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When Expedia CEO Dara Khosroshahi said last month that a new wave of corporate travel consolidation is likely underway, he noted that the increased need for advanced technology would likely drive the first wave of activity.
Rob Greyber, president of Expedia Inc.’s corporate travel arm Egencia, agrees that travel management companies focused on pivoting more closely to technology companies are likely to shore up their deficiencies by acquiring technology partners and others.
He also thinks that better technology can give travel management companies better insight into how travelers really use their products, and how they can develop more useful solutions for customers.
Skift spoke to Greyber at last month’s GBTA Convention in Denver about the battle between travel management companies to improve user experience, HomeAway’s potential in corporate travel, and why business travelers will soon be more empowered to book online than ever before.
Skift: Increased customization, alongside better data analysis, is becoming more common in the corporate travel space. How do you look at the ability of better technology to meet the needs of business travelers?
Greyber: People think that in order to meet customer needs, you need to do customization. Facebook meets your needs in an extraordinary way, and they customize nothing. I think that there’s a misunderstanding and [I would say corporate travel at large] is not investing enough to keep face.
It’s because of the amount that you’re investing, but it’s also the way in which you do it. What we do is we work in 30-day cycles that are grouped in 120-day sections, then from there we have a list of priorities that guide us every morning. It’s as simple as that.
The way you navigate in that world isn’t by doing a lot of customization. It’s actually by accelerating the way in which you do innovation. That helps you be able to deliver customer experiences that they like.
Skift: So when you see competing travel management companies touting new technology, whether it’s online booking tools or better data connectivity, what do you think about their approach to becoming more technology-focused as travel companies?
Greyber: They’re assuming that by owning the online and offline experience, [technology] just becomes something you get good at.
I would be willing to bet we are the only travel management company, probably the only company on the floor today, that has a user design expert with a mobile eye tracking studio, and we’re constantly doing research.
We had some travel managers come over to our offices and we were like, ‘Oh, actually could we use you for a second? Do you ever a book a hotel? Do this.’ Then we were mapping how their eyes moved. That’s just what we do on Wednesday. That’s a special initiative in some companies. For us, that’s a day of the week, but I think the other piece to this is that online booking is not the point, mobile booking is not the point.
The experience and expectations that you have about how Facebook works are changing the way you expect everything to work.
If your mobile newsfeed is out of sync with what’s on the desktop, that’s unheard of. In travel, it’s totally fine for you to book something through an online booking tool at a top one or two travel management company and then have an agent be totally unaware of that booking.
In what world is that totally fine? In our world [at Egencia], that doesn’t happen. We can’t imagine that being okay for travelers.
Skift: How do these tech trends play into how business travelers are actually using corporate travel services in real life?
Greyber: We’re seeing a little bit of a shift right now. The legacy used to be that, you’d start at a company, new employee kind of thing. In the U.S. you would get handed the 800 number of the company that would help you book your travel. You call in, and they do all that. Today’s employees are coming in and it’s not even the millennials, which is what everybody kind of just points to [doing their own thing].
How do you book your personal travel? You’d never call some 800 number and ask somebody just to book it. You go look what your options are. Corporate travelers want those options as well. They want to be able to see when can they get in, what’s the most direct flight, all those types of things. What hotels are near by, what are the reviews and ratings of those hotels? Part of just being online and part of creating that just very familiar consumer experience, we start seeing that shift, more natural shift over, as opposed to people just having to use that older technology and having to use antiquated systems.
Skift: Looking through this lens, how do you approach the sharing economy as an organization?
Greyber: We’ve been in discussions with all the different sharing economy providers. We were, I think the first travel management company, if not the first travel company, to integrate Uber directly into our mobile application. We did that because we talk to our travel managers and we had some great dialogue. Travel managers are exploring those types of things deeply. In some areas we really leaned in and tried to think about how we can solve those problems.
We’re also in discussions with players in the lodging side. We made an acquisition in HomeAway. We’ve been talking as well with Airbnb. I think that the challenge in those areas is, if you look at what the major travel management companies announced with Airbnb, it’s basically another fractured experience.
Eventually, the division extends as far as the agent being able to talk to you on the phone and use the website. That’s like calling to buy something on Amazon, and it just doesn’t feel like that’s the right experience. Now, there’s ways that you can have a private label site owned by Amazon or have inventory that’s on Amazon, also on our site and so forth. We think that’s where those things are going to go. We really want to try to build a compelling experience for travelers, and travel managers so they can manage them.
Skift: Speaking of HomeAway, do you expect the company’s products to become a part of Egencia’s corporate travel offerings.
Greyber: We’re having those discussions now. First, I think it fundamentally fits in much better [than Airbnb]. The reason is, Home Away is whole home space. You don’t have to worry about going into a room on a business trip and finding someone else’s clothes in the drawer or a bunch of toothpaste in the bathroom. They have whole home rentals. It’s a much better experience, by the way I think for leisure, but I think as well for the business traveler.
The other piece to it is that today HomeAway is in more leisure destinations than urban markets. It’s not black and white, but if you looked at the mix, by and large Airbnb has a bit more inventory coverage in some of these urban areas. That’s going to equalize over time. We think there’s a great opportunity for Airbnb in corporate and we’re going to think about that. We think there’s a great opportunity for HomeAway in corporate. We’re helping them think about that.
Where we are in the process as Expedia Inc. is starting the process of integrating not just HomeAway as a company, but the inventory that they’re offering. We’re going to start to think about how we can integrate that into our booking sites. In that example, we’ll probably see the brand Expedia business take the lead on breaking some of the barriers from a technology perspective and user experience perspective. Then we will adapt those things for corporate travel as appropriate.
Skift: When you look ahead at the evolution of the corporate travel ecosystem, what trends are you seeing overall?
Greyber: The pressure for consolidation is there. Not just because of the economics but because what it takes to be good at this is a lot of practice. It’s disintermediation, the startup, and all that stuff. Everyone’s pivoting to corporate because I think there’s going to be more pressure to drive consolidation.
There’s another more commercial prediction that I would make. Today there’s a huge crescendo in the level of channel acrimony between certain hotel users and distribution channels and all that stuff. I actually predict all of that will go away; in the same way that it’s more or less gone away on the airline side, when calmer heads prevailed and realized that, ‘Oh, my cost of distribution on my supplier direct site is actually equal to the cost of distribution including the [global distribution system] in the channel.’ I think there’s going to be a lot more dialogue about, how can we serve those customers regardless of how they want to touch us at the moment of booking.