their experience like back then compared to what it is now? Can you set the scene for us?

A: To be frank, the experience of travel 20 years ago was very different from what it is today. For most people traveling back then, the experience was painful and clunky. At that time, online booking tools were just getting started for consumers and corporate travel tools mostly resembled the Global Distribution Systems on top of which they operated (meaning they were not traveler friendly). The primary source of information for travelers was travel agents who relied on printed material like brochures or word of mouth.

Today, thanks to the internet, mobile devices, generative AI, and online booking, travelers have access to unprecedented information and options. Online Travel Agencies (OTAs) like Expedia and Priceline are essential tools for leisure and business travelers. Airline and hotel suppliers are getting more savvy about how they deliver services, increasingly offering discounted direct rates and unique, exclusive offers through their own revamped technology. Times have changed for the better, largely due to companies like ours that put users at the center of everything we do.

Q: Dane, something that stood out to me — from the moment I met our co-founders four years ago — was the promise that Navan would make travel easy while delivering exceptional service to clients. For someone who may not be familiar with the inner workings of Navan's platform, what key features or strategies would you highlight to help them better understand how Navan delivers on that promise and creates magical travel experiences for its clients?

A: Shaka, the way we think about it is simple; we make travel easy. But beneath the hood, there is some complexity that I will unpack here. Navan prioritizes making travel easy while delivering exceptional service to clients by building business software designed for people. While I think that putting people at the center of everything we do is evident in our industry-leading investment in transparent travel shopping experiences like the Next Generation Storefront, or in our “everything in one place” travel and expense experiences centered around a traveler’s trip, it all starts with the travel supply and content we surface. At the core of Navan's mission is the belief that having access to the right content is crucial for creating those in-person connections people value, whether it involves transit like a train or flight, or securing a rental car or hotel at the destination. Navan recognizes the significance of content access in democratizing business travel for all companies and travelers, and remains dedicated to this goal.

Q: Wow, that’s a really powerful way to think about it. The more content travelers have access to, the greater the experience for them and the company. But what does that look like for someone on the outside looking in? I mean, how has Navan worked to improve access and options for travelers?

A: We have worked to improve access and options for travelers by partnering directly with major global suppliers and having the most diverse set of travel content available for travelers. As early as 2018, we worked inline with major air carriers like American Airlines and United to define New Distribution Capabilities (NDC) for TMCs and bring it to our travelers. This new distribution standard enables airlines to provide enhanced offerings and a wider range of price points to travelers, often at lower costs, which we believe is essential for business travelers. We’ve continued this investment with partners like British Airways, Singapore Airlines, and, of course, Lufthansa Group, with whom we have a deep relationship to change access to travel supply through our BusinessToGo program.

There’s much more to the story beyond NDC though.

Navan has connected to low-cost carriers globally, and we are one of the few travel management companies globally that offer this content at no additional fee.

We are rapidly expanding our rail carrier partnerships globally, already connecting most of Europe via rail and expanding in APAC markets and Canada, where rail is a prevalent form of transportation.

And for consumer inventory, we added Expedia and Priceline's OTA rates to our platform to ensure clients have access to the most competitive hotel pricing. Additional special rates are also available through our Navan Lodging Collection on behalf of our customers.

Legacy travel companies can’t make those claims or deliver what we deliver in a way that saves companies both time and money, while creating a magic experience for travelers. Our commitment to always bringing the most competitive and rich content to our travelers, means we’re able to stay ahead of the curve as the market moves to new technology for supply access.

A great example of this is recent changes in NDC. As major European airlines have begun moving their distribution strategies toward NDC or changing availability of content through different GDSs, we’ve been able to stay in line with the market movement, leaning on rich multi-provider content sourcing, including a full dual GDS model that allows us to always be up and servicing our travelers.

As American Airlines, too, makes aggressive moves on its distribution strategy this April, we’ll also be one of the few TMCs ready to handle the change — and our travelers will enjoy the same Navan booking and management experience they have always had with American Airlines content that was served through the GDS.

Q: You mentioned American Airlines' significant advancements in content distribution this spring, particularly regarding NDCs. With the current market chatter surrounding NDCs, what impact will this have on Navan and other comparable travel agencies?

A: You’re right — American Airlines’ move is unprecedented, but it feels like the natural evolution of NDC utilization. Airlines in Europe have attempted similar initiatives, but they have had to retract them due to the fact that NDC was not initially intended as a distribution method for agencies like Navan that cater to corporate travel.

NDC as a channel offers the ability to sell unique bundles, like Wi-Fi or other ancillaries included in the price of the booking, additional price points for travelers, or even completely new fare classes, such as Lufthansa’s Green fare, which is a fare class that offers a CO2 offset when purchasing the seat. These are great for travelers when shopping and booking, but historically, we’ve seen these NDCs fall short on the post-booking service, commonly referred to just as servicing.

For corporate travelers, servicing is critical. I change my flight all the time while I’m on the road to accommodate meetings, weather, or just because I want to get home to see my kids a little earlier. If an agency wants to offer this content but doesn’t have a comprehensive solution for the servicing, it can be a huge problem for their travelers. They may find themselves on long hold times or even get stuck with extra fees to cover the agency’s costs of servicing.

Fortunately, Navan’s been at the forefront of NDC technology and worked with many global carriers over the years on how it’s integrated with corporate travel agencies. Because of that experience, we’ve been able to ensure our product works the same for travelers booking NDC or legacy content from a GDS.

This is true in both the way we’ve adapted our technology stack and the way we’ve scaled up our operations. We’ve even innovated on the Next Generation Storefront to place NDC and GDS content side-by-side on the same flight, making it even easier for the traveler to compare and choose the right flight offer for them. Not many other companies can say the same thing.

Q: That’s great to hear Dane, but what happens if the capability gaps from GDS content need to come from the supplier? How does Navan advocate for travelers in this scenario?

A: When a particular content channel doesn’t have a fully robust offering, Navan leverages our extensive global partnership network and works directly with suppliers. For example, when Lufthansa Group NDC was coming onto the Navan platform, we worked directly with that team on the ideal post-booking workflows, including setting up a dedicated servicing desk. We also worked daily with their engineering teams to expand the post-booking self-service capabilities to ensure Navan travelers could have the same consistent and cutting-edge online travel experience they've come to expect from Navan.

This is what commitment to the traveler is really about. We do not wait for the market to adapt. When we see a need that our travelers have, we’ll address it head-on in our own product and directly with suppliers — and make sure that we’re able to provide the most robust service around that supply as possible.

Q: Dane as always it's been a pleasure chatting with you. Thank you for taking the time out to speak with me today. Before you go, I have one final question. What is Navan's vision for the future of travel?

A: The travel world is complex. Suppliers are evolving, global markets are changing, and with that, customer needs are changing in unforeseen new ways.

Our vision is and always will be one that powers the in-person connection and makes it as seamless and simple as possible. Travelers shouldn’t have to worry about whether they are booking NDC or GDS content or whether they are booking through a direct API or from an OTA feed. The traveler should be picking the seat and amenities that work best for them and their travel program. They should be selecting the room that they want that gives them their loyalty points and breakfast each morning. They should be focused on being there and realizing the value that the in-person connection creates. We have defined and are leading a new category: business software designed for people. Our vision and how we approach our work reflects this each day. We’re investing deeply in new technology and new content sources that will simplify the complexities of travel and expense that pre-dates Navan. Whether this innovation is through a chat with our industry-leading travel AI platform, Ava, or the booking experience brought by our multi-channel next-generation storefront, the best product will be front and center for our travelers.

Navan's unwavering commitment to client satisfaction is the driving force behind everything we do, and we will continue to strive to push boundaries and set new standards in the travel industry.

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