Imagine a future where travelers trust Navan to surface just three flights based on their particular travel preferences. No searching or questioning or price comparing. Just input dates and book. That’s where personalization is headed.
I’ve had a front-row seat to seeing how personalization changed travel—and while it’s evolved radically, we still have a ways to go: The first instances of personalized travel started with loyalty. Travel suppliers found that the more they personalized loyalty, the more loyal the user became. New technology then allowed for much more acute scalable personalization.
In the last decade that I’ve worked in travel, progress toward personalization was slower than stakeholders would have liked due to the sheer complexity of the technology underneath the travel industry. Many players, including suppliers, booking engines, global distribution systems, and intermediaries, make it hard to ensure that personalization is consistent across all the different parts of the chain.
Think about the Marriotts and Uniteds of the world. Each is a giant organization built on technology, and it’s near impossible to rebuild everything—not just for personalization but also for pushing that nuance out to the intermediaries in the value chain. It’s turning a giant boat around, and that’s not very easy.
But, for all its challenges, personalization is a huge win for everyone when it comes to booking online. It's a win for the user because they get what they want when they want and how they want it. It's a win for travel companies as it drives conversion and adoption.
There was a gap in the market that Navan stepped in to fill. We were able to integrate directly with end suppliers, have direct access to consumers, and do things a lot faster than other agencies that rely on more touchpoints throughout the purchase value chain.
While most of the industry has been built on legacy technology and infrastructures, Navan built its tech stack from the ground up to focus on the user. The team prioritized personalization across the booking tool, service, and admin technology from the start.
Personalization is a central tenant of Navan’s core technology and ideology. Machine learning and AI played a foundational role in that technology, and the personalization algorithm improved as the product scaled. Then, when it came to suppliers, Navan built the functionality and capability to provide contextual information and eventually direct connections with suppliers.
Airlines have heavily invested in new booking technologies like NDC and direct connects for several reasons—one of them being personalization—but suppliers have traditionally been far away from the consumer. Many people go through agencies, whether an OTA or TMC, which means the supplier doesn’t necessarily know who the end user is. These new technologies give them much more insight into who’s actually booking, and now they’re able to put more personalized offers in front of the user.
We’re finally getting to a really interesting tipping point in personalization because of direct connections. Navan can bypass intermediaries, unlike many other agencies, so we’re working directly with many of our supply partners, which is unique.
For example, Navan knows each traveler’s loyalty status and can tailor which amenities are surfaced in the booking flow based on a user’s elite tier. If baggage, lounge access, or seat upgrades are a part of a traveler’s loyalty tier, these amenities will simply be included in the reservation. As a United loyalty member, Navan recognizes that I don’t need to pay for Economy Plus seating or lounge access because it comes with my status. It won’t put those offers in front of me, but it might upsell me on first class, which United knows I’m likely to buy based on past booking behavior. This is possible because of Navan’s unique connection with supply partners.
Let’s use support as another example of this tipping point. Previously, travelers would call a support agent who would have no context or knowledge of what the traveler was trying to do. Navan built technology, so support agents know who is calling, what trip they’re on, and all the contextual information needed to assist the caller.
Navan’s booking experience is incredibly personalized, and there are many reasons behind that, but it’s ultimately about efficiency and conversion.
With the power of AI, and subsequently OpenAI and Chat GPT integration, personalization translates into efficiency, time savings, and satisfaction.
The more personalized an experience is, the more efficient it is. Looking at a typical flight between New York and Los Angeles, countless options would surface to an everyday traveler.. But using personalization, Navan technology knows what each user will likely book so that it can surface that flight at the top of the search results. In the past, travelers had to call a travel agency or go through a non-personalized search experience. They’d be scrolling page after page to find exactly what they’re trying to buy.
Through Navan’s virtual assistant, Ava, travel managers can personalize recommendations and increase traveler engagement. Admins can use Ava as a personal assistant to request personalized data analysis, granular carbon emission details, and even order corporate cards for their company. Travelers can ask Ava to perform a travel search and solve customer support issues, such as a flight change or restaurant recommendation based on weather and area. Since AI and ML are ingrained in Navan’s tech stack, the infrastructure was in place to easily incorporate generative AI technology. This means that the user experience will get even MORE personalized.
In corporate travel, efficiency equals cost savings. The more time an employee spends looking for travel, the less time they’re actually doing their job. That’s not a good thing.
Think about purchasing on Amazon versus going to a physical store and searching for an item. Amazon knows exactly what consumers want to buy and can recommend items based on past purchase behavior. It’s similar to how Netflix recommends shows based on your past viewing behavior and what other people like you have watched. Netflix can calculate how closely it matches an individual viewer’s preferences down to a percentage. It will let viewers know that viewers like you watch a certain show. Navan follows a similar logic in its hotel search path. It will surface context on how other people at a company booked a hotel. Social proof and affirmation are helpful when traveling to a new location or looking for the most convenient location.
Personalization is not always just about knowing the traveler but integrating the context around them, like their company, policy constraints, and destination. The data points make up the cloud of personalization that helps drive the metrics and KPIs.
But the holy grail remains satisfaction. Travelers want their search experience to be as quick and painless as possible. Personalization delivers on that ideal state. While we want the experience to be great, there’s also a business reason behind this: adoption. Companies want their employees to actually use their managed travel solutions. If they’re not happy, they’re not going to use it. By creating an experience that employees want to use and are satisfied with, Navan provides a tool that employees will actually use, which creates compliance with the company. It’s a virtuous flywheel.
Having been in the room where these decisions around the reach of personalization are made, people sometimes ask me about privacy concerns and digital security. Now, regulations are in place that helps prevent nefarious personalization tactics. There are GDPR, and U.S. state regulations that companies need to follow Safeguards against improper use of personalization metadata are also in place from the government to the macro level. The work is in implementing each standard and ensuring that the company is doing each regulation justice in each respective region. That being said, there is a balance, and I think it is trying to find those win-wins and not expose anything that shouldn't be exposed.
Navan’s is to ensure the technology complies with the law and that the benefits are abundantly clear to the users, to make sure that people know why they’re getting served what they’re getting served, and to show how personalization actually helps travelers achieve what they’re trying to achieve, whether it’s efficiency, cost savings, time savings, adoption, or conversion.
For all the progress that personalization has made, travelers still have too many search options in front of them. There’s still so much capability to remove the noise in the booking experience.
How nice would it be to create a world where the hotel knows when a specific traveler is landing, and their room is ready with their favorite snack or beverage waiting? We can add so many possibilities to the journey to create more efficiencies and craft that magical travel experience. The difficulty comes from coordinating between multiple stakeholders and value changes from a commercial and technical perspective.
Imagine connecting all the pieces and providing a personalized journey, from booking to the actual travel experience. There’s no one better positioned than Navan to deliver this, and the journey begins now.
Danny Finkel joined Navan as VP of Booking Experience and Supplier Strategy in January 2019. He then became the Chief Travel Officer before broadening the scope of his role to Chief Commercial Officer in 2022, where he continually takes more ownership of the entire value chain and commercial relationships. His scope has expanded beyond travel to include Navan Expense, Navan Rewards, and more.