Monthly Archives: March 2015

Microsoft Tests Expense App

[UPDATE, Feb. 24, 2016: Microsoft discontinued this project.]

[UPDATE, April 10: Concur press statement added.]

Microsoft is testing an expense app for iPhones that apparently integrates with Concur.

“Nobody likes filing expense reports,” Microsoft wrote on Facebook, mimicking the raison d’être for expense providers like Concur and Expensify. “Each of us has a powerful computer sitting in our pocket when we take business trips. Given this, one would think that the tedium of filing expenses would have been solved. Yet, most of us know that from the perspective of one filing expenses, little has improved since the linked corporate credit card was introduced many years ago.”

Image: Thinkstock

Image: Thinkstock

Concur’s leaders would disagree with some of that language. What’s not clear is whether they would have an issue with a new “front-end” data input app from a giant like Microsoft. A Concur media representative stated the company “is not involved with Microsoft’s experimental Phoenix expense reporting app.”

According to its project site, the app is code-named Phoenix and will “get your time back” by pre-populating card data “within ten seconds” of swiping. The app gets better over time at guessing the categories in which expenses belong. It locates contact names in Microsoft Outlook, easing access to such details for meals and entertainment expenses. Phoenix also handles receipt images.

Microsoft said it researched expense filing by talking to “hundreds” of frequent business travelers. The app “uses all the smarts we can gather to automatically fill out your expenses for you. By giving you a notification of credit card spend in real time, we let you glance at the expense, approve it and be done.”

According to ZDNet, Microsoft is specifically recruiting beta testers whose companies use Concur’s expense system. The Microsoft site indicates that “Phoenix works directly with your expense system, so there’s no hassle.” During enrollment, the site asks would-be testers to indicate which systems their companies use. Options include Concur, SAP, Microsoft’s own Dynamics system, Oracle, Expensify and in-house solutions.

Concur’s platform is open to plenty of developers. But a rival app? From one of its parent company’s biggest competitors?

Concur offers travel and expense apps for Android, BlackBerry, iOS and Windows Phone. It has an app for government clients and the ExpenseIt receipt capture app. Concur also has supported other expense input apps, including Abukai. Mileage tracking apps MileIQ and TripLog feed data into Concur.

The company’s Fusion conference starts today in San Francisco; on short notice, media representatives did not offer comments. A spokesperson for Microsoft did not clarify the nature of the app’s relationship to Concur.

Executives from Concur competitors including Chrome River, Certify and Databasics hadn’t heard of the Microsoft initiative, which the tech giant calls a “garage project.”

“It sounds like an app that feeds expense reporting systems,” according to Chrome River CEO Alan Rich. “There are a number of similar products in the app stores. Naturally, since it’s Microsoft this has more credibility. These add-on apps are very difficult to use in a meaningful way in the enterprise environment. Our customers add fields, use special terminology, set compliance rules, deal with per diems, etc.”

Certify director of product specialists Steven Lackner saw the Microsoft project as “just an app for collecting credit card and receipt data.” He noted that there’s no mention in the marketing info about enterprise integration, currency, languages, workflow, reimbursement, analytics and other capabilities found in full-service products.

Probably unrelated to all this, Microsoft also has been exploring an Outlook calendar-based trip planning tool.

“We are not looking to build our own booking tool,” Microsoft global travel and venue group lead Eric Bailey indicated today. “We are looking to utilize Microsoft’s platforms to better integrate the booking experience with calendars. We are working with partners to do the development and to leverage the platforms which are familiar to so many users such as Outlook and Skype for Business. I’ve seen both internal and partner prototypes and we are in the alpha stage today.”

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Supply Growth Takes The Bite Out Of NYC Hotel Rates, But Don’t Call It A Buyer’s Market

[UPDATE, April 8, 2016: We published new information related to this article here.]

The seller’s market in lodging continues unabated this year. U.S. occupancy is on track to hit record highs, hotel execs are rocking and rolling and business travelers are paying more. Recent data on New York City, though, raises questions. The nation’s biggest market is pretty much the only large one experiencing slumping hotel rate growth.

Before late 2014, one had to go back to early 2010 to find two consecutive months of average daily rate drops, according to figures from Smith Travel Research. But February 2015 was the fourth in a row.

New York hotel ratesWith a few months to go before preparations begin for 2016 rate negotiations, the ramifications for buyers with business in the Big Apple aren’t completely clear. The underlying supply and demand trends were already underway last fall when some buyers, for the first time in a long while, limited rate increases for the coming year. They’d appreciate more of that. They’d also like to see more rooms available at the rates they negotiated.

Experts said not to expect a sudden buyer’s market. As such, buyers should be cautious about how aggressively they use this New York lull. It may not impact their most solid relationships much at all.

There are several factors putting downward pressure on rates in New York, as outlined here by Jan Freitag of Smith Travel Research. Some of these drivers apply more directly than others to transient business travel, but the main one overall is increased supply.

PKF Consulting senior vice president Mark VanStekelenburg said new supply in New York this year and next is trending at about four times higher than normal. Although inbound international leisure travel is slower, likely due to the strong dollar, overall occupancy remains healthy.

“We’re not seeing a significant rate pop like in prior cycles,” VanStekelenburg said. “In 2005 through 2010, New York saw average daily rate growth above 5 percent to 6 percent, and as high as 7 percent. Now we’re seeing 2 percent to 4 percent ADR growth, and that’s the impact of additional supply and the impact of Airbnb.”

After years of far more robust increases, the average daily rate in New York last year grew “only 1.8 percent,” as Freitag put it. VanStekelenburg attributed last year’s weakness to a “pullback” of the high pricing new properties had tried in the prior year.

In negotiations for 2015, “New York wasn’t as strong in terms of rate increases as it has historically been,” said Carlson Wagonlit Travel Hotel Solutions Group director Eric Jongeling. Rather than the usual high single-digit growth, he said corporate rates for this year rose by 3 percent to 5 percent, “a welcome surprise.”

Advito vice president Bob Brindley said the rates his clients negotiated this year for New York were about 3 percent higher than last year. He said the market average was higher, at about 6 percent, still far better than the roughly 9 percent increase that hotels tried to secure.

Year-over-year comparisons for area hotels got off to a weak start in 2015 due partly to the impact of weather and last year’s Super Bowl in nearby in New Jersey. Hyatt CEO Mark Hoplamazian during an earnings conference call last month noted 15 percent to 20 percent lower revenue per available room across the market, “obviously a significant decline.” Starwood CFO Tom Mangas referenced “muted” performance due to supply increases in New York.

But that could be the worst of it for hotels. VanStekelenburg said March is looking stronger. Marriott president and CEO Arne Sorenson during an earnings call last month said the company expects the March quarter to be “meaningfully the weakest quarter of the four” for New York.

Apples To Apples

It makes sense to watch for citywide and macro trends, but mostly as guidance on what to look for in one’s own situation. Even within a given metropolitan area, one neighborhood’s supply glut may be inconsequential to others. Everyone knows there are worlds between one end of New York and another.

“So much inventory has come into the city,” said General Electric global commodity leader for travel and fleet Steve Sitto. “But it depends on what part you’re looking at. It’s not that I don’t trust citywide numbers from STR or PKF, but they have so many hotels in those benchmarks that I don’t think it’s necessarily good for me to use them. I keep an eye on my own numbers.” He tends to avoid working with new properties. “They come in really low and then will spike, or they come in really high,” said Sitto.

According to STR’s Hotel News Network, “There are 125 hotels comprising 20,136 rooms under construction or in stages of final planning in New York, of which more than half (65 hotels and 13,062 rooms) are in Manhattan.” Buyers hoping to take advantage of the new supply need to consider where these properties are opening, plus of course their size and service levels. Here’s a useful rundown of the development.

Brindley recommended that clients speak with new properties if they are at the right service level and geographically desirable, even if they haven’t yet started negotiating with corporate buyers.

Jongeling echoed that counsel, but both also agreed that going beyond initial conversations with new properties should be carefully considered. Hoteliers and their clients tend to be better off in long-term relationships. That means avoiding short-term opportunism. Indeed, Jongeling said clients last fall tended to be more accepting of higher increases at their favored New York properties.

Meanwhile, sticker-shocked clients have started using more properties in the upper midscale category, rather than upscale and luxury. “We’ve seen more people saying, ‘This is the top price we’re willing to pay,’ which kind of forces them into those lower-tier properties,”Jongeling noted.

Such shifts impact overall ADR numbers, but don’t necessarily help companies whose travelers use higher-level properties.

“It’s too early to say anything about the seller’s market in New York changing, but we’re watching it really closely,” said Brindley. “Rate availability rates have improved — you’re more likely to get your negotiated rate than you had been a couple years ago.”

He advised buyers at this point in the year to watch the availability of negotiated rates and what they’re actually paying. When demand is strong and there is not enough capacity, booked rates will trend higher because hotels block out negotiated rates, Brindley explained. If supply is outpacing demand, customers could see those booked rates trending lower than negotiated rates. That opens up negotiating opportunities, and he said hotels in that case should be adjusting.

Sharing Is Believing

The impact of brisk supply growth could be temporary, but analysts are trying to assess some other factors that offer less visibility. Tops among them is Airbnb. Many companies struggle with whether to endorse Airbnb as an option due to risk concerns and traveler preferences, and so far it has mainly impacted hotels that do not cater to business travelers.

“A lot of organizations haven’t quite figured out how to handle it from a policy perspective,” said Brindley, “but I do think the sharing economy is having an impact, especially in peak seasons.”

VanStekelenburg agreed. Airbnb’s overall supply and its impact in commercial travel are “very small,” he said, but on peak days like New Year’s Eve or during the U.S. Open, Airbnb makes it harder for hotels to get away with $600 a night.

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Non-Reimbursement: Teeth For Policy, Illegal In California

Denying reimbursement when employees violate travel expense policies is an option that some think sensible and others call draconian. But plenty use it. In a September 2014 Global Business Travel Association poll, 45 percent of North American and 31 percent of European travel managers indicated non-reimbursement was a consequence of travel policy violations at their organizations.

Non-reimbursement policies are often empty threats, but they’re especially hollow in California, where enforcing them would be illegal. The state’s law covers business travel expenses, including those related to use of company or personal vehicles. As reaffirmed in a court ruling last year, it also includes mobile phone costs. The point is to prevent employers from passing their operating costs to employees.

Non-reimbursement need not be an all-or-nothing strategy. Some companies will partially withhold reimbursement for policy noncompliance. Sapient, for example, on the fourth violation will cut airfare repayment by 20 percent when not booked through the designated travel agency. Global travel and client experience director Michelle De Costa said the company during the past five years “rarely” reached the point of shorting reimbursement.

Because of constraints reviewed by Sapient’s legal team, though, this “short payment policy” doesn’t apply in Germany, Switzerland and California. Some European countries have workers councils to protect the rights of employees. Germany’s are known to be particularly strong.

The relevant part of the California Labor Code is section 2802. It states: “An employer shall indemnify his or her employee for all necessary expenditures or losses incurred by the employee in direct consequence of the discharge of his or her duties.”

In a September blog post, California attorney Melinda Pilling of Rukin Hyland Doria & Tindall wrote that “there are common-sense limits to the obligation to reimburse.” One example is “exorbitant” expenses. “In determining the amount required to reimburse an employee, an employer may consider whether the expenses for which the employee has requested reimbursement were ‘necessary,’ which depends on whether the employee made reasonable choices,” Pilling added.

Fisher & Phillips partner John K. Skousen offered a similar message, suggesting employers proactively spell out approvable travel expenses. “Drawing the lines in the sand for what expenses are ‘necessarily’ and ‘reasonably’ incurred would prevent employees from seeking reimbursement for use of luxury automobiles, first-class air travel, or incurring expenses for extravagant food or lodging,” he wrote.

It’s not exactly clear if California labor laws apply when either the employee or the employer are not based in the state. The way Sapient sees it, the rules don’t cover employees based elsewhere. “If you are on a short-term assignment to California, but still are based in India, you would be subject to short pay” for a fourth policy infraction, De Costa explained.

An attorney for human resources outsourcing firm TriNet wrote that case law related to California’s Labor Code raises questions about what makes an employer “California-based,” and whether legal interpretations would include those employers headquartered out of state with in-state operations. “Given this ambiguity,” the firm suggested companies that fit that description “consider adjustments to policies and practices, and possibly even corporate structure.”

No Excuses

In California, “employees are legally entitled to reimbursement for up to four months after the date of the expense,” according to Baker & Hostetler LLP partner Nancy Inesta. That’s regardless of any employer deadlines for expense submission, which “are not enforceable.”

Also not enforceable in California are any company rules requiring employees to seek reimbursement in order to get it. A suit filed against Radio Shack in 2007 for not reimbursing employees using their personal vehicles for company business sheds light on legal interpretation. “The issue is not why employees were not reimbursed but whether they were,” according to the presiding judge at the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

“The requirements of the Labor Code trump any internal reimbursement rules that may be set by an employer,” according to a 2010 website posting discussing the case by law firm Fenton & Keller. “While an employee may be disciplined for failing to follow an expense reimbursement policy, an employer cannot withhold reimbursement if it knows or has reason to know that the employee has incurred a work-related expense.”

Additional information: The September 2014 GBTA survey collected responses from 338 travel buyers in North America and 224 in Europe. Other reviewed research includes a 2012 Association of Corporate Travel Executives survey of 305 predominantly North American ACTE members. Twenty-six of those indicated their organizations refused to reimburse non-compliant spend. In 2011, The BTN Group found that one-third of 260 surveyed business travel buyers use non-reimbursement when employee’s don’t comply with travel policies. An American Express study in 2011 reported that 13 percent of the 100 travel policies reviewed used non-reimbursement when employees didn’t book through their company’s designated travel agency. 

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Sabre Readies TruTrip To Handle Open Bookings, But At What Cost?

Sabre is nearly ready to commercialize its answer to managed travel program leakage. First announced in summer 2013, TruTrip is meant to commingle records on travel reservations made outside designated channels with those booked within. Like with Concur’s TripLink and some niche tools, the idea is to provide a complete picture of travel plans to travelers, their program managers and their agencies.

To enable TruTrip, Sabre in the last few months has integrated the TripCase Corporate mobile itinerary app, the GetThere self-booking tool and the Sabre global distribution system. The company is beta testing with large corporate clients and travel management company partners. It provided no information on pricing, which is top of mind for some potential users.

puzzle-535509_1280Purveyors of tools that address off-channel bookings say they are not looking to undermine entrenched travel management processes. They are just providing the means to deal with bookings made on supplier sites or online agencies when they occur. It’s a tricky area for corporate agencies and travel managers who don’t want to send a mixed message to customers and travelers. Does facilitating open booking come at the expense of policy compliance? Some are not keen to expend time and resources on something for which they don’t see high demand.

“The ongoing challenge, just like with the Concur product, is an agency trying to figure out what to do with the information once its pulled in and becomes part of the agency record,” said a travel manager at one of Sabre’s corporate clients who requested anonymity because of ongoing contract discussions. “Agencies are not putting up a battle but they’re asking, ‘Do we charge our customers more to deal with this? Do we charge our customers more if we never touch it?’ There will always be added value any time you bring anything back into the program, from a visibility standpoint. The challenge is, what does that value cost?”

Hogg Robinson Group business technology and distribution director Bill Brindle said HRG hasn’t looked into TruTrip, but he was familiar with the concept. “If Sabre are proposing to be a storage repository as well as a booking repository, that may be a way forward, but no one does anything for free,” he said. “How much will they be paid for it?” He questioned the value realized by agencies, whose counselors can enter information from off-channel bookings if travelers send it in.

Whether TruTrip or TripLink, Travel and Transport is willing to facilitate for a fee, according to CIO Mike Kubasik. “It’s still being talked about a lot but there’s not a lot of traction,” he said. “TruTrip is an option. We think competition is healthy. We’re not opposed to open booking but some of it defeats buying principals: leakage, safety, etc. It has to be the right fit for a company.”

Open booking proponents point to various benefits. Complete visibility for out-of-program bookings could help track travelers, aggregate spending data and apply a level of service and travel policy oversight otherwise absent.

To do that, Sabre built the “TruTrip Hub” to meld and sync travel data from both managed channels and travelers’ emailed confirmations. It is enabled by the Sabre Profiles system available to Sabre GDS agency users. That system matches booking activity for specific travelers and creates or updates passenger name records “with complete profile data when applicable,” according to Sabre.

Another key component is an “enhanced TruTrip segment.” It combines traditional PNR documentation with TruTrip segment details, including information on the external booking source. Sabre explained that using familiar PNR information and formatting is “key to the seamless workflow integration” at travel agencies. Once TruTrip activity goes through the Sabre GDS, agents can view, store and modify those bookings in the Sabre Red desktop. Changes are reflected in TripCase Corporate and GetThere.

Out-of-program bookings become “in-program reservations that go through the majority of an agency’s workflow and automation without a lot of change management,” said Sabre Corporate Solutions vice president Yannis Karmis. “There is a little bit of process change.”

Sabre noted that TruTrip can work with any client booking tool. The system updates PNRs so that “any downstream application, service and support processes that currently consume and interact with Sabre trip data will now have access to TruTrip activity as well,” according to the company. “This includes TMC mid-office processes, third-party integrations (e.g. security, expense, pre-trip approval, etc.), back-office data reporting and other online booking tools.”

Like TruTrip, Concur’s TripLink aims to provide complete trip information in online, offline and mobile channels. Both systems parse information in email confirmations forwarded by travelers. In addition, TripLink is directly connected to the websites of InterContinental Hotels Group and Starwood, where users can access corporate negotiated rates. Concur has announced plans for the same with other suppliers. It also connected TripLink to Airbnb. In these cases, the traveler need not forward confirmations.

As part of TruTrip, Sabre on its website discusses expanding “managed travel booking capabilities to additional sources outside of core content.” However, Sabre officials this week said the company has decided against “extending to additional shopping sources” based on customer feedback.

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Sabre GetThere Latest On Corporate Travel Virtual Card Bandwagon

[UPDATE: Dec. 2, 2016: Sabre announced that it added a virtual payment option for airline bookings within the Sabre Red Workspace, furnished with payment firm Conferma. Sabre described the new “standard form of payment” at the agent point of sale as an industry first. The integration “eliminates the need for mid/back-office providers and online corporate booking tools such as GetThere to modify their business processes and incur additional technical expenses,” according to the company. “When using virtual payments within the GetThere booking tool, we provide incremental detailed reconciliation data available for expense management.”]

Though it hasn’t expanded much beyond the familiar use cases, virtual payment is drawing attention from payment industry players and corporate travel intermediaries. Those entities during the past few years have flooded the market with product and partnership announcements.

Working with payment tech firm Conferma, which is in the thick of facilitating virtual payment for corporate travel, Sabre’s GetThere is among the latest to get in on the action. The company on Tuesday said it integrated hotel virtual payment technology into the online booking tool and expects to add air booking capabilities next. Sabre already implemented air and hotel virtual payments for use at the agent desktop.

Virtual cards and their auto-generated, single-use numbers can stand in for traditional plastic corporate cards. They have several advantages. Administrators can specify spending limits, dates and merchants. Each transaction is uniquely identified, making tracking, reconciling and auditing easier.

Virtual cards also can reduce fraud in a couple of ways. Predetermined spending amounts remove any risk of employee overspending. There’s no static number to be lost or stolen. Just changing to a new payment mechanism can reduce vulnerability for corporations. Payments industry analyst Frank Martien of First Annapolis said he’s heard of virtual card fraud rates of 0.03 percent, “which is like half of what you would see on walking plastic.” He said a traditional corporate card, which “typically carries a higher credit line than your average consumer card,” is an appealing target for “the really sophisticated fraudsters.”

Image: Thinkstock

Virtual cards have gained popularity as a payment option for contractors, trainees, recruits, new hires, infrequent travelers and younger employees lacking credit. They appeal to the likes of the energy/resources/marine sector, trucking and logistics companies, temp placement firms and other organizations where individual plastic isn’t universal. Virtual cards also can be a solution in parts of the word where walkaround cards are less common (like Brazil, where Sabre last month introduced its Virtual Payments product for hotel bookings through agencies and the GetThere booking tool).

According to Conferma, virtual payment enablers now include the four largest corporate travel management companies, several booking tools, some big banks and the networks of American Express, MasterCard and Visa.

Like Sabre, Travelport and Amadeus have incorporated virtual payments into agent desktop tools. Travelport is majority owner of payment solutions provider eNett, which reported revenue growth of about 50 percent last year. Amadeus offers virtual payments through its e-Travel Management booking tool via a Conferma partnership.

Despite all the activity, industry research shows that no more than about one in 10 companies are using virtual cards. Providers expect demand to grow.

“There are certainly companies or segments of travelers where travel managers have very acute interest but I think there is a broad interest in virtual payments overall,” said Sabre Corporate Solutions vice president Yannis Karmis. “We’ve had technology companies and professional services companies coming to us.”

In an October poll, Carlson Wagonlit Travel found that about one-third of 1,100 travel and meetings pros around the globe indicated virtual payments are a “high” or “very high” priority for this year.

Like Sabre, CWT uses Conferma technology to provide virtual card numbers. For now, that’s only for offline transactions; the TMC expects to provide the capability for online transactions this year.

In a lot of cases, hotel bookings are the entry point. “There seems to be a huge surge in companies wanting to do third-party billings at hotels,” said Rebecca Martin, president of Memphis-area A & I Travel Service. “Until recently, we had this antiquated system where you take a photocopy of a credit card, fax it to a hotel and set it up that way. I have a department that sits here and manually does it. It’s a real pain.”

Now, based on customer demand, A & I is exploring new payment alternatives. “Companies want better control, they want PCI compliance and, a lot of the time, they do not want to hand plastic to travelers anymore,” Martin said.

It’s a similar situation at Chicago-area AmTrav, which has seen growing interest among clients for prepaid hotel rates, according to president Craig Fichtelberg. With prepaid rates, hotels still need a form of payment when a guest arrives. Virtual cards give the hotel that payment information ahead of time. Fichtelberg said AmTrav is working with two virtual card companies for that process.

Fichtelberg also has noticed a trend at some companies away from walkaround plastic for travelers. “We have companies in multiple sectors that fall into that category,” he said. “It seems like corporate cards are declining and virtual cards are increasing.”


First Annapolis’ Martien said a primary benefit is directing spending from a traveler’s corporate card to a centralized payment solution, especially for car rentals and hotel bookings. In program configurations where travelers are personally liable for card charges, “the issuer is willing to give them only a certain credit line,” he explained. “That may be insufficient, so the more you can divert spend off of that individual card to a centralized solution, the better.”

At fashion retail company H&M, all hotel, airline and car rental reservations are prepaid. Very few of the company’s typically young travelers carry corporate cards. H&M wanted a new solution rather than pre-existing centralized payment programs like ghost cards, which came with an increasing amount of paperwork as the company grew in the United States, according to travel manager Marie Moynihan.

The H&M process is based on required use of the Concur Travel booking tool and the AirPlus card (Concur and AirPlus first partnered on virtual payments in early 2014). When travelers book a hotel room, “the system sends a unique third-party credit card authorization to the hotel to a designated fax number,” Moynihan said. H&M “completely automated” preset spending limits. The system calculates the room rate multiplied by the number of nights, tacks on 20 percent to cover taxes and adds another “buffer zone of sorts” to account for things like parking or breakfast.

Moynihan said virtual payments aren’t easy to implement. It took H&M five years to achieve complete automation, connecting the various travel management, payment and supplier systems. “There are a lot of moving parts that have to come together,” she said. “A lot of companies don’t realize that just because you have a virtual card doesn’t make it fully automated. Some have to hire staff to plug in the card information and send it to hotels.”

Sources noted several challenges in making virtual payments work with hotels. They range from ensuring accurate fax numbers to overcoming possible confusion when multiple travelers from the same company check in at the same time. Some hotels may not accommodate virtual payments at all, or may insist on their own process.

Sabre’s Karmis acknowledged the change management necessary to switch to a new model. He suggested travel program managers may first need to talk with their organization’s mobility, HR and recruiting teams, and of course card program administrators.

Another consideration is whether and where a company’s bank offers virtual payment for corporate travel. Karmis said Sabre works with several banks, and more will be added based on customer needs. That, he added, differs from other virtual card programs that may have only one or two bank partners. “So if your preferred banking partner is not one of those two, you are out of luck,” Karmis said.

Martien pointed to another factor regarding banks, one that could be the “fly in the ointment” slowing virtual card adoption. So-called “know your customer” processes in the United States include checking against the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. OFAC is tasked with controlling transactions and freezing assets of those deemed threatening to national security. “The big debate is on whether one needs to do KYC checks on anyone who can access or use virtual card solutions,” he said. “Some banks have at least contemplated trying to get a list of authorized users from companies. Other banks have updated commercial card agreements and delegated that KYC responsibility to the corporate.”

Additional information: Reviewed research includes a GBTA Foundation/TSYS survey of 240 travel managers conducted about a year ago that found 8 percent of represented organizations use single-use virtual cards to pay for business travel-related expenses; a separate GBTA Foundation survey conducted a few months later, sponsored by U.S. Bank, that polled 182 travel buyers and put the number at about 10 percent; and an AirPlus International poll last summer of 139 North American corporate travel buyers. Nine percent of AirPlus respondents said virtual/single-use cards are the “primary” payment tool for handling their organizations’ recruits. Six percent said as much for both infrequent travelers and contractors.

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Meta-Search Pioneer Brian Barth Is Back, Now Focused On Payment

Brian Barth and his team helped reinvent travel e-commerce when they created meta-search site SideStep, acquired by Kayak in 2007 for $200 million. Now Barth is set to make an impact on payments. His latest startup, UpLift, offers real-time insight on the customer’s form of payment and enables online merchants to make targeted offers on that basis. One goal might be to increase loyalty to a co-branded card. Another might be to promote a cheaper option.

If you’re thinking this sounds like something that could take advantage of the recent court ruling against American Express, you’re right.

UpLift helps travel suppliers quickly understand the mix, benefits and costs of the cards shoppers are using online. Think of it as a Google Analytics website traffic dashboard but for payments, complete with the real-time view.

Brian Barth

UpLift Co-Founder and CEO Brian Barth

Barth said erchants traditionally get really complicated data from their payment processors long after the fact, so they can’t do much with it. UpLift describes itself as “empowering merchants to promote selected payment types.”

Officials demonstrated on a Caesars Entertainment site how just starting to type in one’s credit card number identifies the card and generates offers or reinforces the choice. The site says something different depending on the card used. During the demonstration a message said, “Nice move. Your Total Rewards Visa Card Is Earning You 5X Rewards Credits.” UpLift’s initial clients also include Allegiant Air and Virgin America.

The user incentive could be as simple as extra points on an existing card, or as impactful as a lower rate for using a different one.

“We view this as a platform to effortlessly let websites and merchants empower whatever policies or campaigns they desire,” said Barth. “We don’t dictate the rules. There are a lot of use cases for the platform, probably many that we haven’t even dreamed up yet. A supplier could offer particular benefits to corporate customers who use a preferred card, i.e. their co-brand card, a low-cost card or a partner’s card. The promotional perk is typically provided by the merchant of record but could be anyone.”

Anyone with a website, at least. In a call center, the platform would not integrate with the traditional reservations system “green screens” but would work on a web front end.

Barth said merchants until now have had a lot of ideas about what they’d like to do in differentiating offers based on form of payment, but little capability. For example, there are more than 6,000 interchange rates, he said, “so even an accurate surcharging program, for example, is really complicated.” (Interchange rates are the low single-digit percentages deducted from the monies paid by the card issuer to the merchant’s bank for the sale. These fees make up the largest portion of what’s known as the discount rate — the overall fee merchants pay for card acceptance.)

Typically, no IT work is required to use UpLift. Website owners using a tag manager can enable the platform with a single click. UpLift already works with tag management software from Ensighten, Signal and Tealium. According to their websites, the trio count Hertz, JetBlue, Lufthansa, Orbitz, Starwood, United and US Airways among their travel clients. “It’s important to be able to integrate without being in a year-long IT queue,” Barth said. To create offers for specific card types, UpLift uses websites’ existing promo code capabilities.

UpLift also is targeting e-commerce firms and nonprofits. Platform customers pay volume-based monthly fees.

‘Wild West’

It’s fashionable to say there’s a lot going on in payments, and it’s also true. Mobile wallets, Bitcoin, virtual cards and EMV/Chip-and-PIN are just a few of the newest developments.

“The amount of change in payments is remarkable, especially considering how much money is at stake,” said Barth. “It’s the Wild West for payments.”

Barth and his team, including co-founder and CTO Stu Kelly, have been working on the platform for two years. They formed the company in California last August. In November, they announced $8.2 million in investment from IDG Ventures, PAR Capital Ventures, Thayer Ventures and others. Thayer backs Hipmunk, TripBam and Traxo, among others. PAR’s investments include Room 77, Routehappy and SilverRail Technologies.

According to PAR president Paul Reeder, “UpLift has the potential to be an essential technology for top merchants.”

The idea preceded the February court decision against American Express. Unless successfully challenged on appeal, the ruling is likely to force Amex to drop its anti-steering provisions in merchant contracts. But it came after MasterCard and Visa four years ago settled with the Justice Department and agreed to dump the clauses. Steering is the practice of expressing a preference for a lower-cost card, potentially by offering a lower base fare or rate.

“The rules are changing more than we would have expected,” said Barth. “It may cause people to try more creative things than they might have otherwise. A lot of payment people seem to think this is a game-changing moment.”

UpLift impressed Egencia vice president of supplier relations Chris Vukelich. Vukelich was general manager for global distribution at British Airways when in 2002 it stopped paying fees to card companies on corporate net fare bookings. The move led to a lawsuit with American Express that the parties later settled. “There’s clearly is a lot to play out with regard to payment,” Vukelich said. “If merchants are able to actively push cheaper forms of payment, there is no doubt in my mind that airlines who have always been focused on cost of sale will be among the first to try it.”

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Corporate Booking Tool NexTravel Takes Off With Work To Do

With some in the corporate market craving options, tech blogs last month announced the arrival of corporate booking tool NexTravel. While oversights and hyperbole are not uncommon for start-ups, NexTravel may have a bigger issue. It doesn’t have a deal in place with Southwest Airlines, which is investigating its presence on the site. The airline typically doesn’t allow online sites to use its content without special arrangements.

Trying to emulate the user experience of consumer tools, NexTravel is targeting small and medium-size enterprises. NexTravel built the front-end booking interface. There’s a mobile web version, with an app in development. The site offers no-fee online bookings and one-click cancellations. It sources content primarily from the Sabre global distribution system. Search results can be sorted by individual and company preferences.

Atlas Travel and Technology Group handles fulfillment and provides agent assistance and other administration and support functions. Atlas COO Lea Cahill said the agency’s support for NexTravel resembles fulfillment arrangements with other corporate online booking tools. The two sides — which Cahill said are in “testing and live-beta” — still are working out the details.

Image: Thinkstock

Image: Thinkstock

NexTravel offers rudimentary expense reporting, management reporting and travel policy functions. Administrators can apply price ceilings and require manager approvals. Co-founder Wen-Wen Lam said fuller travel management capabilities are in the works.

“Right now our product feature set is very basic and we have purposely kept things simple given our target customer base (SMEs),” according to Lam. The goal is a site that’s “easy to use for the end-user as well as the CFO/CIO. Many of the companies that we work with are currently booking on Expedia and other OTAs or directly on the airline, and their travel is fragmented. They are looking to centralize their travel and control costs.”

NexTravel makes money on commissions. It’s also angling to provide back-end integration with expense management, accounting and human resources systems. Lam said the company intends to “plug into as many outside partners as possible.”


Key to any travel booking site is robust content. Other than what it obtains through Sabre GDS access, NexTravel uses some of the preferential rates and discounts that Atlas has secured for its own clients. NexTravel also negotiated rates with some individual hotel properties that are provided “on a client-specific basis,” Lam said. The site can accommodate an account’s own negotiated discounts. Atlas and online group hotel booking specialist Jetaport are partners for “deeply discounted rates” for groups and conferences.

NexTravel also shows Southwest Airlines as a supplier; it makes Southwest reservations through Sabre. But Southwest this week was checking into how the company accesses its inventory, according to a spokesperson for the airline. “Southwest does not have a partnership in place with NexTravel,” the spokesperson noted on Thursday. “We’ve reached out to NexTravel to better understand their business booking needs.”

Though it lists in global distribution systems, Southwest’s participation isn’t always complete and doesn’t necessarily mean it permits online travel sites to sell tickets. For example, its flights don’t appear on Expedia or Orbitz. Those companies’ corporate travel divisions, like other corporate booking tools, secured Southwest content through special agreements.

When asked if NexTravel has any other content sources, Lam said the company is “evaluating all available options.”

For now, the site’s inventory falls short of its own claims of “exclusive discounts on thousands of flights, hotels and cars all over the world.” Lam defended the verbiage by explaining NexTravel’s inventory is available only to companies that enroll, not the general public.

The NexTravel site also claims that users benefit from “the most flexible cancellation policies.” By that, the company really means easier, one-click canceling. Cancel policies are determined by airlines and hotels.

The site’s terms and conditions page at launch was far from buttoned-up. One clause stipulates that purchased travel must be canceled in writing. Another describes a “facilitation fee” for handling online bookings. Lam acknowledged the Ts and Cs need updating and insisted those two clauses do not apply.

Benefit Of The Doubt

Few start-ups launch flawlessly. Some may give NexTravel leeway.

Brian Harniman, managing director of consultancy Brand New Matter, is bullish on the idea of a simplified, consumerized means for booking corporate travel, free of the complications of a traditional TMC environment. He said those on the NexTravel team “seem to be pretty good networkers and tenacious on the sales side. They are young and they are smart. To the extent they need to integrate, they’ll figure it out.”

Neither Lam nor co-founder and CTO Alexey Pakhomov came from within the travel industry, according to LinkedIn profiles. That can be a good thing; fresh eyes on old problems sometimes lead to breakthroughs.

“I like to see fresh blood combined with expertise,” said Steven Mandelbaum, vice president of business solutions at The Advisory Board Co. “You don’t always have to hire a veteran, but the devil’s in the details in this industry.”

He suggested that a brand new online booking tool might be worth at least a look by companies with small, simple travel programs. But for larger, more complex travel programs, a new OBT may be a tough choice. “It needs to do a lot of things and a lot of things well,” he said. “The start-up curve for a booking tool is enormous. Content in the United States is not easy.”

NexTravel secured funding from Y Combinator. The seed accelerator’s standard deal is an investment of $120,000 in exchange for 7 percent ownership. Other than that funding, Lam said she and Pakhomov own the company.

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Concur Slows Down Innovation To Focus On Foundational Fixes

Concur’s technology leaders have refocused on core infrastructure over innovation to deal with increased service disruptions during the past 18 months.

“In the past we have had much more rapid development of features and functionality, but over the last few months we have slowed those down,” said senior vice president for hosting operations Stephen deRham. Speaking Tuesday during a webcast, deRham said Concur is focused “on our core foundation so we have something strong to build upon and to get back to that ability to deliver the features you want. Until we do that, some of these key pieces need to continue to be our focus and that’s our approach.”


Image: Thinkstock

A big part of CTO Mark Nelson’s job is dealing with what he called the “growing pains” of scaling up. He joined Concur in December 2013 after nearly 17 years at Oracle.

“We’re moving away from some of our more complicated Storage Area Network infrastructures into simple commodity servers with local storage,” said Nelson. “We then replicate, so that each one of those instances is simpler, stupider, easier to replace. We can scale more easily and there are less things that can go wrong. All of this will lead to higher reliability and performance.”

Nelson called the four-day episode of performance issues for Concur Travel last month an “unfortunate shortcoming” on the company’s customer satisfaction goals. In addition to their technical explanation for the problems, the execs blamed Concur’s rapid growth and some bad luck.

Poor luck came with the timing of Concur’s user-interface upgrade, they explained. The upgrade itself did not contribute to the outages. But its coincidental timing both increased demand on the tech infrastructure and complicated efforts to identify the root cause of the issues. That root cause turned out to be the introduction of bad diagnostics code in December. This “human error,” they said, didn’t impact the system until it hit certain transactional peaks in February.

DeRham said the issues did not impact Concur’s EMEA data center, which processes a few thousand transactions a day. The North American one handles hundreds of thousands, he said.

Another element of Concur’s plan is to improve on its monitoring systems and problem resolution.

“All components fail,” said Nelson. “Things fail in our data center, Twitter’s data center, Google’s data center, Facebook’s data center. And humans make mistakes. The trick is to build the service such that an individual failure won’t cause the service to go down.”

They said customer service is their highest priority, and noted increased staffing in Concur’s support centers. The company on Feb. 24 posted four job openings for client communication advisors and two openings for client support analysts.

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GPS Tracking Apps Test Privacy Boundaries

IJet International released apps in December on Android and January on iOS that can track travelers using global positioning system capabilities. The app brings to the everyday smartphone a level of realtime tracking traditionally available only through expensive satellite-based devices. Typically only used in high-risk environments, the Critical Trac app still is not a “mass-market product.” Nevertheless, officials said the app already has a “rapid uptake.”

“If you’re sending people to places like Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s prudent to provide realtime tracking so we know where you are relative to all the potential threats happening around you,” said iJet International senior vice president Charlie Terry. App users can start and stop when program managers track them. Terry said that while having every step tracked is a bit “freaky,” the traveler’s last known position can be critical information in an emergency.

GPS“So far, the folks who have implemented it understand why it’s needed and they actually want someone to know where they are,” he said.

The Anvil Group, based in London, a year ago released similar functionality in its SOS & Locate app. It’s popular among female travelers and useful for risky situations, said group managing director Matthew Judge. “That doesn’t necessarily mean because of the country,” he said. “It could be due to the type of work they’re performing or the message that the meeting they’re attending is sending. Or someone is crossing an international border for a short time. Or a VIP who doesn’t want a visible security presence.”

As an alternative to live tracking, iJet users can turn on intermittent tracking centered around automated wellness checks. The notion of these check-ins is commonplace among other apps and with travel management providers. Removing the constant data uploads and downloads saves on device battery usage. A traveler may be asked to respond to a text message or other notification in a certain amount of time. If they don’t, providers can let the employer know or take action depending on protocols.

The Anvil app also has both active (live tracking) and passive (intermittent signaling) modes, controlled by the user. Most clients use passive as the default setting, Judge said.

“Mobile tracking does raise a number of complications, such as data privacy issues,” according to a February paper by BCD Travel that recommended GPS tracking for high-risk destinations. “In some countries, you will need consent from employees to track them. It may be best to create special policy rules about GPS tracking, such as switching on mobile tracking only in emergencies or for trips to high-risk destinations.”

A related approach is geofencing, which creates a territory beyond which a traveler’s presence sends an alert. “Charlie went into two bars in Hong Kong — probably not a surprise,” Terry joked. “But he went to that neighborhood? Alert!”

When BCD Travel in November surveyed more than 500 travel managers, about one in ten said their firms use GPS tracking and twice as many expected it to be in use by November 2015. More than 30 percent are or are about to start using wellness checks. Almost four in five already “enforce designated booking channels” so they know the travelers’ intentions.

Watching “swipe reports” from credit card companies also can help employers locate their people. That technology isn’t yet widely available, according to the BCD Travel paper. “It may be an option if you have consolidated with just one or a very small number of card providers and your preferred provider(s) have developed the necessary reporting, including cleansed and geo-coded merchant records.”

American Express Global Business Travel developed such functionality in partnership with American Express Company.

“In a crisis, incomplete itinerary information and spotty cellular and data connections can thwart travel managers’ attempts to locate and provide care to their employees,” GBT noted in a summer 2014 announcement. “This functionality allows travel managers or company security teams to view an integrated representation of a traveler’s itinerary information and recent American Express Corporate Card transactions to help pinpoint their location during an emergency situation.” Once companies locate their travelers, they can use the TMC’s disruption management tool to coordinate communications.

Having your card swipe data collected may seem less intrusive than GPS tracking, but there still are privacy issues to work out.

American Express GBT vice president, digital traveler, Evan Konwiser said clients consent at the enterprise level. Individual travelers can opt out. Event triggers can determine when clients need data. “You can say, ‘This person with the right credentials decided there’s an emergency.’ They can get access to a traveler’s data in a given situation,” Konwiser explained. “Outside the agreed parameters, that data isn’t shared at all. We’re only keeping the information for 24 hours.”

Asked about live GPS tracking, Konwiser said, “We don’t have an official position on that today. There are definitely some use cases where that data would provide utility. We get a lot of cautionary tales on that — there are a lot of government regulations. We’re not going to break the rules and ask for forgiveness later.”

No Replacement For Intel And Ops

GPS tracking may be more than you need. “Even the not-so-granular tracking” based on plans and check-ins “is very granular,” said iJet’s Terry. “Not everyone is trying to do business in Iraq.”

More important than how employees are tracked is offering a complete solution. Tracking doesn’t eliminate the need for good preparation and response.

“Employers should absolutely use the power of technology to ensure the safety of their employees and executives,” said former U.S. Army Special Forces medic and Travel Recon founder Toby Houchens. “Even with big-brother type tech, you can’t assume your employees will stay ‘on the path.’ This is why initial information is imperative: neighborhoods to avoid, nearby emergency services, crime rates, reoccurring threats, characteristics criminals look for, etc.”

“There are lots of tracking apps out there,” said iJet senior product manager Elisa Velarde. “The app is useful but the beauty of it is what our global operations team does. They know the hot spots, safe zones, transit, exit, entry … the dam that was taken by hostile folks.”

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Performance Issues Still Frustrating Concur Users

Concur claimed it resolved last week’s intermittent online booking outages about 88 hours after they began popping up. But some users this week reported ongoing issues and many expressed deep frustration about the whole episode.

For travel agency resellers, booking tool downtime can hurt productivity, profitability and client goodwill. Making matters worse, the insufficient service came in the midst of another winter testing the industry’s mettle.

Corporate clients that use Concur via their agencies’ reseller deals may hold the travel management company accountable for Concur’s service woes. Some TMCs that resell Concur Travel charge lower fees for their clients’ phone calls when the technology isn’t working. That’s not the case across the board, though.

Things aren’t better for corporate clients that have direct relationships with Concur. They still have to pick up the phone, and in that case the TMC has no reason to discount the full-service fee. Or employees can book online outside the managed program, as in the open booking approach.

Concur-performance-2The issues place Concur Travel in an unfavorable light compared with other booking tools. Some clients have asked agencies to consider their self-booking tool options. Executives at midsize corporate agencies that support Concur Travel said other booking tools they handle almost never go down. And when they do, performance issues don’t last long.

“Three or four days is unheard of,” said one.

San Francisco-based S.R. Travel Service forewarned clients of possible downtime resulting from Concur’s mandated migration to a new user interface at the end of January. The agency waited until the deadline to switch users, and fully staffed its support desk. “The site was unstable,” said client technology solutions manager Pantea Saeb. “I just could not roll it out to our travelers.”

Concur in a partner message this week said it found the performance issues were not related to the new UI rollout. Instead it blamed bad “diagnostics code” introduced as part of a December system update. That update was meant to prepare the system for “increased travel booking volumes in January and February.” Concur noted that the “effects were dependent on load and were sporadically experienced before becoming chronic during weekday loads from Feb. 20th through Feb. 24th.” Concur added server capacity and worked around the clock to remove the bad diagnostics code.

Christopherson Business Travel CEO Mike Cameron said users are frustrated, “but I don’t think it’s because Concur is not a good operator. More likely it has to do with their rapid growth.” CBT didn’t charge its full-service fee when Concur users called to make bookings. It didn’t charge the usual self-service fee, either. The Salt Lake City-based TMC has a middle fee for agent-assisted online bookings, which it levied in this case. “So it was a compromise that we absorbed the difference,” Cameron said.

One agency executive noted that while it’s tough to field complaints from angry clients, she’s more worried about the customers who didn’t speak up. The assumption is that their travelers instead are booking directly with suppliers when the designated corporate tool is down.


Large users may have service level agreements in online booking tool contracts, but bringing them to bear is another story.

“They won’t make any uptime commitments,” said one corporate client of Concur’s. “We have an SLA, but why even look at it? It’s on their terms.”

“Unless there are relevant penalties for non-performance, the SLA is more of a guideline than an enforceable document,” said travel management consultant Andy Menkes. “The challenge with a metric of 98 percent or 99 percent uptime is that if it’s based on 24 hours a day/30 days in a month, the math is easier to achieve than it might be if you are measuring 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., Monday through Friday, or something closer to normal business hours.”

Agency resellers also may not have immediate remedies.

“We’re tracking to see how much we are losing by having the traveler call an agent but only pay the online fee,” said S.R.’s Saeb. “We’ll go back to Concur and let them know. They charge agencies a fee for every transaction that goes online, so there may be room for negotiations there.”

According to Concur’s own status reports, the travel system isn’t the only one to experience recent problems. The Expense, Invoice, Insight, Imaging and Mobile products in the past week each experienced a partial outage or other performance issue. Concur claimed to resolve some in minutes. Others required between two and five hours.

On top of multiple previous instances of service problems — including for the U.S. federal government — all this is obviously bad for Concur and new parent SAP.

In light of the breakdowns, one travel buyer at a large multinational firm is “apprehensive” about a possible move to Concur Travel.

A Concur spokesperson on short notice did not respond to requests for more information.

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From Data Management Firms, Clients Demand The Future

It seems that some corporate travel decision-makers are endlessly dissatisfied with data. It’s imperfect, dumped on them in buckets and hard to present to executives. Nowadays they want insights at the trip level. They want to identify policy violations before it’s too late. They want to take more immediate action on predicted outcomes.

Using travel data for predictive analysis and benchmarking is this year’s top priority among 1,113 travel, meetings and events professionals surveyed last fall by Carlson Wagonlit Travel.

data management

Image: Thinkstock

In some cases, travel departments are looking to business intelligence firms that came of age outside the travel industry and now are targeting it. PI Ltd of London is an example. After working for three years with BCD Travel in Europe, the company last month hired former TRX exec Tom Tulloch to expand in North America. Like others including Mo-Data, PI started in other domains before corporate clients brought it to travel data.

Elsewhere outside the travel industry, tools from Domo, Qlik, Lavastorm, Pentaho and Tableau offer self-service opportunities for companies to up their travel data games.

“Those work if you have solved the underlying data problem,” said Brian Beard, Travel and Transport’s general manager for strategic initiatives.

Industry data management specialists have been working on that for many years.

Concur had a couple initiatives going with the former TRX TravelTrax and its own Cognos-powered Insights. SAP owns Business Objects, like Cognos a business-intelligence stalwart. A press official declined to comment on Concur’s plans, but expert sources outside the company thought it likely that SAP/Concur would build a new product in the next couple years.

Grasp Technologies claims it’s the biggest consolidator of T&E data, with more than 600 clients. Grasp established itself by connecting its software directly to TMC back offices, improving data quality. Now, a big part of the firm’s business is consolidating from multiple sources including card, expense, booking, GDS, trip approvals, HR and ERPs. “A while ago, people just wanted total spend,” said vice president Dave Lukas. “Then they wanted it by air, car and hotel. Then by airline. Then by city pair. Then by person. I still think we’re at the infancy of data consolidation as far as doing it right and making it actionable. We’re still finding ways to make it better after 15 years.”

Founded by former TRX exec and Hi-Mark Software founder Kevin Austin, Big Data Experts expects to roll out of its garage in about three months. Hotel commission specialist CTS Systems and dining network Dinova already are using certain components. The company recently hired industry veteran Todd Kaiser to ramp up its marketing efforts.

What’s Wrong With The Data We Have?

It’s a common question from senior execs asked to sign off on a budget for data cleansing and consolidation. They may believe that what’s available from travel management companies is good enough.

Many TMCs invest in data reporting. CWT, FCm Travel Solutions and Travel and Transport are just a few that now are developing new data solutions. CWT’s is due out this year and Travel and Transport hopes to demo a prototype in three to five months. American Express Global Business Travel now is rebuilding much of its technology and points to its relationship with its former parent as an advantage in accessing payment data alongside travel.

TMCs also are frequently criticized for a lack of technological savvy. One former TMC official who declined to be identified doubts their capabilities. “We poured a lot of money into it, but it was rare that we thought we got something right,” said the source. “I don’t know that anyone is better than anyone else among the big TMCs.”

Corporate travel data challenges are well-documented. Accuracy is a huge problem. Timeliness is another issue as some of the most commonly used data sources typically produce information only every few weeks. A lack of standards means some data are input manually, introducing human error.

These issues compound tremendously when corporate hierarchies are involved, or at multinational firms or those using multiple TMCs. It’s harder, too, when multiple data sources are required.

“Most companies continue to rely on one source of data to measure what’s going on with their T&E spend,” said PI’s Tulloch. “That’s mostly TMC data, but there are very valuable reasons why you need to supplement that with card and expense data. Other sources of data are gaining popularity as well, especially social media data, weather, reviews and traveler satisfaction data.”

Further complicating matters, “pretty much everyone thinks they own the data,” said Oversight Systems CEO Patrick Taylor. This creates lag in data acquisition. Data privacy regulations also make it difficult to authorize third parties to receive data. Oversight helps companies inspect travel, expense and payment data for fraud and policy violations.

Taylor said many companies have no consistent “data key” that firms like his can use to inexpensively pull together the relevant data. An example would be an employee ID of some sort. Grasp, too, stresses the importance of keys, while PI cautions against relying on them too much.

“What you can count on,” Taylor summarized, “is that it won’t work perfectly every time. You can be thoughtful up front and build a data model that is robust enough to handle all the different circumstances, and that will help. Other lessons come from trial and error.”

Austin said the challenge defines the necessary data, and it’s important to recognize inaccuracies even if they can’t be corrected. “A lot of what frustrates people is they may never realize how bad the data was,” he said. “They just end up with a bad result.” Austin’s company is building a data scoring module in which the user can weight what’s most important and understand how relevant to a given task certain results are, despite flaws in the data.

Depending on the purpose, there may be nothing wrong with your data.

The way BCD Travel vice president for innovation and intelligence Torsten Kriedt sees it, some clients seek only a full picture of their aggregated spend. For them, a basic level of data reporting will do. At the next level of sophistication, he said clients need “booking and spend data matched on an aggregate level, for example if they want to negotiate with hotels based on total room nights and spend.” At the highest end, clients looking to “understand the full pattern at the trip level or uncover hidden spend, for example around ground transportation or dining,” need something like PI or Concur’s TravelTrax, Kriedt said.

“Clean data and what I can do with it to move my program forward is what I am interested in,” Cisco Systems director of global procurement services Susan Lichtenstein typed during an online conference hosted last fall by the Association of Corporate Travel Executives. “Policy compliance is my largest concern. We use TRX and our TMC for this work. I think the TMC has to get better at presenting data in an actionable format. We always receive data dumps that tell me what I did. I want data that tells me where to go next and why. I want trending information, actionable solutions and projections that will enable a better experience. Also, savings … where am I missing the mark and why and how to solve for it? I want laser-focused information, not a data dump so me and my team have to sift through it.”

Several travel managers in subsequent conversations concurred.

This is the direction Grasp is taking. The company expects to deliver next year on benefits from artificial intelligence and machine learning. Grasp already is helping clients catch issues more quickly. One customer, for example, gets an alert every time an employee submits an expense for laundry on trips of three days or less. “The future for us is a platform showing you opportunities you never knew were there,” said Lukas. “We call it the virtual travel manager.”

Was That ‘Unique Device Identifier’ Or ‘User Defined Interface Data’?

One challenge in picking a non-industry specialist is the time it needs to figure out the jargon and quirks of the industry. It’s debatable how hard that stuff is to learn.

“What I have found with these generalists trying to come in is that they don’t realize how screwed up travel data is,” said Travel Tech Consulting’s Norm Rose. “For instance, you may have five or six names for the same hotel from different sources.”

PI can attest to that. “We thought it would take us six to eight weeks but it took a year or so to really come to grips with travel data,” said PI Ltd CEO Keesup Choe. “It’s a different animal, full of complexity. We’re very interested in this space because the data is fragmented and not orderly.”

Kriedt said requirements for domain expertise lead naturally to partnerships.

Cornerstone Information Systems has worked with Qlik Technologies for years to boost its iBank business intelligence software. Cornerstone vice president for product innovation and marketing Rock Blanco is no longer convinced that industry domain expertise matters much. “It’s really a self-service environment now,” he said. “In the new Qlik Sense tool, you can import a spreadsheet and build visualizations. It also helps with the consolidation side, meshing together disparate data sources like expense, card and back office.” Blanco said self-service is “not for the faint of heart” but many firms now employ data scientists. They may not know lingo but can “look at the data and find new relationships.”

A data scientist at security technology firm McAfee created travel reporting with Qlik’s Qlikview using corporate card, Oracle and SAP data. The company now tracks “who is not complying with a company ‘seven days in advance’ policy,” according to a case study published by Qlik.

That’ll Be How Much?

Self-service of course saves money compared to full service, but a staff data scientist may not be available for travel procurement purposes.

“I haven’t found a data aggregator yet that seems to be able to take multiple data feeds from different sources (pre-trip agency, expense, general ledger, card) and normalize the data globally or provide predictive data and executive scorecards that we can take action on at a development price that is reasonable,” said CDK Global director for global travel and event services Madia Sargent.

Sources suggested the cost of a high-end data consolidator for a travel department can rival the cost of TMC services.

“I’d love to use a company like PI,” said Camilla Lagesen, travel manager at Kongsberg in Norway. “The problem is selling it into my company. I know the data we have are not correct, but the company is satisfied with what we get. Maybe it is good enough, but I believe it can be even better.”

BCD Travel’s Kriedt recognized the concerns. He said clients often hope travel can get in on larger corporate business intelligence initiatives, but it tends to remain “at the bottom of the request bin.” Choe said PI doesn’t simply put people on the problem, because that would be expensive. The company takes advantage of the infrastructure and algorithms it built for the healthcare and retail sectors, which he said handle far larger data volumes.

More affordable solutions, Kriedt said, are elusive for small and medium enterprises because cost savings require standards and scale.

“Pricing varies wildly from client to client,” said Grasp president and CEO Erik Mueller. “We can implement a travel agency with 100 accounts in less than 45 days. When we work with a corporation, just the contracting process alone takes months. Then we have to get through IT hurdles. It’s upwards of 10 to 20 hours just to get approval to connect to their environment and work out data acquisition. We’re a flat fee; we don’t charge by transaction except if someone wants a direct GDS feed. For a corporation where maybe you’re consolidating 50 travel agencies, HR, three credit cards, three expense systems … transaction pricing kills them.”

Additional info: Sources also included five more corporate travel managers, several executives at data management firms and two corporate travel consultants.

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Amadeus, Lufthansa ‘Personalizing’ Benefits For Corporate Accounts

Personalization. It’s not just for people anymore.

Lufthansa is using Amadeus technology to offer product and service add-ons to passengers based on where they work rather than who they are. The capability applies in direct and indirect channels, including travel management companies that use Amadeus or integrate using Web services.

Negotiated discounts are not the only benefit airlines offer their business accounts. Some provide airport and inflight benefits or extra account management services. Carriers also use their frequent flyer programs to bestow status and associated perks on groups of employees at key accounts.

But loyalty programs are just a starting point, argued Amadeus director of strategic marketing for airline IT Rob Sinclair-Barnes. Available to airline customers of the Amadeus Altéa passenger services system, the new program adds relevance to the traveler’s employer irrespective of frequent flyer status, he said.

Sinclair-Barnes claimed several other airlines are implementing the program, called Amadeus Altéa Corporate Recognition. It allows airlines to offer profiled travelers a minimum set of benefits. Examples include expedited check-in and boarding, priority waitlisting, extra availability, preferred seats or lounge access. Preferential treatment can extend from the point of sale to the airport and the airplane. The corporate account negotiates with the airline on which benefits to provide, where to provide them (through certain airports, maybe) and for whom. That can include specific individuals or groups based on seniority, status or other criteria.

A Lufthansa official said the airline has been testing the approach with some accounts for about two years. It plans to expand the program to more of its customers as well those of subsidiary airlines within Lufthansa Group (including Austrian and Swiss).

The initiative impressed industry consultant and former airline sales and distribution executive Marc Rosenberg. “Other airlines cannot afford Lufthansa providing these kinds of easily managed and technically working corporate benefits while they sit behind and only offer a discount,” he said. “Corporate accounts are smart enough to differentiate, and draw to the attention of competing bidders what’s offered.”

Personalization and merchandizing are all the rage in the airline industry. The International Air Transport Association is building standards to support more targeted marketing.

Consultant Paul Tilstone of Festive Road said travel management professionals have a role in personalization, too. Segmenting traveler types “will allow them to identify traveler type needs,” leading to packages created by airlines and TMCs, he said. “The TMCs and/or GDSs have an opportunity here to add value to both the airline and the buyer by developing more sophisticated traveler profiles.”

GDS operators, Rosenberg said, “have no appetite to be left behind. For once, they’re are at the beginning of the curve.”

Sabre also provides passenger services systems to airlines. It now offers a rules engine that lets airlines segment travelers by various attributes. They can then offer product discounts and bundles to “one or more customers,” a Sabre spokesperson said. Airline employees also can use data from Sabre to personalize their customer interactions. Virgin America is the first to use the tools; a spokesperson declined to describe how they might benefit corporate travelers.

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