American Express Global Business Travel is investing in technology to give travelers better digital tools and a more streamlined booking experience.
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.
These days, Anderson is keeping an even closer watch. After about 10 years at CWT, he was named CEO of American Express GBT in August as the firm continued to move forward with growth plans following its 2014 spinoff from American Express in a joint venture between the credit card company and a group led by Certares. That deal came with $900 million in new funding.
Just about a week after he was named to the position, the company announced it was acquiring corporate travel technology firm KDS in a move to boost its online booking capabilities.
The ability to make such investments at GBT is key, Anderson said.
“This industry is moving so rapidly in the direction of technology as the solution to just about everything that we do that the ability to invest in that technology, develop it and lead the market is what makes my job fun,” he said in an interview in late March. “I think it was very good for me to be able to come into an environment where we have the flexibility to either decide to buy, build, or partner for technology solutions that are fundamentally important in our industry while at the same time knowing a little bit about it, which enables me to help our team think through what are the most relevant opportunities that we have and then how do we bring those most relevant opportunities to market.”
Anderson spoke to Skift about the company’s technology plans, disruption in corporate travel, and his priorities moving forward. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Skift: What’s surprised you about the role or about the company since you’ve started?
Anderson: I was somewhat surprised at the strength of our technology plans at GBT. I had, as a competitor, been a keen observer of what Amex GBT had been doing — at least, the part that was visible to the public over the last two and a half years since the joint venture. When I joined the company and got a firsthand view at our technology roadmap, I was very…surprised may be a strong word, but I was energized and was, and continue to be, very enthusiastic about our technology and innovation plan. It’s second to none in this industry.
Skift: That’s an interesting insight because it’s not that often that you get to see on the other side of that curtain. Has it been a real cultural shift to go from being a competitor to an insider, or do you feel like you come in with really good, fresh eyes?
Anderson: The culture of every organization is different. The culture here is one that I would assess at being extremely service focused. I was very impressed from, literally, from day one with the service ethos across Amex GBT. You might expect me to say that, because we’re in the service sector, but the enthusiasm and the commitment, the dedication to providing service to our clients is absolutely superb….
I knew the industry fairly well. But I didn’t know, other than what we see in the competitive field, much about the organization and the way the organization thinks and operates here at GBT. I did understand the joint venture setup and the capitalization of the company and what was in the public domain, but what I think is really unique about this opportunity for me personally is coming in with a fairly good understanding of the industry, a pretty good understanding of the largest competitor that GBT has in the [travel management company] space and then being able to think about the opportunities we have at GBT through the commitment of our shareholders, the investment capital that we have to really build out our innovation pipeline and our product roadmap that I referred to earlier and really invest in growing this business as this digital revolution happens around everything that is travel in both in the consumer and in the corporate space. When you bring those together, and when I think about the service ethos that I referred to, and then the capital available to really invest in separating ourself from the industry, I get really excited about the opportunity we have here and what we’re delivering.
Skift: You’ve been making a bunch of moves in technology, both by acquiring other tech companies and developing your own tools. What’s really the driving force of that tech roadmap? The second part of that question would be how difficult is real innovation when it comes to corporate travel specifically? Just because it’s not just a pure leisure experience. There’s so many other things you have to keep in mind.
Anderson: The goal of our technology roadmap and of our investment in technology is really twofold. One is to enable travelers, the digital traveler — that’s a term I’ll use — to have access to anything and everything the traveler needs while they’re on the road to make them more efficient in their journey. Today’s traveler is at the point of having everything that he or she needs in their hand on a smartphone or a tablet that’s relevant to their trip. Not just the static information about flying and hotel reservation and confirmation, but the information around the dynamic events that are occurring around them at any one time.
From events that are national and manmade disruptors or disasters all the way to my meeting was delayed, I’m going to miss my flight, I need an alternative and everything in between. Travelers have become much more efficient, much more effective, and the journey’s become less I guess I’ll call it stressful for travelers as a result of the digital solutions that are being delivered and are safe. We’re at the forefront of that.
You also asked for what’s some of the difficulty….That aspect is access to content. There are disruptors in the marketplace that are changing the model — the industry typically talks about, for example, Airbnb and Uber, and there are a number of others that have found a new way to distribute travel and travel-related services, and we have and will continue to partner with the kind of new-age distributors in order to make sure that we give our travelers and our clients access to full relevant content.
We have a distribution agreement with Airbnb and we have an agreement with Uber, for example, and others to make sure that we’re where we need to be and want to be in our ability to distribute content that’s relevant for our clients because we want our clients and their travelers to come to us and be able to find the solutions that they’re looking for to completely facilitate their journey.
Skift: I actually want to come back to that, but first I’d love to hear what you think some of the challenges are.
Anderson: The disruptors are called disruptors because they create challenges, they create the need to change and innovate. I think we’re in a good position in that regard. Some of the things that are current events today create challenges; hopefully they’ll be short term, like the travel ban that is now working its way for the second time to the court system. The ban on electronic devices that was announced earlier this week. Events like the horrific incident that occurred in London earlier this week. Those kinds of things create challenges. There are always technical challenges; technology doesn’t always work perfectly. But we strive and drive to make sure that our technology is reliable and that our systems and our applications are up and running all the time, every time. Those are challenges.
But I think the the biggest challenge the industry faces, and we as intermediates face, is around maintaining access to relevant content. There’ve been attempts at new ways of distributing travel — some of which I mentioned earlier, other I haven’t — and that have been evident in the last six or eight years now. I think our industry, and at GBT particularly, has responded well to those challenges. Each day brings a new challenge and along with it comes a new opportunity.
Skift: It would be one thing just to say, ‘Okay, we can partner with Uber and Airbnb, technically, we can do that.’ But then you have these additional levels of: ‘Is it approved policy? Does it comply with duty of care? How do you know where your travelers are?’ I mean, are those complexities that just add to the difficulty in really streamlining that content and building those kind of partnerships?
Anderson: Well, our clients have to determine how their policy is designed, developed, and deployed. To take your example, we have clients who have decided Airbnb works in their travel program and we have clients that have decided that it does not. Our role is to enable those travelers who work for companies that have decided that, for example, Airbnb works for them, enable those travelers to be able to gain access to Airbnb content. For us to make certain that those clients who’ve decided that it does not work for them to manage their programs in that way. That’s no different than any other slate of preferred suppliers or providers or class of traveler who are staying at a hotel that one of our clients may choose.
They’ve developed this program, we help them with implementing and designing our technology to support their programs. There’s nothing new about any of that.
The new aspect is that we develop relationships with suppliers that are new relationships, and those new relationships, sometimes, have unique characteristics. But it’s not any different than what we’ve been doing for a long time now. It’s just that the platforms are different and there are more new interests, and the pace of new interests entering the market is accelerating.
Skift: Now that you’ve been there for a little while, what do you think are your key areas of focus moving forward from this point?
Anderson: We have a very, what I believe to be, well defined set of priorities going forward. At the top of that list is our product innovation roadmap and plan that I’ve already talked a bit about and you’ve heard us talk a bit about in the media. It is and will continue to be a real differentiator for us in the market.
Hotel is a big opportunity and priority for us, as it is for many of our competitors. Our clients want their travelers for a number of reasons — one, cost savings, two, duty of care — to come back into their managed program for their hotel needs. The level of compliance with hotel booking for most companies is in the 50 to 60% range. Helping our clients pull their travelers back into the channel for hotels, for again, for cost and for duty of care and just taking security purposes into priority.
We have a priority on strategic mergers and acquisitions. You’ve already referred, indirectly, to the one important acquisition we made in the latter part of 2016, and that was KDS. Which gives us our own proprietary online booking capability, which we will do a lot with going forward. Again, sets us apart from our competitors. We support, as was the case previously, a full range of online booking tools based on our client’s preference. We now have our own proprietary capability and we are looking at other either geographic market or capability acquisition opportunities going forward. Nothing to talk about today, but we are actively looking at a pipeline of opportunities.
Then the last one I’d mention is the mid-market….Our traditional business is medium and large corporate, multi-regional, global. We’re going to be focusing more on the mid-market. We have a healthy thriving mid-market business in the U.S. We’re looking to grow that business significantly over the next three to five years. Some of the technology that we’re developing and have acquired recently will help us in the mid-market. We’ve actually, recently, relaunched our mid-market offering in the U.S….We’re pursuing those opportunities with enthusiasm.
Skift: We talked about the disruptors, Uber and Airbnb, but what are some other important trends that you’ve been tracking broadly in corporate travel?
Anderson: Well, the macro trends would be the challenge to maintain access to relevant content, which I’ve already touched upon. Another big trend is mobile, mobile everything, all-the-time traveler connectivity, which I’ve also referred to. Mobile is moving at a pace that I believe — and forecasters like Forrester and Phocuswright believe — a very high percentage of online transactions will be platformed on a mobile device in the very near future, so moving mobile forward here at GBT is a priority that I haven’t talked about previously. We’re enriching our mobile offering. We’re working on developing mobile booking capability, which we would expect to launch in the not too distant future. Enabling travelers to be as efficient and effective as they possibly can while they’re on their journey. I think those are three big trends — access to content, and the others that I just mentioned — that take up a segment of our time to think about and, again, they’re opportunities that if we leverage, and we intend to leverage the opportunities wisely, that will create competitive advantage for us.
Skift: We hear the word consumerization a lot, or at least the sentiment of consumer behavior that they perfect in their leisure life then influencing how they travel and book travel for business. I think the overarching sentiment is prioritizing or making the satisfaction of the traveler more important in their corporate travels like it is in their leisure travels. Is that a consideration that you’re keeping in mind when you’re planning your future moves? Or is that an approach that is important to you?
Anderson: It’s critically important. Our approach is to ensure that traveler centricity is at the heart of everything we do. Now, that doesn’t mean we’ve forgotten about our corporate clients, but travelers are actually a joint interest and focus for our travel manager, procurement officer clients as well. Our joint goal along with our clients is to make sure that their travelers are very effective and very efficient. Traveler centricity is right at the middle of everything we’re thinking about as we move forward and develop and innovate.
When you talked about consumerization, I think the clear channel here that’s really come to the surface in the last four or five years is the booking experience, which you referred to. Consumers find it relatively easy to book through many of the online travel sites, leisure travel sites, and when they compare that experience to the corporate booking tools, they don’t understand why the experience isn’t as efficient and as smooth and as easy to accomplish. One of those difficulties, that you actually referred to earlier, is around some of the requirements that are built in to the corporate booking tools that aren’t required for the leisure experience.
Things like policy compliance and corporate rates and backend integration into reporting and analytics technology etc., etc. One of the drivers behind our development of mobile and our acquisition of KDS was to start to make the online experience on the front end more like the consumer online experience.
For those that have looked at what has been developed with the KDS online booking tool, the efficiency and the number of steps that are required to assess the various alternatives for a trip and then make a decision is much more streamlined than the average corporate online booking experience. What we’re striving for is to get as close to that consumer experience, not because….We’re not trying to deliver a consumer application, but we’re trying to give our travelers a consumer-type experience because they when they find that in their personal lives, they’re looking for that in their corporate lives.
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Photo credit: Doug Anderson was named CEO of American Express Global Business Travel in August. John O'Boyle / American Express Global Business Travel