Skift Take

A milestone in the agency's transformation saga, which could see its new owners opt to acquire other technology players, and target mid-size customers, as part of its post-pandemic rehabilitation.

Corporate travel agency CWT exited bankruptcy on Friday, at the same time pledging to heavily invest in technology — a highly strategic move from its CEO and new paymasters as its rivals start to consolidate.

The court in Dallas, Texas, swiftly approved CWT’s recapitalization plan, just one day after it filed for Chapter 11 protection in fact.

Hear from Michelle McKinney Frymire, the CWT of CEO, at Skift Aviation Forum on November 17

The net result is that the agency has now eliminated about half its $1.6 billion debt, while it gains $350 million of new equity capital to support strategic initiatives. There are also new owners, in the form of investors who now control the firm after the departure of the Carlson family.

The company also pledged to invest $100 million in its myCWT travel management platform.

“This will include expanding CWT’s breadth and depth of omni-channel content, travel comparison capabilities, analytical reporting, and choice and availability of sustainable travel solutions to further enhance the point-of-sale experience for travelers and carbon footprint details to enable better-informed decision-making,” the company said in a statement.

Earmarking $100 million this way wasn’t a court stipulation, a CWT spokesperson told Skift ,as it had planned to invest in this area all along. “The strengthened balance sheet allows us now to proceed,” they said.

Turning Point?

CWT’s exit from bankruptcy comes just days after its main competitor completed the takeover of Expedia’s tech-focused corporate travel division.

“This announcement may be triggered by American Express Global Business Travel’s acquisition of Egencia and the increasing aggression of TripActions after its latest funding round,” said Gaurav Sundaram, president of ProKonsul Consulting. “Investment in technology is the only way agencies can increase revenues in the current environment.”

There may also be public relations at play — but for some the spin lacks details.

“They’re hoping the $100 million investment is a good story to tell, but many people will be looking for a lot more information,” said one consultant, who preferred to withhold their name. ” Are they catching up because they’ve fallen behind? Is it a big enough play to modernize their platform to the point where they can talk about it no longer being a legacy player?”

CWT’s investors have a lot of ground to catch up with travel investor Certares too, they added, which has bolstered Amex GBT’s position as well as other related companies during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, Amex GBT has been targeting smaller companies with new products, such as its Neo1 platform. In fact, small and medium-sized businesses are being tipped as key drivers of the post-pandemic recovery. Will CWT now evolve its myCWT platform to cater to the mid-market business? If it does, will it choose to invest, acquire or even partner with another company to diversify?

“You can imagine a TripActions, TravelPerk or Spotnana being quite attractive to the new CWT, to quickly power that growth in the mid-market,” the consultant added.

One technology expert said that all corporate travel agencies were now facing challenges to turn themselves from travel companies into technology companies. “This is a complex transition, more than just a financial investment, and it requires deep cultural and philosophical changes,” said Dan Raine, CEO of Unlocked Data.

“This choice is fundamental to the success of the business, particularly under heavy pressure from clients and investors. It is difficult to change strategy and turn your back on the thousands of developer days invested in building existing software, but as technology advances relentlessly, it can be faster and more efficient in the long-run to bite the bullet and change course and start again with a different approach and architecture.”

Hear from Michelle McKinney Frymire, the CWT of CEO, at Skift Aviation Forum on November 17

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Tags: american express global business travel, bankruptcy, coronavirus, cwt, egencia, tripactions

Photo credit: CWT's recapitalization plan was approved by a court in Dallas, Texas on November 12, 2021. Max Fray / Unsplash

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