Welcome to the Era of “Bleisure” Travel
Here’s how travel & hospitality brands can optimize digital experiences for frequent travelers.
Who says you can’t combine business and pleasure?
Employees traveling to interesting and far-flung destinations for work are starting to make more of their journey by combining business and leisure, leading to a trend that experts are calling “bleisure” travel.
But this trend, which is mostly driven by millennials, creates a challenge — and an opportunity — for travel and hospitality (T&H) brands. As corporate and leisure travel become more intertwined, the challenge for online travel agencies (OTAs) will be how to offer both types of travel to the same person, especially when corporate travel isn’t typically set-up to accommodate leisure trips or split charges between the company and the traveler.
The rise of “bleisure” travel
A study by the Global Business Travel Association found that 37 percent of North American business travelers took a bleisure trip in 2017. More were millennials (48 percent), and only 23 percent were baby boomers.
Duke Chung, CEO of the all-in-one booking and travel expense platform TravelBank app, predicts 2018 will be the year that bleisure becomes the norm.
Different factors are driving this trend. Some bleisure travelers are slightly extending business trips to decrease the overall cost of taking a vacation, while others are taking advantage of flexible corporate travel policies — although that isn’t yet standard.
“Companies are creating policies around the practice now,” Duke says. “Forbes reports that 57 percent of companies now have a policy for employees to extend a business trip into vacation time. That trend will surge in 2018 as ‘bleisure’ becomes more accepted by companies.”
Duke points to Detour as another innovative company in the bleisure travel space. The app provides neighborhood walking tours guided by local celebrities and leverages augmented reality so users can see how a place has changed over time.
“And Airbnb is offering ‘experiences’ now, in addition to business travel-friendly rentals,” Duke says, referring to a new service where travelers can book excursions or other activities designed and led by local hosts.
Millennials are changing business travel
Jeff Kim, account manager for marketing and alliances at Asiana Airlines, says generational shifts are driving the gradual increase in bleisure travel. Many millennials, he told Travel Weekly, are trying to achieve as much as they can in their career and as early as possible.
“They seem to see full vacations during their young adulthood as luxuries they cannot afford,” he says. But, he believes bleisure travel gives them the best of both worlds. “It permits them to find their own balance between work fulfillment and personal edification, and it’s travel they can enjoy guilt-free.”
Experts say companies that want to improve employees’ bleisure travel experience should help them understand what resources are available regarding the leisure part of their travel, and create policies about preferred suppliers and booking channels.
Technology, especially artificial intelligence (AI), is one way they can make this process more seamless.
As frequent travelers look for ways to optimize their time and get the most out of their travel experience, online booking companies need to rely now more than ever on innovative tools like AI to automate the travel search and booking process. Experts say AI can enhance human capabilities and improve how travel and hospitality brands connect with customers by embedding AI technology into travel search and chat platforms, which can improve customer service and engagement.
“What an EA or executive assistant does for a c-level executive is exactly what T&H brands should be doing via machine learning and AI,” Duke says. “Typically, an EA knows an exec’s preferences. When a T&H company uses AI correctly, this should bring the EA booking experience to the everyday business traveler.”
His company’s TravelBank app uses AI to predict travel costs based on real-time pricing and gives business travelers information about Wi-Fi, in-seat power, the likeliness of upgrade availability, and the option to book seats next to colleagues (or not). Through its expense platform, business travelers earn rewards on services like Airbnb, Lyft, and Uber when they come in under budget.
Taking the agony out of travel planning
The bleisure travel trend has led to several recent mergers helping companies make the combination of corporate and personal travel more seamless.
American Express Global Business Travel (GBT), for instance, acquired KDS, a global travel technology provider whose signature product is its online corporate trip planning and booking solution Neo. GBT’s Chief Executive Doug Anderson says the acquisition lets GBT offer the first seamless end-to-end travel shopping and booking experience specifically for today’s business traveler.
Around the same time, the business travel service Concur acquired Hipmunk, an online travel company that specializes in travel and hotel searches and has an AI-powered travel planning assistant. “This combination means we can do an even better job for frequent travelers, in both their leisure and business travel,” said Adam Goldstein, co-founder and CEO of Hipmunk, when the acquisition was announced. Both Concur and Hipmunk say their partnership will “take the agony out of travel and travel planning,” by using their travel search and expense management technology to create a more integrated experience for frequent travelers and to easily help them find the best hotel and flight options — even if they want to bookend a business trip with leisure travel.
“If you think about booking travel and the process of actually finding available options, it’s laborious and exhausting,” says Julie Hoffmann, head of industry strategy and marketing for travel and hospitality at Adobe. “For business and leisure travel, all the artificial intelligence-enabled bots like Hipmunk allow the machine to better understand you and your needs over time.” AI does this by making sense of search and booking data, and determining how a brand can provide more meaningful offers.
“If you form partnerships with other non-competing travel brands, which I call ‘owning more of the digital shelf’, you are going to have more access and insights than the majority of other companies who are not sharing data,” she says.
As travelers’ interests and employer policies continue to evolve, bleisure travel should see more growth. And, according to Julie, a millennial workforce that wants more balance between work and play most likely will drive this.
“Millennials are really reshaping the corporate and leisure travel space because they have this huge desire for work-life balance. You’ll see that by the choices they make, and what they will or will not accept eventually becoming policy from employers,” Julie says. “I don’t think that ‘bleisure’ was uncommon before, but it’s definitely proliferated as this demographic has grown into the workforce. They are driving expectations that their work life should enable them to have new experiences and explore in perfect alignment with their career requirements and aspirations.”