Roman Blinov, Corteos: "There will always be services hard to put online"

Business process automation and work with online systems have been obligatory topics of our forums for the past few years. This year the schedule of Saint Petersburg Forum includes several speeches of experts in the field of the latest technologies in business travel. For example, Roman Blinov, head of development department of Corteos, will speak about the inevitability of progress and comprehensive technological solutions for corporate customers and business travel agencies.

Roman's interview to the informational partner of the forum, Welcome Times magazine, was devoted to such topics as how humans can keep their competitive advantage to robots, what awaits online systems in the future, whether online technologies suit all the companies and what onlinization of business processes is needed for in general.

- Roman, I personally sometimes think that there are too many online tools nowadays: they are in our private life, and at work we face automation everywhere, many business processes are now online. You, for example, are busy developing a business travel platform. And what online tools may be useful for in this field?

- I would like to make it clear - there are different types of online tools in business travel. There are traditional OBTs that are developed by travel agency experts and are available only for this agency' customers. And there are online platforms where several agencies may work simultaneously (we have 34 of them at the moment), and corporate buyers have access to the services of any provider registered in the platform. In both cases the main idea is the same - customers get a tool where they can see all the possible options of hotel accommodation, tickets, transfers in the online mode. And if a travel manager or a coordinator used to receive a request from an employee going on a business trip, send it as a letter to the agency, wait for the reply, choose a suitable variant of several ones offered, now in the online system everything is done instantaneously and with the maximum amount of options.

- And what about internal rules of the company?

-The customer gets access to the content that is customized for his needs, follows his business rules (for example, if someone has a travel policy or there are some structural peculiarities, approval schemes) - all these things are consolidated and included into the system. Moreover, there are sometimes very complicated travel rules, hard for people to remember and to keep in mind. And here everything is done in a computer that forgets nothing. Thus, the risk of an accidental error is excluded as well.

- Is it true that the switch to online tools is not suitable for all the companies? Do you agree?

- Yes, I have read such publications it as well. Their idea is that not everyone can switch to online tools on the spur of the moment. You should study business processes very thoroughly before you start introducing online technologies. Here we can speak about some kind of a state of maturity, which means that business processes of a company should be mature enough to be automated. There should be some effort on the part of the agency, on the part of the online system, the company itself.

- And what a company should be ready for, in order to launch the automation process?

- There are no rigid patterns in this case. But, first of all, you should be ready to bear some expenses. Both consultants, internal and external developers are engaged in this process. It means time and money. You should understand, what kind of services the company needs and whether the agent who works with a certain OBT is able to provide them. You should also design changes inside your business system. For example, I used to make a request and go to room 13 with it to have it signed, and then, for example, Lidiya Mikhailovna contacted the agency in one way or another, some magic happened and my tickets appeared in my email. And now colleagues tell me that everything is over, there is no more Lidiya Mikhailovna, here is your login and password, you log in and book yourself. And there are 2000 colleagues like me around going moon-eyed, who do not understand what they are supposed to do. It means that you should change internal rules, provide some instructions, change the structure, application rules, spell out, where a person should go if he or she has any questions, conduct training. And all this should be done before you introduce online processes.

- By the way, what will happen to “Lidiya Mikhailovna”? She may be out of job!

- It is quite possible. I had such experience. Because every director would like to optimize salary budget costs. And if a company has an opportunity to reassign its human resources, without a decrease in efficiency, it will be done.

- Here we are, we are going to frighten employees, and everyone will be afraid of online technologies because of the fear of losing their job…

- This is not exactly the case. I often explain that there is such a thing as staff reallocation, diversification of activities. Because if we take a closer look at the labour market, universal employees are in the greatest demand all over the world nowadays. The more skills a person has, the more valuable he is, no one will ever fire him. And it means that you should grow professionally, acquire new knowledge, improve your qualification, master adjacent professions. As for the business travel industry, you can attend events of industry associations and organizations. For example, every year forums and educational conferences are held by the Russian Association of Business Travel (ABT-ACTE Russia) in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Kazan and other cities. They also provide an intensive course for travel managers. If you are an active participant in the life of the industry, grow professionally, you will always be noticed and will never be out of job, not at a loose end definitely. Hence, I do not see a big threat for an employee from online technologies.

- You have calmed me down! I agree with you. But can the situation change in the future? Suppose, we are in for an era of “terminators”?

- I can definitely say that there will always be services that are very difficult to make online. It refers to the arrangement of serious events, for example. You can easily arrange a 20-person meeting room in a hotel with one coffee break and lunch with the help of an online system. But when you have a huge cycle of meetings for 2000 participants and accommodation in 5 hotels, 18 conference halls and a complicated schedule for 10 days, hardly any online system will ever be able to do it. The same about concierge services, personal consultants and assistants.

- How will online systems evolve in this case?

- I think that online services will develop in the direction when every customer will be offered some kind of personalized environment, with consideration to his preferences, frequent destinations, preferred hotels, flights, places of interest. Besides, if we speak about large corporations, online services will be tightly intertwined with their internal business processes. Nowadays online services have such a problem – data fragmentation. It means, I have a database, an agency has a database, there is also one for online services. And God help you there is your old passport number in the online system we use to ussie tickets for you… This is the case when such integration is necessary, when there is some kind of an original source of data, for example, the HR database. There should also be some industry solutions that would largely cover the cases any retail company could have. Since we see this trend, we have taken this very path: create industry solutions that could later be spread to companies of the same industry, they only need to have their logics adjusted using ready-made solutions.

- Will anything new appear?

- Probably, various innovative solutions will be added to all this. Like, for example, machine learning, when the system keeps track of everything and learns on its basis. This is what will provide this very personalized environment.

Voice assistants that are so popular now may be added. Then you will say “Ok, Corteos, book me a flight to Majorca”. And Corteos knows by this time which your most favourite flight to Majorca is and where you prefer to stay. Technologies are advancing. The problem is everything is very expensive at the moment.

- What can reduce the cost of online systems to make them more affordable and not to become more and more expensive with every new innovation?

There are two very popular concepts in the world at the moment: low cost and cost sharing. In the first case the lowest fare is sold initially, and price grows only because of extra services (like airlines do). You can take all inclusive or the “basic set” and some services you choose. In case of cost sharing people divide their expenses. And, in my opinion, it is the right way to the better tomorrow. Instead of increasing competition, current OBT developers could unite to some technological alliances. There are a lot of products nowadays that do basically the same thing: book tickets, hotels, provide and issue documents (it is as if every company developed its own Windows). And what if we take a single solution and spread it to different companies?

- … and the costs would be shared between the participants?

- Yes. First of all, you reduce the budget for the technical support of the online system itself and the staff and, consequently, you reduce the costs for the end customer (because it is the corporate customer who pays for online support by the agency, it is included into the agency`s fee). But cost sharing could follow another way – when upgrades to the existing system are done together. Or you look for some “win-win” strategies, when I offer partners to sell their contents through a platform and have my commission. That is, like in App Store, when there is a platform with some applications. Of course, there are a world of ideas in online developers` heads. What is left to do is to implement them. And it is what we are very busy with at the moment.

Interviewed by Olga Dedova

Source: Welcome Times Magazine