One of the announcements at IMEX that may have flown under the radar but could help streamline business travel in the future was Southwest Airlines’ Business Assist Portal. Dave Harvey, vice president and chief sales officer for the airline, explained that the new product makes booking and/or changing names for group flights—something that could have taken weeks of manual confirmations, approvals and information gathering in the past—a self-service task with the potential to be condensed into a few minutes.

The new portal allows for easy research, real-time quotes, automated proposals and tracking in one place. Individual travelers can still earn and manage loyalty points. The interface even includes what Harvey calls a Domino’s Pizza tracker component so the administrator knows exactly where they are in the flow of ticketing leading up to the conference.

“People’s schedules are just more unpredictable now than they ever were and there was a need for even more flexibility,” Harvey acknowledged. To accommodate that reality, the company has decided that travel funds never expire, same-day changes are allowed and ticket funds can be transferred. In the wake of pushback after Delta Airlines initiated “modifications” to its loyalty program, Southwest announced it would make it easier for customers to earn tier status and use points in Southwest Rapid Rewards program. “We looked at travel patterns of leisure and business customers and we want to lean in and be customer-friendly with flexible policies, no bag fees, no change fees and added flexible elements,” said Harvey.

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Business Assist in Action

We clicked the Register Today button on the sage-green page and signed up as a corporate travel manager to test and although we don’t have a SWABIZ account, it seemed pretty straightforward. It is designed for meetings with more than 25 travelers and integrates with GDS and API/Direct Connect booking channels in addition to SWABIZ.

The product soft-launched at the beginning of October but was fully functional by the time the announcement was made at IMEX and that was no coincidence. Southwest first attended the massive meetings industry convention in 2022 and was a bit overwhelmed by the interest in advances to the legacy manual process. “We got run over like a dump truck in a good way,” Harvey said. “Coming off of Vegas, last October, we put the pedal to the metal.” The goal was to introduce a digital hospitality and group platform based on the building blocks tested for the transient traveler by IMEX 23.

Harvey said Southwest is not done. In the first half of next year, more functionality will be added in the areas of digital payment and unlimited name changes. The company is also working on improvements for booking charters, and airplane buyouts. “We’re looking for ways to expand services for meetings groups by IMEX 24,” he said. “We want to be good partners.”

Greater Than 2019 Lift

After working for two years to restore the network of flights after the pandemic, Southwest is now adding routes above and beyond what they served pre-pandemic. A total of 30 new routes were announced last week focused on a point-to-point network, which results in more direct flights and fewer layovers. That includes new regular flights at Harry Reid International Airport (LAS) in Las Vegas, Hollywood Burbank Airport (BUR) in California and Nashville International Airport (BNA), plus more flights to Cancun Airport (CUN). Orlando International Airport (MCO) is transforming into an international gateway to the Caribbean. Nonstop service between Colorado Springs Airport (COS) and the East Coast has been boosted as has Hawaii service. “A lot of these destinations are popular for incentives so we are being very meeting friendly,” Harvey said.

No Repeat of Christmas 2022

Harvey is adamant that the company will perform better than it did last Christmas when the airline canceled more than half of its trips on Dec. 26 due to a winter storm. “That has been our number one focus,” he said. “That’s not who we are.”

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The company has since invested more than a billion dollars in operational resiliency and reliability with completion factors over the summer looking strong. Some of those dollars went to de-icing trucks, engine covers and personnel. Southwest hired over 18,000 people last year and over 15,000 this year. “We are staffed like we’ve never been before for the winter season and we are prepared,” he said.