American Express Global Business Travel is planning a new client database that could change how booking tools, agents and mobile devices connect. Benefits would include a more consistent traveler experience and improved travel disruption management.
This repository of client policies and preferences is the top priority in a tech vision that the company expects to nail down by the end of the second quarter. New products and services will emerge this year, but execution of the bigger plan could take longer. “My experience is that you never do complicated core systems in less than one year,” said new GBT chief technology officer Philippe Chereque. “And more than two years can happen.”
After pulling together most of its executive team last year, GBT also is assembling a technology and products team. Last month the company appointed consultant and former mobile app developer Evan Konwiser as vice president, digital traveler.
Chereque has been meeting with customers for feedback on the emerging tech plan. Several large clients told The Company Dime they want to know what GBT is doing with the $900 million invested in the GBT joint venture last year.
One spending area is signing bonuses for large clients. Sources said GBT recently retained Johnson & Johnson, Microsoft and Philips, among others.
Customers also are curious about how GBT will confront booking leakage and improve data reporting quality.
Chereque talked about several technology topics in an exclusive interview last month, but also said a lot remains undetermined. He said the new client database could mean a significant change in how GBT interacts with online booking tools. At issue is the often-unreliable synchronization that occurs between travel agency systems and booking tools. Travel management companies track client policies, preferred suppliers, pre-trip approval workflows, corporate hierarchies, cost centers, project codes, payment procedures, traveler preferences and other facets. These can differ across markets for GBT’s multinational clients, creating significant complexity. Today, when a traveler books online and later calls an agent, customer profile information available to that agent may not match what’s in the booking tool.
“I want to define what I will call a multichannel global platform,” said Chereque. “The OBT is one channel, but if you look at corporate travel, some travel management also is offline or uses the digital hardware or terminals the traveler is carrying. The functions on the three channels could be different, but the information has to be the same. With this core strategy, our partners have to understand they will have to synchronize with us [using web services]. I doubt they will all like it. We’re talking to our customers and then when the core strategy is decided, we’ll talk to the OBTs and see how we play together.”
GBT isn’t the only travel management company with such thoughts. For example, Carlson Wagonlit Travel senior vice president for global marketing Nick Vournakis in November described something similar: “We need to be omnichannel and offer a consistent experience.” He talked about a “big blender” for trip info, profiles, policies and social data to help CWT “participate in the future digital economy.”
Budgeting And Building Or Buying
GBT’s Chereque said that if a “multi-GDS, multi-market” database already existed, GBT would buy it. Instead, the company must determine the extent to which it will engage a development partner. As with other possible initiatives, such as new data reporting functionality, building versus buying will depend on the desire for speed to market and competitive differentiation.
One example of a differentiator is GBT’s Digital Travel Record. GDS bookings and card transaction data enable traveler messaging, pre-trip auditing and risk management. Chereque said DTR will continue to be a key part of the tech mix.
As a former top Amadeus executive, Chereque is well-versed in airline technology. He’s “looking very closely” at how GBT can better service travelers in the event of flight disruptions by integrating with airline systems. “Amadeus and Sabre host most airlines, and I believe technically it’s feasible,” he said. “When weather or a strike or volcano or whatever delays your flight, you’d like to have the answer on your mobile rather than going to the airline desk or calling someone. It should tell you we rebooked your hotel and changed your car, etc.” Chereque argued that time spent by travelers dealing with disruption can be a big hidden cost.
He did not to reveal his budget for technology: “It depends on the make or buy decision, how fast we want to go, how clever or unique the product is. If you buy a license, you spend a different amount of money. So all these questions have not been answered yet.”
One thing GBT won’t reengineer is the passenger name record. “We don’t want to rebuild the GDS or direct connectivity to airlines,” Chereque said. “I don’t believe in the box on top of the box. There are too many problems with synchronization and availability. We need to answer what corporations want to do, but I personally believe it’s our duty to show them what’s efficient or not. If the corporations believe they find a fare on a website we cannot provide, we need to find a solution for that but I’m not convinced open booking is that solution. We should not develop unnecessary technical solutions to solve financial flaws or issues. To build something else always costs more and someone will have to pay for it.”
Even so, he did acknowledge a potential need to invest in better access to hotel content.
A Deep Bench
Chereque has no shortage of management experience around him. The bench is deep enough to warrant doubts about too many cooks.
GBT’s chairman is industry veteran Greg O’Hara (Sabre, Worldspan, One Equity Partners). Former American Express Company exec Bill Glenn is president and CEO. GBT chief administrative officer Patrick Bourke has a key role. Chief legal officer and corporate secretary Eric Bock joined from Travelport. Chief human resources officer JoAnne Kruse spent about a decade at Cendant/Travelport. GBT also hired former Hertz head of sales and marketing Elyes Mrad to be managing director for EMEA. Former Radius exec Kieran Hartwell is vice president and general manager for EMEA multinational sales.
Andrew Winterton of American Express and Carlson Wagonlit Travel fame and Expedia’s Dhiren Fonseca now are partners at private equity firm Certares. Led by founder and managing director O’Hara, Certares last year joined with BlackRock, the Qatar Investment Authority and Macquarie Capital to buy half of GBT for about $900 million. American Express Company retained the other half.
Certares also owns part of Travel Leaders, whose chairman Mike Batt is a Certares advisor.