Editor’s Note: A year ago, Skift expanded its coverage of corporate travel with more frequent stories and a dedicated newsletter. The Corporate Travel Innovation Report focuses on the future of corporate travel by examining the big fault lines of disruption for travel managers and buyers, the innovations emerging from the sector, and the changing business traveler habits that are upending how corporate travel is packaged, bought, and sold.

In this series of stories and one-on-one interviews, we explore some of the latest trends, technology, and external forces causing corporate travel to evolve. You can read the rest of the articles in this series here.

For Carlson Wagonlit Travel (CWT), one of the giants in corporate travel, the last year has been a period of transition.

When president and CEO Kurt Ekert took the reins in mid-2016, he knew the venerable travel management company had some work to do in order to better compete in a rapidly evolving marketplace. While the company’s financials are strong, after posting $2 billion in sales in 2016, it has lagged behind in some areas, namely customer experience. Despite seeing an increase in users of its CWT to Go app, he wasn’t satisfied with the company’s progress on technology for end users.

Ekert, formerly a top distribution executive at Travelport, has put a focus on creating stronger digital tools to appeal to younger travelers and present a unified platform to users. Alongside chief technology officer Andrew Jordan, they’ve shifted the company’s culture to prioritize technology innovation alongside supporting travelers and building stronger relationships with travel partners.

Skift spoke to Ekert about the process of making CWT more focused on the end user experience, the role of younger travelers in changing how travel management companies develop technology, and his bullish outlook of continued growth for global business travel.

Skift: You entered the CEO role at CWT a little under a year ago. How do you assess the progress you’ve made so far?

Ekert: First, it’s been a lot of fun coming into a new part of the industry, for me. And when I joined CWT, there were a couple of big reasons that I wanted to be here. One is to lead a company with a great market position and very sticky customer and supplier partner relationships. I also knew a number of the people in the company, and just had great respect for the culture and the capabilities.

What’s clear is that there’s an opportunity to not only be an industry leader, but really carve out a new space. And, what we have done is focused on a couple of different things. Historically, we did a very good job at providing service to our clients. Our clients are mainly corporate, but also military and government as well.

Effectively, the customer base is not only the procurement companies and travel managers, but the end users. And on the flip side, you have the other side of the market place, which are supplier partners, airlines, hoteliers, car companies, etc.

There’s an inherent mandate. The interaction with the end traveler, which is to provide a consumer great user experience, regardless of channel. I thought the opportunity was to move away from a service mentality to an experience mentality, thinking about it the way perhaps e-commerce companies, in a consumer space way, and that requires a very different skill set and orientation than what we’ve had traditionally.

Skift: So what are the new areas of focus you’re having your teams explore that maybe hadn’t been a priority before?

Ekert: User experience or customer experience would be number one. The second is the use of data in a very different way. We have a product known as CWT Analytics today, which is an industry-leading analytics tool. It’s a real-time data that tends to be backward looking, in terms of it’s analysis. And that’s great. But what we did, is we brought in a chief data scientist who’s worked in a couple of other industries to build, effectively, a big data-type platform that is forward looking in a real-time decision catalyst for our clients to use.

With data we want to, one, give them those tools so they can make more intelligent decisions. Two, is to basically introduce personalization and interaction with the end-user. And in that way we can try to put our savings to our clients and we can provide a better experience to the end-user.

And I’d say the third, very material one, is that traditionally, while we did as good or better a job as any of the TMCs in corporate travel in terms of our hotel offering, truthfully, it was… We didn’t hit the ball out of the park as well as we should have. So we’ve now gone out with the strategy, we carved out hotels into a discrete division, we’ve brought in a lot of new talent from hospitality and the e-commerce industries. We’re looking at this in terms of how we put a lot more content on the shelf, and how do we really improve the user experience, again, regardless of channel, whether you’re mobile, browser, or the offline environment.

We’re beginning to see decent signs of momentum, and I think the store and the value proposition are resonating fairly well-booked internally and externally. So, nothing happens as quickly as you’d like it to happen, but there’s great progress and I think people are excited about where we’re taking this business.

Skift: You moved over from Travelport to CWT. Has it been a challenge reworking the culture at CWT as a newcomer?

Ekert: From a culture perspective, I think that historically we were not great at innovation. We were great at service. And as I went around in my first couple of months in the organization and talked to a lot of our front-line employees and our customers, I heard a lot of what we needed to do.

And the strategy and the refresh that we were going to take the company through incorporated a lot of that feedback, so I think that many of the employees probably helped to bend the direction we’re taking the company, and they were hungry to see us win more so and to become really the digital leader in space. And everybody saw that that was there for taking. So there’s actually been a pretty warm reception to the direction, and people simply want to win, so they’re excited about that.

From a technology and product perspective, we continue to have a lot of work to do. Andrew Jordan, who is our chief technology officer, joined at the same time I did. We reorganized around him so that he owns all IT product and innovation for the company. He reconstituted a big part of his management team, has brought in a lot of new talent. And Andrew actually was one of the chief architects of the digital platform for NBCUniversal. So, with that brand, albeit outside of travel, in effect we’re actually asking him to do something similar here, which is quite exciting.

We are serious about this, and investing more capital, investing more of our precious resources, in terms of people and talent, toward technology and product development. And so, we’ve now gotten terrific with product development, with quarterly releases, where I think our customers are beginning to see and touch some of the innovations and the changes that we’re driving on a consistent basis.

I don’t think this journey ever ends. You have to become good at that and you have to stay good at that, and build something that’s tangible and real for customers that matters to them.

Skift: The push towards consumerization seems to have spread across the corporate travel ecosystem. How do you look at the opportunity of bringing digital corporate travel tools up to speed with consumer tools?

Ekert: It’s interesting. And as we look at browser versus mobile, we’re making a much bigger bet on mobile than browser. It’s obviously the emerging marketplace, in terms of where shopping and booking occurs, the way we can interact with travelers throughout their journey. So, we already have an industry-leading app in CWT To Go, we’re really doubling-down on what we do there.

In terms of what I referenced on data and hotel, we’re building that to be omnipresent, regardless of channel. Whether it’s mobile, whether it’s browser, or whether it’s offline, we want to make sure that there is a ubiquitous experience for the end-user in whichever channel they choose. And that’s very important that there’s a consistent shopping experience, consistency of data and content, and that the user experience is excellent, regardless of where they shop.

Whereas today, it’s differential, based on whether you’re offline or online. We want to mitigate those differences by leveraging those capabilities. I’d say global is the tip of the spear, and from a platform perspective, hotel and data will apply ubiquitously.

Skift: Since you’ve officially entered the corporate travel realm only recently, what are the important trends you’re tracking with respect to the marketplace?

Ekert: I think the biggest thing that has changed is that you have an emerging, younger workforce, and they’re used to using technology in a different way than perhaps old folks like me. Again, there’s this inherent mandate for the young traveler having a consumer-grade experience despite being in the corporate travel environment.

And that’s not a surprise, per se, but I think that’s the biggest thing we have to solve for is meeting that high demand. That’s huge for us. One of the other things that I think is interesting is looking at the emergence of the sharing economy, which obviously has been massive in  consumer travel, the likes of Uber and Airbnb, it’s still quite nascent in corporate travel, and we do offer both Uber and Airbnb for our platforms, but it’s unclear the level of traction that’s going to get in this space. That’s something we’re watching very carefully.

Skift: There’s a lot of debate in the space right now about whether Airbnb will ever truly break into corporate travel in a widespread way.

Ekert: I think for that, specifically, if you were looking at lodging or a hotel, things like safety or security or duty of care, the consistency of the product, loyalty, those things are not easy to replicate. It will be interesting to see the way that companies like Airbnb compete against established hotel providers, and trying to get into corporate travel.

But, look, I think that it will occupy a blank space in the corporate world, the question is, how deep, and then especially within manage corporate travel, the level of engagement and the likes. And again, we want to make sure that it’s on the shelf for customers who feel it’s a corporate product to their travelers, but I don’t know what the traction is, again.

Skift: There’s also the safety issue. It’s hard to reproduce the same experience at different Airbnb listings, whereas when you book a hotel you pretty much know what you’re getting.

Ekert: We looked at this five years ago, and we asked travel managers to rank what’s most important in their travel program. Safety and security ranked somewhere between number five and ten on the list.

It uniformly comes in number one today.  Which is the most important thing, making sure that your people are secure and that, God forbid, there’s a dislocated event, that you can locate your people and we as the travel management company can help get them out of trouble. That’s been an interesting learning for me in my first year on the job.

Skift: There’s also a big debate on the fate of business travel as uncertainty seems to increase around the world. What’s your take?

Ekert: Sure, if you look at the corporate travel industry, and there’s a lot of ways to cut and define the addressable margin, but it is a trillion dollar plus global market today. But the addressable part, for us, approached half of a trillion dollars of annual spend.

And if you look over the last 20 years, aside from things like 9/11 or the 2007-8 financial crisis, corporate travel has grown a global level of four to five percent a year consistently. And the projections that we believe are right and look forward, is that travel will continue to grow with that pace going forward, and so we’ll continue to not only be a very large category, but a healthy, growing category.

That yearly growth accrues more quickly in the developing markets, like China, for example. So it’s relatively higher growth rates in markets where we want to have a bigger footprint than we do today versus let’s say the large Anglo markets with large managed travel programs where that rate of growth will be lower single digits, rather than the high single digits.

Skift: With your travel tech background, I’m curious what your take is on the interesting startups in the sector.

Ekert: There’s billion of dollars of venture capital coming into corporate travel each year. And it’s in a lot of these specialty focus things. We have a partnership through two early-stage incubator companies, one in Silicone Valley, one in France, where we basically work with them to vet early-stage companies coming to market and we have a specific product organization that works with these companies. [Rocketrip announced last week that it has inked a deal with CWT to let customers use its incentive platform]

We do not have a mentality that says everything has to be invented here. We want to integrate and bring to market new capabilities that are innovating that are going to benefit the end customer. So we’re working with a host of these sort of folks, Andrew, and a lot of them end up in pilot mode, and then, if they get traction, we’ll end up basically forming a deep, personal relationship and go into market with them together.

A key way that we bring innovation to our customers is by working with these early-stage companies and identifying them very early. So there’s a lot of stuff there. Gamification is a big one. There’s a lot about payments, in terms of people wanting to do different things, expense.

Where it makes sense for the traveler, for the customer, for the supplier partners, we’re going to bring that to market.

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Photo Credit: Carlson Wagonlit Travel president and CEO Kurt Ekert has overseen a culture shift at the company, putting more resources into developing more useful tools for travelers. Carlson Wagonlit Travel