As travel management companies begin to embrace mobile for booking, expect business travelers to push for more personalized service.
But business travelers, trained by consumer tools for years now, are now clamoring for better control of their trips while on the go.
Philippe Chérèque, chief technology and commercial officer of American Express Global Business Travel, says the company will launch a new online booking tool by the end of the year that will combine travel options across all available formats.
Skift asked Chérèque about playing catch up with the leisure space, how data can be leveraged for better security, and why a robust online booking tool is essential for business travelers and travel managers alike.
Skift: When it comes to corporate travel technology, what is American Express GBT focusing on right now?
Chérèque: We need to make sure we get more efficient technology and a multi-channel platform. The technology is very important because traditionally travel management companies are offline; you interact on the phone. You hear a lot about online booking tools, about mobile. When I started at GBT two years ago, as a travel management company we relied a lot on third-party technology.
So what we’ve been doing is developing a product strategy that is trying to achieve a couple of goals. The first goal is to have a multi-channel platform. A platform that whatever you do, whether booking, communication, changes, whatever have to be able to be done on an online booking tool, mobile or phone.
Before, if you made a booking on an online tool, and you called a consultant, they may not have had the correct information. We’re testing an online booking tool and I can tell you before the end of the year we will have our own online booking tool. Online tools are becoming necessary to provide services to a corporation. The level of bookings can change, but you need to make the booking online.
We are launching a mobile application where the travelers will be connected to data, we’re migrating to a new voice network where we will have the capability of recognizing who’s calling, and we’re investing in a platform to solve content fragmentation, because we’re depending a lot on global distribution systems.
You have more and more content outside the global distribution network like regional carriers, Uber or Airbnb. If you want to have a complete offering, we need a platform that offers all that content.
Skift: Why do you think technology in corporate travel lags so far behind leisure travel? Online booking sites for consumers have been around for decades.
Chérèque: Yes, corporate travel agencies have been behind leisure, and I think the leisure business have succeeded because of the investment of the online travel agencies or travel providers. But still, for a business traveler, the booking is a small piece of what we have to do. What is really important for a business traveler is that you’re able to take care of them when somethings is wrong. Online is an important piece of cost-saving and ease of booking, but the priority to take care of a corporate traveler has always been duty of care or having someone on the phone to change a trip.
Most travel management companies have made significant investments to take care of the traveler when something goes wrong, but have not integrated an online booking tool except some players like Egencia or Orbitz for Business. That’s why we’re investing to make sure that a very easy to use and efficient online booking tool is part of our offer to our customer.
I definitely believe we need to have our own. People don’t really realize that our clients are all asking for offline [service]; we have some customers who do 80 or 90 percent of bookings online already, but we have others that do just 10 percent. But as soon as there is an issue, they want to talk to somebody if they can’t take care of it themselves.
Skift: What would you say is the main focus for big corporations when choosing a travel management company? How does GBT try to innovate while meeting the basic needs of its clients.
Chérèque: Travel policies and policy compliance are the important thing. When we answer a request for proposal from a big company, they want to make sure we are fulfilling their policy compliance. And by policy I don’t mean loyalty programs or seat preference, I really mean compliance with corporate policy. That’s why we’ve developed a global travel policy system that gets the same data whether something is booking online or offline. We also practice proactive care, because there is a significant cost savings for the corporation if we take care of things before they happen [by monitoring our data].
Right now we have data engineers working on personalization. We are looking how to apply personalization techniques to business travel, because we get travel data in addition to expense data. We know which restaurants they eat at, etc. The system knows what you do and wants to make [spending] propositions automatically. Data management is something that business travel is still behind in. We’ve invested a lot, but how do we use data to propose decisions to the traveler?
Skift: What big innovation during your tenure at GBT are you most excited by?
Chérèque: The last really important innovation besides mobile booking, which is more catch up, is a tool that graphically lets clients see where their travelers are on a map. If something happens, the HR department of travel manager has from travel data from all data related to corporate cards and we can visualize exactly the last position of their traveler. They can say, send an SMS or message to my employees in an affected area or tell them to contact us. All of this is only possible because of a digital travel record where we combine travel and [credit] card data.
Skift: How do you assess the impact of sharing economy services on corporate travel? Do you see more companies adding them into policy?
Chérèque: It depends on the corporations. With Uber, we’re working on integrating the accounting record into our digital travel record because we don’t need it on mobile [booking]. Everyone wants to use the Uber app on mobile, we do it if it’s requested by the corporation. There are some corporations who ban Uber and others who allow them to use Uber and want everything integrated.
It’s more complicated with Airbnb. We’re working with them because several of our clients have asked to integrate them into our booking tools, but there is a lot of resistance from our customers because of the duty of care noncompliance. We are managed travel, we work with big corporations that spend from $1 million to $700 million on travel per year. Right now they’re questioning how it can meet compliance. Technically, we have built the platform where we can implement content from any booking system, but we do it on a case-by-case basis.
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Photo credit: Munich, Germany, in 2014. Kārlis Dambrāns / Flickr