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The long and complicated saga of Deem represents a cautionary tale for corporate travel, despite the company’s long-term viability. In the company’s latest incarnation, a more refined focus could help the company better compete against its large and ambitious competitors.
This means an investment in making its booking platform easier to use and more connected with whatever expense technology a company uses.
Once known as Rearden Commerce, the corporate travel services provider has undergone major changes over the last few years. Founder and longtime CEO Patrick Grady stepped down in 2016, replaced by John F. Rizzo, who has overseen the refinement of Deem’s corporate travel offerings.
True to his word at the time, Rizzo has overseen a drastic shift in San Francisco-based Deem’s strategy; the company had simply become too bloated after more than 15 years, and more than $500 million raised, so it only focuses on travel and expense services now.
“If I step back and look at who’s in the market, there are [not many dedicated] travel booking tools in managed travel,” Rizzo told Skift, mentioning SAP Concur, American Express Global Business Travel’s KDS, and Sabre’s Get There as Deem’s competition. “There are a few emerging platforms like TripActions and Upside, but really only one or two pure-play companies focused on managed travel, a market that’s enormous.”
Despite employee departures, most notably the short tenure of travel veteran Tony D’Astolfo, who joined the company in 2016, Deem claims the company still employs 150 workers, the same as before the strategy shift. A year after acquiring car service back-end provider Whisk, for instance, Deem sold its car service back-end business, only to rebrand its car service product with a focus on savings for travel managers and guaranteed volume for car services themselves.
“We sold off [our back office car service technology] because we felt that the most value we could bring to the industry was not about accounting for rides, it was about increasing the amount of demand we could provide to operators because we have this huge travel platform,” said Rizzo.
It has also focused on partnering with global travel agencies who can resell Deem’s Work Fource travel booking and management platform to clients. This model makes sense for Deem as it seeks to sell its solutions through the network of companies it already works with. It has adopted a similar strategy with its expense product, working to sell its own solutions while integrating with whatever service a customer already uses.
The approach seems to be working, if you take Deem’s word for it, with its travel platform growing to 50,000 global customers from 35,000 in 2017 when its reboot was announced.
“We’ve been working very diligently with partners who are strong on the expense side to go to market with an integrated travel and expense platform,” said Rizzo. “The expense providers seem to be quite interested in it, and the customers as well. We’ve seen an uptick in engagement from a set of customers we haven’t talked to before.” Rizzo says Deem’s technology now connects with 70 different expense providers.
Since the company isn’t strictly a travel management company, which tend to rely on service fees and other things to make money off of travel disruptions and changes, Rizzo wants to explore pushing the business travel experience in a more frictionless direction. They launched a chatbot on Facebook Messenger last year, which is only the beginning of a move towards appearing on more platforms.
“This whole notion is a proxy for making the online booking tech disappear into everyday life,” said Rizzo. “As a user, I pick my tool: email, Slack, whatever it is. If I’m going to spend more of my time on these platforms, then we want to make travel booking and management available to you where you spend your time.”
Trends seem to presage a future where even the online booking tool has become secondary to facilitating a booking on whatever channel a business traveler wants. The company’s acquisition of data and personalization company Olset in 2016 seems to have anticipated a more fragmented future for business travel booking.
It will be interesting to see what happens as Deem starts to innovate again, if slimming down will allow it to have a fresh start. It seems possible, but in a crowded corporate travel marketplace known for consolidation, one has to wonder what the future really holds for Deem.