“The biggest lesson I have learnt is acknowledging that technical people have a different mindset to that of a traditional marketer, accountant or salesperson and that they require a different management style,” says Flight Centre Travel’s executive general manager, corporate travel, Andrew Flannery.“It is essential to make sure that they understand the bigger corporate picture, understand what we are trying to achieve as an organisation and where they fit into the strategy. Equally, it’s important to get their thoughts on how we can further enhance what we’re looking to do,” he says.“Innovation, information and technology should not be seen as a back-office function. We need these key functions to be actively involved in the organisation and we need to provide the context and means by which they can get involved.”Innovation is certainly at the forefront of Flight Centre Travel Group’s (FCTG) future. FCTG is automating repetitive processes within its corporate travel divisions using robotic process automation (RPA).RPA is a direct path to achieving best outcomes for internal and external customers by automating tasks and activities that are non-value adding or mechanical in nature, says Flannery. The organisation identified tasks that could be automated – particularly straightforward booking processes such as simple domestic and international flight route bookings, and then made software changes and updates to its business processes before deploying the technology across the organisation.“We asked ourselves, ‘why we would want our highly qualified personnel spending time on the tasks which machines can do not only as well but faster and cheaper instead of spending quality time with our customers?’Flannery says that investing time and effort into developing the reporting capability allowed the organisation to concentrate on the specific types of transactions yielding the highest productivity improvements and targeted bookings with the most gain in improved customer experience.Over the past 12 months, the deployment of RPA technology has increased the number of ‘no touch’ booking transactions completed by the organisation. No touch transactions in its largest corporate travel business, FCM Travel Solutions, have grown from 22.8 per cent of bookings to 35.5 per cent. In addition, no touch bookings in its corporate traveller business have hit 40 per cent.“By removing the need for human involvement in unproductive tasks we can grow our business without increasing the people cost and ensuring that our people are focused on more skilled activities where they can provide the best value to customers,” he says.“We decided that it was better to tackle these ‘low complexity and high volume’ tasks first. This allowed the business to get benefits faster and encouraged participation in the program. It also supported the learning of the underlying process, which was the removal of mundane and unproductive tasks.”AI and chatbots leading the wayArtificial intelligence technology and chatbots are leading the charge in the way that travelers manage their travel experience and represent the next wave in customised and intuitive travel management, says Flannery.FCTG’s corporate travel business, FCM Travel Solutions has an innovation lab in Europe which identifies gaps in travel technology. It has created an innovative pocket traveler assistant called Sam (Smart Assistant for Mobile).Technologies like this are beginning to act like a skilled consultant that delivers timely information and valuable information and assistance. Sam is one such innovation that focuses on the experience of the traveller rather than another technology solution which has traditionally served the travel manager or buyer.“We are all charged with identifying innovation,” says Flannery. “Our global operations ensure we are looking at technologies and best practice from around the globe, including nurturing and partnering with a number of startup business.“We also won’t just accept one technology and are always looking at a variety of solutions and other AI technology platforms, including one provided by Serco, a third-party partner that develops online booking tools for corporate travel and is perfecting its own chatbot designed to be a smart travel PA that follows you around wherever you go.”As one of the world’s largest travel and expense management companies, FCTG is continually looking at how new technologies can work alongside travel consultants.“Our staff are brought along this journey with us to help test and develop the programs. One of our core endeavours is to involve them throughout the process and ensure that there are no fears about the impact of these technologies on our workforce,” says Flannery.“We are pleased to be at the forefront of these smart travel technologies and especially with the way they complement – rather than replace – our skilled travel advisors.”Never say ‘no’ to innovationAs part of the leadership group at FCTG, Flannery identifies technologies that may work in the organisation’s corporate and leisure businesses in Australia and overseas. He is the overarching sponsor for all corporate technology initiatives.“Our culture is that we never say ‘no’ to any idea. We don’t believe we are the ones to judge whether an idea is a good idea or a bad idea. Rather, when our people have a ‘pretotype’, we let them go ahead with it and very quickly and inexpensively prove or gather evidence that this idea is worth proceeding with by pretending to create that experience in the organisation,” he says.