The majority of business bookings (53%) are researched and booked online, with 80% of all global flights booked through the internet. This migration from face-to-face bookings to online had been a steady process since the internet became a part of everyday business, but it was the recession that really revolutionised the process.

Businesses were faced with two demands; to cut costs and to be more cost-effective. This meant spending less money, and ensuring that any spending was both necessary and fruitful.

At the same time, businesses were also under pressure to operate more efficiently, and this is where the contradiction occurs which led to the explosion in online business travel bookings.

The post-recession era requires thorough research and comparison of services to secure the most competitive deals from the best providers, but restricted time for and access to traditional sources of information has resulted in online resources taking priority in the research process.

This trend is only set to grow this year with the majority of businesses (58%) planning to travel the same amount or more in 2012 compared to 2011. Almost a fifth (18%) however will search for more cost-effective ways of doing so ii.

The anonymous advisor

The benefits of moving online are clear to those in charge of business travel; they can research, compare and book whenever suits them, often receiving discounts and cheaper rates for doing so. Large companies can also take advantage of loyalty schemes and group discounts to ensure reduced prices.

Whereas business travel bookers may have relied on tips from travel agents, clients or colleagues when planning trips, the internet gives them access to a wealth of information, often posted by other business travellers, to help shape their decisions.

But to what extent can business bookers trust and put their faith in reports from others online? Online reviews and blogs left anonymously can be taken as endorsed and factual, purely because they appear on recognisable websites, but would travellers take advice off strangers in the street? Probably not.

While online reviews can offer a valuable insight into customer experience, browsers are often too quick to base travel decisions on anonymous reviews by strangers instead of speaking to experienced and knowledgeable travel professionals.

Even with the need to maximise budgets, businesses still rate quality of service as the deciding factor when choosing a business travel partnerii, and so the message to business travellers should be a holistic approach; take advice from different sources but appreciate the validity of the reviews and rely on established and endorsed websites where possible.

Online operators

The internet has proved a key source for travel research and bookings over the last decade, with traditional tour operators investing heavily in their online facilities to remain competitive in the market.

A more recent trend has been that of mobile bookings, with many companies launching mobile sites to meet the growing demand and shift in purchasing behaviour. Business travellers are rarely without their mobile or smart phone, and forecasters are predicting a huge increase in mobile bookings in 2012 iii.

Indeed, Avis has reacted to this shift in booking preferences with the launch of its new mobile site which is a replica of the company’s current website, and has been optimised to suit the dimensions of small screens and simplified to allow fast browsing. Providing information and booking options via this platform is key to growth of the travel sector.

The knowledge gap

But what are the downsides for business travellers who rely on technology and online resources to plan their travel? While the internet is inexhaustible, our own knowledge is not. In essence, research is restricted in part to what people already know. For example, they can only use search terms based on their knowledge, and this limits their research capabilities.

Travellers can be prompted to develop their research as per the domino effect, but inevitably they are restricted in a way they wouldn’t be if they were speaking to an agent who would suggest different options that were previously unknown to the traveller.

On the fly

The trend of relying on the internet to both research and book travel also extends to the journey itself, with business travellers using mobile Wi-Fi and smart phones to stay connected while on the go. Business travellers often require daily internet access to contact the office, keep up-to-date with emails as well as everyday business requirements.

However, with Wi-Fi hotspots often restricted to fixed locations such as cafes and hotels, and mobile internet often charging extortionate roaming charges when used abroad, business travellers can be hard-pressed to find convenient and cost-effective browsing options.

A quarter of businesses (24%) stated that built-in Wi-Fi within a hire car would be of useiii and Avis has therefore recently launched a portable mobile Wi-Fi product trial, which customers can book with their car rental for collection in three locations in Germany (Berlin Tegel Airport, Munich Airport and Düsseldorf Airport).

Cheaper than typical hotel Wi-Fi, roaming handset or broadband USB charges, users can connect to up to five devices at once — meaning laptops, Smartphones, tablets and even video game consoles can access the mobile internet simultaneously, enabling several passengers to use the mobile internet access at the same time at no extra charge.

Having access to Wi-Fi while on the go is key to being cost-effective while on the go, as business travellers don’t have to travel out of their way to find a Wi-Fi hotspot, and can remain connected wherever they need go.

In addition to sending emails and browsing the web, mobile internet access also allows spontaneity and reactivity, for example impromptu meetings can be built into the trip as they can be planned whilst travelling.

It also enables ease of travel, as a third of businesses (37%) choose online check-in for car hire to save time on collectioniii. Companies such as Avis offer digital services that include reservation checking and modifying, checkout options and branch searches — all available via the mobile site.

The message to travel providers is clear; to respond to the business travel trend for researching and booking online, and to invest time and money in building appropriate online facilities, all with the aim of offering improved accessibility for potential customers both before and during their trip.

By Ollie Woodmansee, UK Sales Director, Avis Budget UK