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When Carlson Wagonlit Travel announced last month it would officially rebrand as CWT to better reflect its new focus on technology, a fresh question was posed to the world of corporate travel and this cynical journalist: What exactly has CWT been doing differently over the last few years?
Andrew Jordan, CWT’s chief product and technology officer, says internal strategic shifts and a wider investment in building out the company’s technology platform has been the most important factor in the travel management company’s recent transition.
Jordan, CEO Kurt Ekert, and other executives pushed to shift the culture of the company beginning in 2016. This involved encouraging better teamwork across different divisions of the company and creating a new department called “Traveler Experience” to put a stronger focus on the user experience of actual travelers.
The company also staffed up its data operations, employing more than 200 to work on building better algorithms surrounding digital interaction with travelers, not just crunching the numbers on pricing or insights for travel managers.
“The industry at large has been woefully poor at harnessing the power of data, which was a big surprise to me given how data there is in the travel industry,” said Jordan. “It was used in a very one dimensional way to always take a rear-view mirror view of the performance of a travel program with no real assistance to say, ‘if it says this, then do that.'”
The larger strategy is to better empower travelers with the timely, often location-based information. Usually, the goal of a new app is to boost bookings or simply get travelers engaged. This isn’t enough in an era when consumer travel brands and giants like Apple and Google are fighting for screen time on a traveler’s mobile device.
“The way all TMCs have measured success or penetration of a solution has been adoption; TMC X releases Y mobile app and then measures of success of that by going, hey, we’ve got a thousand active users and really active users… Okay, so in what way is that making the traveler better at what they do?” asked Jordan. “Let’s not just enable bookings, because that’s table stakes. It’s things like, I’ve just arrived at Heathrow so go to the South security line because it’s half the size of the one that you’re in. I walk through security, my phone goes:, I know you’re flying American and the password for the Wi-Fi is the following.”
How Soon Is Now
This all sounds great; a stronger focus on the traveler experience mediated by automation and stronger digital tools. But, how close is CWT to making these innovations a reality? Well, it’s a work in progress.
“There’s a constantly moving landscape because we’re always building new stuff,” said Jordan. “Some of what I’ve referred to already exists. A lot of the stuff that we’re doing in data and price exists… a lot of the investment that’s come out of my product and technology group is now looking at re-platforming. I know that this industry’s buzzword du jour is platform, and I think unfortunately a lot of people don’t actually know what that means. To me, it’s about creating a technology foundation. There’s a bit like an operating system.”
By creating a more open system for other companies to access through APIs, CWT can leverage the data it has along with its artificial intelligence libraries to better automate what travelers need. BCD Travel’s SolutionSource is just one example of a sort of marketplace for travel managers to pick and choose what outside services they or their travelers want to use. Most bigger TMCs have worked to make it easier to integrate with third-parties over the last few years.
Jordan, from the CWT perspective, gives the example of being able to place a booking through chat on whatever a traveler’s preferred chat channel is, whether its a travel app or something like Google.
Corporate travel at large has started doing a better job playing nice with outside technology vendors and distribution companies. Bringing a better experience to travelers is basically impossible if your system is locked down to outside services that travelers will just leave your platform to use.
Finding Your Voice
Putting aside the traveler experience tweaks that CWT is working on, what’s next for corporate travel technology from the traveler perspective?
“Voice has got so much momentum behind it in the technology world that it is absolutely 100 percent guaranteed to find its way into the workplace,” said Jordan. “That’s going to become a transformational thing for the industry. It will call into question the relevance of [online booking tools] should that happen because it’s going to be much more efficient for somebody to say, Siri, book me a flight to New York on Monday. Whoever is just sitting there watching from the sidelines is going to get left behind.”
He also predicts a further blurring of the lines between dealing with a human digitally or a chat robot. His notion recalls Lola’s initial pitch of travel agents armed with artificial intelligence tools to provide a simpler experience for travelers and to empower agents with greater tools to place bookings and deal with disruptions.
In our conversation, Jordan touched on pretty much all of the requisite buzzwords that have been a steady presence across corporate travel. This time, though, it seems things may be different, with companies making the real technological improvements to deliver a better experience to travelers.