Services that automate smarter buying decisions in corporate travel are part of a wave of transformative change that will cause the corporate travel ecosystem to evolve.
Consumer tools for travel-price tracking are common, but many business travelers are compelled to book trips or receive their itineraries based on the lowest fare available, regardless of how cheap airfares or crummy hotels impact the travel experience.
Corporate travel managers are increasingly seeing the wisdom of an automated approach to booking, and re-booking, travel with an eye on savings without sacrificing comfort or amenities for travelers, says James Filsinger, president and CEO of Yapta, the airfare and hotel-rate tracking and buying tool.
Filsinger, who has led Yapta since 2012 after stints at EZYield and Sabre Holdings, thinks that the increased ability of travel companies to analyze data is leading to a renewed focus on making smarter buying decisions.
Skift spoke to Filsinger about Yapta’s evolution from a consumer tool to enterprise solution, why travel management companies have yet to leverage their data effectively and how data will eventually shift how travel managers and corporate buyers perform their jobs.
Skift: Yapta pivoted some years ago from a consumer-focused pricing solution to an enterprise service aimed at the corporate travel space. What led to that switch in focus?
Filsinger: Yapta did launch as a consumer play back in 2007. About the time that Concur came in as an investor — they’re our largest shareholder — the decision was made to move the company into the enterprise space.
We took the lessons that we learned on the consumer side. We applied those to corporate travel, but we made the process seamless for both the traveler and for the travel management company that supports the corporation. There’s really zero impact to the traveler. The traveler, actually, is not involved. The travel management company that works on behalf of that corporation re-tickets the airfare or re-books the hotel room. Because it’s the same flight, departure date and time, cabin, class, airline, all of that, and because it’s the same hotel property and there’s no impact to the traveler, really all it is is bottom line savings directly to the corporate customer.
Skift: Innovation has been slow to enter the corporate travel space. What factors do you think have contributed to the slow adoption of tools and services that are now popular for consumers?
Filsinger: I absolutely agree with that. I’ve been in travel tech now for almost 20 years. It is amazing to me on the corporate side how slow, generally speaking, innovation comes to corporate travel.
What I think we’re seeing is because travelers, corporate travelers, are also consumers and they’re also leisure travelers, they have tools available to them that they’d like to use and want to use in their consumer and personal life that they would like to see similar tools used in the corporate space. I think corporate travel has just been a bit lagging behind that.
Of course you have corporations concerned about security issues and duty of care. There’s some other things that play into that, but at the same time I think you’re really now … It used to be the office was the technology leader. Now consumer has been for several years now, really pushing corporate travel to try to adapt. Historically we’ve been slow.
Skift: On that note, what were the big challenges for Yapta as it moved into the especially change-resistant corporate travel ecosystem?
Filsinger: The difficulty we faced launching into the corporate space, at least initially, was when you launch a consumer product, all you need to do is start to get a few users to use it. They’re not as concerned about who the people are that are actually behind the app. If they like the app, they’ll use the app. When you’re selling to a corporation, what we faced initially was this value proposition sounds too good to be true. “You’re going to save me money. I don’t have to do anything and it’s going to impact my bottom line.”
The way we initially addressed the market was we would offer pilots or free trials to get them hooked so they could see yes, this product does actually work and it is actually going to save you money. There was a lot of trying to convince the market that they could trust a small company in Seattle that said they could actually save them money, because it sounded too good to be true.
I will say, trying to pivot from consumer into corporate is difficult because there’s greater skepticism. We also have to have security for our infrastructure. You have to make sure it’s secure, that your database is encrypted, that you’re using our information appropriately, all that kind of stuff. That’s something that as a consumer product, we don’t have to go through.
Skift: So today how does Yapta position itself to potential clients? Since it’s invisible to the end-user is it still a challenging sell?
Filsinger: We have over 200 clients today, Fortune 500, Fortune 1000 clients. We also have distribution agreements, actually, with 13 of the top 25 travel management companies. Travel management companies get this. They understand that it’s a value-add. We’ve been very fortunate that the travel management companies with whom we work have seen the value of providing this as a service to their clients and and have embraced that.
Obviously there’s still others out there that aren’t distribution agreement partners, but we do have clients of theirs regardless because we also sell direct to the corporation. If that corporation goes to their travel management company and they don’t happen to have a reseller agreement with us, they just say, “I want you to implement Yapta.” We’re getting a lot of support through the travel management channel as well.
We also try to focus on securing different verticals. We have a very good oil and gas vertical. Those companies talk amongst themselves. That helps us to get some brand equity that way.
We talk about what’s different with consumer and corporate travel. Consumer product you don’t necessarily have to worry about verticals, but in corporate travel, you get a lighthouse account for different verticals and then those verticals start filling in. They tend to follow each other.
Skift: Looking ahead, do you see Yapta offering new products besides Room IQ and Fare IQ? Where are the opportunities?
Filsinger: We believe we still have a lot of opportunity in the air and hotel space. Depending on what metric you look at, managed air travel in the United States is $46 billion a year. You got lots of runway there. We continue to make sure that our air product and our hotel products are enhanced to the point where we are maximizing value.
Our next growth path is really to be in a couple of different areas. One is international. Today our products are great for U.S. point of sale. It’s in USD, it’s in English, that sort of thing. We want to take those products internationally. Our hotel product, Room IQ, we’re hoping will work internationally. We are currently in the process of doing an evaluation with, I’m happy to say, three of our largest customers in eight different countries to see how our air product performs. We’ll be rolling out to international markets here in the relatively near term.
In that arc, another play for us is around data. There is a lot of data on what’s actually ticketed, but I believe we are the only company that can provide data and insight into what happens with prices for airfare and hotel rooms from the time of ticketing and booking up to the day of departure. We not only look for when the price drops, but we keep track of every pricing event, if it went up or if it went down, or if it stayed the same. That’s a very unique data set. I believe there’s a real value in that.
Skift: Almost everyone in travel is now talking about leveraging data. But it seems that very few companies have concrete efforts to analyze data and create actionable insights. As a data-centric company, how does Yapta assess the role of data in corporate travel?
Filsinger: I think part of it is the value is in the analytics associated with the data. Sabre and the other distribution systems have had terabytes and terabytes of data that they’ve been making available through information data tapes and other ways for years. There’s just so much data.
The big companies say data is important. What they’re having a hard time doing, I think, is saying OK, I have all this data, but how is it actually usable?
There’s just so much data that it can be overwhelming. It’s almost like you see this vast forest and there’s a tree in the middle of it that has all the important stuff, but all you can see is this huge forest in front of you. I think it’s just getting your arms around that. One of the things we can provide and want to continue to enhance is, because we have travel experience, we can look at the data and we can provide the analytics around that and boil it down to actionable items. That’s a benefit for us and a leg up on anybody else that might be trying to do that.
Skift: While Yapta focuses on hotel and air bookings, how do you assess the effect of the sharing economy on corporate travel?
Filsinger: When we talk about sharing, I think I’m probably more in the boat of the sharing economy will have an impact to corporate travel. As a matter of fact, we just had a customer advisory board meeting last week. We get together 12 of our strategic and large clients and we give them a chance to give us feedback on where we’re headed and what their insights into what we should do and what they’re doing in the market. Interestingly enough, one of the clients, we talked about the sharing economy, and one of the clients already had the corporate agreement with Airbnb. It’s part of their travel program. Just about everybody in the room is allowing Uber and a couple of the companies already had corporate deals with Uber. One had a corporate deal with Lyft. I think the sharing economy is here to stay and corporations are going to have to figure out a way to make that work.
Another interesting thing is, like I said, I’ve been in this industry for a while. It used to always be the travel manager raising a hammer to say you’re going to abide by corporate policy and I don’t care what happens. That’s what you’re doing. Now research is showing that the number one priority for travel managers is traveler satisfaction, which is really strange to me after being in this industry for this long, that you’re going to focus on making the traveler happy? I almost question if they’re just talking that way and they’re not really going to walk the walk. That’s interesting.
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Photo credit: The departures board at Singapore's Changi Airport. Jiahui Huang / Flickr