Congratulations! It’s time to pat yourself on the back and celebrate because, for the first time since our world changed, travel has finally scratched and clawed its way back up toward something many of us would have recognized as “average” a few years ago.
Granted, this does not mean that everything is “back to normal” – in fact, it’s far from. However, 2022 was the first year since the pandemic that Cornerstone registered months with pre-pandemic levels of PNRs passing through our systems. This is a major step forward and one that merits a deeper look at the metrics and numbers for the past few years. There’s still some work to do in the realm of corporate trips, but we are optimistic.
Last year we started seeing a convergence between the technology and the customer experience, which is very compelling. Cost structures have driven both people and companies to take advantage of automation and robotics. From chatbots to core automation, these advances result in freeing up human interactions and routine events so that we can focus on customer interaction and experiences. This is good news because 2022 also taught us to do more with fewer hands onboard. Hybridization and fewer employees, in general, have changed everything about how we work, and now that we’ve had some practice with this new world of remote work and hybrid work we can begin to see what the future travel office will look like going forward.
Finally — and perhaps most excitingly — we are all poised for some serious growth. Ultimately, the businesses that have survived are emerging healthier and ready to take on more. More travel and more business mean more automation, and Cornerstone is ready to help service all of it.
The Metrics – A Year Of Real Recovery
We know everyone is sick of hearing about how everything has changed since the pandemic, but bear with us on this one because it’s a happier story this time!
We mentioned that 2022 was the first year since the pandemic that Cornerstone registered months with pre-pandemic levels of PNRs passing through our systems. This is based on the dataset that we have been working on to aggregate, anonymize, and distribute information about the health of the Travel Industry – gathered from data that flows through our network every month. We feel that it is paramount that companies with data share our knowledge and the foresight it brings. This has resulted in the Cornerstone Index which has been published monthly since July 2020.
According to the Cornerstone Travel Index, total air trips taken in 2022 (measured here by the number of PNRs with flights that were processed by Cornerstone’s systems) surpassed the total travel in 2021 by August. We knew at that point that the year was going to be a positive one, but I don’t think we had a full grasp on exactly how positive it was going to be.
The chart below shows the Cornerstone Index’s “Total Air Trips Processed” by year and includes also a dot for the first month of 2023.
High points through 2022 (primarily in March, September, and December) show volumes of travel comparable to pre-pandemic levels. One distinction to make is that Cornerstone’s data is skewed heavily toward corporate travel. We know that in general, leisure is still leading the way with corporate travel reaching roughly 60% to 70% of what it was. But data patterns don’t lie! Barring unforeseen disruptions, 2023 is going to be busy.
Full Steam Ahead – But With Fewer Hands On Board
While 2023 is going to be a busy year for travel, a major question that many companies are asking themselves is: “are we ready?” We all feel this one right now. We are all solidly back in the realm of providing all of the travel services that we used to provide for nearly just as many travelers as before. But there’s a catch:
Staffing is short everywhere, and servicing as many travelers as we used to is putting severe strain on everyone from TMCs to buyers to suppliers. One of Cornerstone’s long-time Global Account Managers explains pretty succinctly what that means for business:
“With that recovery also came major challenges for virtually all of our clients particularly from the perspective of staffing. This has resulted in many TMC’s turning to outsourcing for some of the “back office” non-client facing work e.g. ticketing of rejected records. This in turn produced opportunity for iQCX clients to work with Cornerstone teams to automate manual tasks that free up agency resources to handle client facing travel.”– Bobbi, Cornerstone Global Account Manager
Granted, as Bobbi points out this means that automation is more at the forefront than it has ever been. Automation and robotics are not just a boon for the business of travel technology, it’s becoming a necessity. The shortages don’t just affect Cornerstone’s clients either. As Bobbi further points out, they’ve touched every single aspect of a trip:
“I think 2022 also taught travelers the importance of being flexible and prepared. What might have been your routine when traveling may be interrupted. Could be as simple as, you always swing by Starbucks in the terminal at your home airport on the way to your departure gate for a pre-flight latte. You get to the airport only to find that they have changed their operating hours for that day and they are closed due to staffing. OR it could be major such as flight cancellation(s) due to no crew available.”– Bobbi, Cornerstone Global Account Manager
From little interruptions to big disruptions, 2022 was the year of finding out how flexible we were both as travelers and as companies. In many ways, the rise of recovered businesses is starting to soften some of this challenge. However, that very rise in business is what’s causing some of the worst strain.
Fewer staff means less institutional knowledge, which means longer processing times for PNRs and travelers, which ultimately means less revenue for everyone. That isn’t ideal.
Going forward, we predict that the only way to keep up with the growth of a business is to implement various automated and robotic processes into your workflow. But don’t fall into the trap of thinking this means travelers will receive less personalized care and attention! In fact, with the most straightforward and mundane tasks automated (such as processing schedule changes or searching databases for unused tickets), travelers will get a much larger share of our time and attention.
Robotics isn’t just about efficiency and your bottom line, it’s about providing the best customer service possible in a modern business environment.
Hybridization (Now That We’ve Had Some Practice)
Speaking of staffing, employee location was also the continued subject of the biggest work-related culture shift in our industry as well as many others. Sure, we adapted when 2020 first hit. We as an industry cobbled together how remote working could potentially work while companies remained online and productive. Cornerstone was lucky in that we’d already had practice being hybrid — roughly 50% of our own staff was remote before 2020. But now that businesses, in general, have had a lot of practice, a few truths can be observed. Namely: companies that are going to continue to flourish have codified how hybrid working should look within their office culture.
Cornerstone’s CEO Mat Orrego has taken a deep look at what all of this means, and has elaborated with four critical insights that successfully guide our own company into being a fruitful technology enterprise in today’s world:
– Mat, Cornerstone CEO
- The need to foster a culture of trust and respect for in-person and remote employees. This includes being flexible and understanding that employees may have different work styles and needs. We also need to create purpose and outcomes when we are together so that we are respectful of our time and productivity.
- Establishing clear communication channels and protocols for both in-person and remote employees is essential. This could include regular stand-ups, team meetings, and collaboration tools like Teams/Slack, Jira, and others to keep people engaged.
- Encourage collaboration and teamwork among both in-person and remote employees. This could include using collaboration tools, holding virtual team-building activities, and finding opportunities for in-person employees to work with remote employees.
- We must ensure that all employees, in-person or remote, access the same resources and opportunities for professional development and career advancement. Investing in the necessary technology and infrastructure to support a hybrid workforce. This could include providing remote employees with the required equipment and tools and training on using them effectively.
All of this means that only the companies that have grounded themselves in a modern mindset, and that can keep and attract talent will be poised to take advantage of the industry growth that is just around the corner.
At the end of 2020, a lot of optimists had adopted a common refrain: “The only direction for us to go now is up!”. Thankfully, as we’ve seen, the numbers have come a long way from that era.
Cornerstone even created a new position in our organization to specifically address and take advantage of emerging opportunities. When asked about industry growth in the coming year, he had this to say:
What I see in terms of growth is that everyone understands we’re in a complicated world and fragile environment where things are still getting sorted operationally. But ultimately, businesses are emerging healthier.
Getting expense base in line with the new nature of the world (both ups and downs) is a key focus as is understanding the need to look at a more balanced flow of revenue, products, and services that are sold. This of course leads to a better customer experience, which gives a much more solid foundation to both business and relationships.
We saw the beginnings of this last year. So as we look to growth, I would expect this transition to a more modern and more merchandizing approach. NDC is going to factor in more and more because it helps meet and fulfill these growing requirements.Mitch, Head of Growth
Cornerstone Project Manager, Jenny also had insights into how change and growth are going to affect our industry in the immediate future:
“2022 showed that even when it is not as obvious, change is evident and creates opportunity for growth. For an experienced employee with 21 years in the industry, it is easy to get set in your way. But we are changing, evolving, adapting every day and we have to in order to be relevant and assist our customers.”– Jenny, Cornerstone Project Manager
No one said change and growth were easy! But if we want to be successful, remaining modern, adaptable, and relevant to our customers is the only way to operate. For Cornerstone especially, that means providing as much technology and automated workflow solutions to as much of our industry as possible. The more travel everyone can process, the more we all succeed.
This coming year is poised to finally see travel numbers return to pre-pandemic levels. In many ways, this is fantastic news. Hopefully, in 2023’s Yearly Retrospective, we will be writing about beating 2019’s numbers, embracing our modern workflows, and celebrating success levels that were impossible until just recently.
However, we need to be able to take advantage of the opportunities. Companies held back by a lack of technology, inability to adapt to the continued staffing shortages, or unwillingness to turn over mundane tasks to robotic processes will simply not have the capacity to grasp as much of their fortunes as they might otherwise be capable of.
Project Manager Jenny once more summed up this sentiment perfectly:
“Travel is different because it truly is about the traveler’s experience. With the new generations entering the travel scene, we no longer put up with things that make us uncomfortable or don’t make sense. No more can the employer, corporation, or industry dictate the way things are — both employees and travelers are expected to have an opinion and be heard. This is why 2023 Cornerstone will be the leader – as we listen to customers, customize the offering to fit their needs, and adapt in order to stay at the top!”– Jenny, Cornerstone Project Manager
Happy 2023, everyone — Here’s to the success of an immensely pivotal year, filled to the brim with new challenges to overcome and new potential to grasp!