Corporate travel CEOs who want their companies to grow must seize every opportunity to innovate. And there are plenty of opportunities because the pace of change within corporate travel has been very sluggish.
New ideas shake up the leisure travel world at a dizzying pace, but innovation moves more slowly in the corporate travel.
To find out how travel management companies are adapting to their clients’ needs — and the technology that travelers are already using — Skift is talking to CEOs about the trends that are reshaping their industry.
Our first discussion is with Mike Cameron, CEO of Salt Lake City-based Christopherson Business Travel, which booked more than $550 million in travel in 2015 for nearly 1,000 companies and organizations.
Cameron said the company is investing significantly in developing new technology for clients, including two he highlighted: Travel Approval sends itineraries to travelers and their managers for approval or modification, annd Hotel Attachment identifies itineraries without hotel reservations and allows customers to either book a hotel, attach an outside reservation, or waive the need to book lodging.
The company’s transactions are up 12 percent in the first two months of the year, and total bookings have increased 16 percent. Cameron said hotel bookings helped drive that increase, in part because of the new technology.
“Things are going to become more digital, more self-serve, and we have to be part of that trend and have to change with it,” he said.
Skift: What trends in consumer travel do you most want to adopt for your business?
Mike Cameron: I would say we’re doing three things, we’re rebuilding our entire platform with three things in mind and all three of them come from the consumer view of the world.
The first is simply mobile-friendly, which translated means responsive technology. So the first thing we’re doing is rebuilding our entire platform to be mobile-friendly so that it can be accessed on a smartphone, a tablet or a PC interchangeably with equal functionality. And that’s definitely a consumer trend that we’re all used to. We’re used to being able to access the apps and the websites and the tools that we use as consumers and have a robust experience whether or not we’re using our smartphone, our tablet or our PC. So we’re following that trend and we’re making good progress. We started the rebuild last year and I’d say we’re about halfway through rebuilding the whole platform [and] being mobile ready.
The second thing that we’re doing is we are developing all of our new tools and rebuilding our existing tools to transition from more of a business intelligence mindset to an actionable intelligence mindset. So translated: We provide our travel managers with a lot of business intelligence so they can monitor their travel program. The problem with business intelligence is it’s very interesting and it’s useful. But it’s backwards looking, so all of the new stuff that we’re building, we’re building with a more actionable forward-looking lens. So we’re building a work-to-zero task manager for our travel managers that shows them in an actionable way all of the pending things that they need to do….
The third consumer trend that we’re thinking about as we build new technologies and rebuild our technologies is to help our travelers have a digital experience with our travel agency — and by the way, this one is for travelers, not for travel managers. We’re working to help close the analog gap in dealing with our company to make our clients’ interactions with us more digital.
As consumers, we’re all used to getting what we want when we want it immediately and having easy digital access to services and to information and to apps. In the travel management world, we’ve got our businesses segmented. We’ve got the travelers that are dealing with us using online booking tools…they have a digital self-service type experience. But then we’ve got this other channel of business where we’ve got all these travelers that are dealing with us in more of an analog way. They’re calling us on the telephone, they’re sending us email, which is digital, but they’re dealing with us in a more analog way. So what we’re doing is we’re trying to close the gap and make it easier for our travelers to interact with us digitally.
Skift: What’s your favorite industry innovation that came not from your own company?
Cameron: This one’s probably somewhat obvious, but the whole airline check-in process and boarding pass process and seating process is so much better than it used to be. To be able to check in using your airline app, to be able to select a better seat if one becomes available and to be able to have a digital boarding pass when you get to the airport is so much more convenient than the old day when we all had paper tickets.
My second favorite is probably the TripIt app, which is simply, you know, a mobile itinerary. We were the first TMC in the country to integrate our technology with TripIt….I still use it every day to keep track of all my itineraries digitally.
Skift: What changes in managed travel over the last three years have most surprised you?
Cameron: Uber! Who would have guessed three years ago that a ride-sharing company would have surpassed the number of car rental bookings we have?
Skift: How do you think players like Airbnb and Uber are changing managed travel and how have you had to adjust to that?
Cameron: I will tell you that Airbnb has not affected us yet in the sense that most of our clients are still requiring their travelers to stay in name-brand hotels that they’re negotiating deals with through their procurement departments.
I’m not saying that we don’t have people staying at Airbnb, because we do. But the majority of our clients have been resistant to that concept.
The majority of our clients do allow Uber, and the thing of it is they were all allowing you to use cabs before anyway. It was always a question between a taxicab, a rental car, or some other form of public transportation. And so they were just looking to use what was the most economical.
Skift: Do you think that innovation in the corporate travel space has lagged behind leisure? And if so, why?
Cameron: To answer your first question, yes. The technology innovation is lagging in the corporate space in general. In my mind, that’s provided some great opportunity to us….
We spend well over a million dollars a year building proprietary technology and we just added two new software developers to our team this year because we’ve got so many ideas in the pipeline that we want to build that we had to increase the size of our development team. We’ve got ideas in the pipeline that are on the roadmap through 2017. We’ve currently got 40 projects that we’re working on.
The answer to your first question is: Absolutely, it’s been really slow. People have been really slow to innovate. That’s been really good for me, which is why we’re growing so rapidly. We landed 116 new corporate clients last year. We’re implementing, on average, more than two new corporations every week. And honestly, the secret sauce is the technology. I hate to be telling a reporter all of this. Once I tell you, it’s no longer secret sauce.
That was your first question: Is it slow. But I don’t think we’ve been slow. We’ve been ahead of everybody in our size range, I think.
The second question is why. Honestly, I think that a lot of — most of — my competitors are just stuck in an analog mindset. I don’t know why that is, I honestly don’t know why that is. I’m grateful.
Skift: That kind of segues into the next question. What’s your favorite recent innovation within your own company?
Cameron: It’s the Travel Approval and Hotel Attachment. We’re having enormous success with both of those. It’s baffling to me: Why is it that the online booking companies, Concur and others, figured out how to digitize the travel approval process very effectively years ago and nobody has figured out how to replicate that or even improve upon it for all of the agent-assisted bookings?
We’ve been using an older, more analog method for approving travel for full-service bookings. The other thing we did was we buit our Travel Approval product so that you can, instead of just having the thumbs up, thumbs down approve-disapprove, we give them approve, modify, or cancel.
We give them three options….And so you can approve one of the segments, add a segment, change a segment. So we’ve made our Travel Approval product way more robust and you can build in your travel policy so it can digitally behave according to what your policy is and whether or not you’ve booked within the policy and those kinds of things.
Skift: What do you expect to see this year in terms of consolidation in the industry?
Cameron: There is major consolidation going on. I think the airlines led the way with forming three mega global airlines. I think the car rental compaies are right in line with that, there’s now basically three mega global car rental companies. And the hoteliers, it looks like we’re probably going end up with three mega hotel chains with Marriott buying Starwood and all the consolidations going on there. [Note: This interview was conducted before a consortium led by a Chinese insurance firm made a bid for Starwood.]
There’s massive consolidation going on among the vendors. The same things are going on in the travel management space. There’s two or three companies that are doing a lot of rollups and have either private equity funding or other funding to consolidate travel agencies ….
We’re up 12 percent this year, our corporate travel division is up 12 percent just through organic growth. We have been through the acquisition part of this, have made some major acquisitions. We’ll be on that side of the equation; we’re not for sale. We’ll continue to expand. I think it’s just the world we’re in right now. Even our clients are really consolidating. In order for us to be relevant, we need to continue to grow.
Photo credit: Mike Cameron, CEO of Christopherson Business Travel YouTube