Imagine it’s New Year’s Eve, and you’re counting down the hours to welcome 2019. You look back to all the highs and lows you’ve experienced this year, including in your business or career. As you think of the holiday trip that you did or did not take, your mind inadvertently wanders to all the business travel your company made in 2018.

You wonder: how many trips will we take in 2019? Will we have the same problems and dilemmas this year? How can the experience be better?

While you’re not about to discover a magic pill to cure jetlag once and for all, you can arm yourself and your company with some industry insights. You may have talked to other SMEs and business travellers, and even companies offering business travel solutions, to learn what they expect in 2019.

Allow us to contribute to your research. Here are five business travel trends in 2019 to help you forecast and plan your business travel programme for the year ahead.

More flexible, employee-centric business travel policies

It seems like not a week passed by in 2018 without seeing articles on how companies can attract and understand millennials. Business-to-employee relationships have truly changed, with growing demand for flexibility and an increasing focus on employee experience.

This focus on the ‘experience element’ has been evident in Asia Pacific consumer lifestyles in recent years, giving birth to what some call the ‘experience economy’. Expect this to spill over into business travel, as the quality of one’s experience becomes a major priority both in work and lifestyle settings.

To allow business travellers to craft more personal experiences and enjoy flexibility, more SMEs will relax their business travel policies in 2019. Business travellers will have more leeway to choose their preferred accommodation, use e-wallets, participate in the sharing economy, or go on bleisure trips, where they extend their stay in a different country for leisure at their own expense.

Travel options need to be more flexible, too. With the rise of scooter- and bike-booking apps, one wouldn’t be surprised if business travellers opt to use these to get around a city instead of trains.

Increased adoption of SaaS tools for business travel and expense management

Companies that adopt digital tools and systems tend to enhance revenue more than those that don’t, according to the World Economic Forum. Digital tools have helped SMEs reduce costs and do away with complex processes related to billing, invoicing, financial reporting, and HR and admin work.

SMEs in Asia have been slow to transform their manual and paper-based processes, though. One reason is that many are more familiar with legacy software than with Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) solutions.

The former tends to involve huge costs and long-term commitment, as it often requires buying software and revamping one’s systems to achieve integration.

The SaaS model has changed all that. SaaS companies can offer their software over the cloud and let you pay to use it monthly or yearly. You typically pay only for the features you need and the number of users in your organisation. And since the technology is cloud-based, there’s often no need to overhaul your entire system just to adjust to the new software.

SMEs across Asia have thus begun trying out SaaS solutions. In fact, Asia Pacific’s SaaS market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 34.28 per cent from 2018 to 2023.

While the more popular SaaS solutions are enterprise resource planning (ERP), customer relationship management (CRM), human resource management (HRM), and supply chain management (SCM), solutions for specific industries and functions are also growing. That includes SaaS for business travel management. Travel tech, including SaaS travel management systems, took off in 2018 and should continue being a hot space in 2019.

Business travel tools will evolve to provide automation, data analytics, and personalisation

Automation, personalisation, and data analytics were major business buzzwords in 2018. Businesses now expect their travel tools to offer these capabilities. For example, they should be able to automate expense management, including tasks like generating reports, tracking taxes, and converting currencies.

These tools should also be able to analyse a company’s business travel data and provide insights that will help one identify trends, track metrics, and prepare forecasts for the next year.

And with the wide array of choices for flights, accommodation, and rewards programs, travellers should find it easy to use these tools for on-point personalisation. With data analytics, business tools can better understand each traveller’s preferences and provide personalised recommendations.

Long story short—business travel tools will lose out in 2019 if they don’t provide automation, data insights, and on-point personalisation.

Participating in the sharing economy

Airbnb introduced Airbnb for Work in Asia in 2018. To qualify, properties must meet standards such as having ratings of at least three stars, offering the entire home or apartment for rent, and having WiFi and a laptop-friendly workspace.

However, also in 2018, more cities around the world started imposing regulations on Airbnb, making it tougher to book these properties in 2019.

These regulations may make the Airbnb experience safer, though. For instance, in some places, hosts are required to register with their city council. That can increase their accountability.

The same holds true for the likes of Grab. Singapore requires drivers registered with apps like Grab to be licensed under the Private Hire Driver's Vocational Licensing framework. This means they have to undergo a strict medical examination and background checks, have at least two years of driving experience in the country and take and pass a course on how to be a professional chauffeur. Wouldn’t you feel more at ease knowing your driver has passed all these requirements?

That’s why the trend of businesses allowing travellers to use sharing economy services will continue in 2019. This also ties in with the desire for flexibility and employee-centric travel experience.

Multi-platform user experience

Worldwide, Asia has the largest share of mobile internet traffic, with 61.09 per cent of its population using their mobile phones to go online. It’s no longer enough for business tools to just create mobile-friendly versions that are just smartphone-sized replicas of their desktop systems. Business tools need to be designed with the mobile user experience in mind.

Business travellers also bring with them their laptops or tablets, though. In fact, one might be typing up a report on the plane and finishing it on his phone while waiting to pick up his luggage.

This means business travel tools must allow seamless interaction between devices. That’s why one user experience design trend in 2019 is a focus on multi-device experiences.

Bottom line

You’ll notice that many business travel trends in 2019 prioritise the quality of a business traveller’s experience. That makes perfect sense. After all, behind the glamorous image, there’s a flipside to business travel that employers need to take note of.

What all this means is that whether you’re refining your business travel policy for 2019, estimating your budget, or making similar plans, it’s always best to keep the traveller’s experience in mind.