Author Archives: Jay Campbell

About Jay Campbell

Jay Campbell in 2004 created travel business newsletter The Beat, in 2006 co-founded Travel Procurement magazine and in 2010 integrated them into Northstar Travel Media's BTN Group. He served as editorial director there until 2013. Jay made his travel industry media debut in 1993 at the Air Travel Journal of Boston. More on LinkedIn.

Siemens Adds Benefits From Lufthansa Direct Connect, Talks With Other Carriers

Pioneering a new airline distribution program has its perks. The Lufthansa direct-connect initiative with Siemens will benefit the conglomerate’s travelers even when they don’t book that way. More than eight months into the program, Siemens officials last week briefed The Company Dime on progress and lessons learned.

It was always part of the plan to provide extras to Siemens travelers who use Amadeus Cytric to book without a global distribution system in Lufthansa Group internal reservations systems. Along the lines of corporate recognition programs, this started with access to Lufthansa Group lounges irrespective of status or booking class. Beginning this June, all Germany-based Siemens employees will get lounge access regardless of how they book.

Access is granted when Siemens travelers show a QR code that was emailed to them. Siemens VP for global mobility services Thorsten Eicke said Lufthansa worked out a way to provide the benefit using the traveler’s corporate email address. “I expect it will run smoothly but it’s still new ground,” said Eicke.

Siemens head of global airline procurement Susanne Steinmann said the airline company would prefer to provide such benefits “only in a direct-connect environment,” but acknowledged that this sort of collaboration has additional benefits in negotiations. “We get further advantages on price,” she added.

Siemens head of global airline procurement Susanne Steinmann

Steinmann estimated that by the second half of this year, Siemens travelers would enjoy early boarding on flights within Germany. This perk would be indicated on boarding passes and also in a QR code.

“For travelers, lounge access is No. 1 and priority boarding No. 2,” said Eicke. “We had underestimated priority boarding from a traveler point of view.”

He said other carriers are interested in working with Siemens this way. Talks are most advanced with a Middle East-based airline. Others in Asia or Europe may be next. “We see interest from United, but the Americas carriers at the moment are more passive,” he said. “They’re happy with the GDS environment.”

There are both risks and benefits when blazing trails, but Eicke said the Lufthansa arrangement “is working more robustly than we thought it would, and with less noise than we thought.”

Lufthansa pilots posed a challenge when they struck the airline in November. Eicke called it a painful but useful test:

“The TMC is in place as caretaker and in this situation, their involvement increased by 40 percent to quite a peak. On average, we have a number below 18 percent in terms of involvement of the TMC. So 80 percent-plus are really touchless. We’re using since November the Amadeus Ticket Changer. This is allowing us to make cancellations and rebooking also for the direct-connect bookings online by the travelers. This was or is the main part of requests coming to an agent or caretaker. We expect that going forward, this will go below 10 percent. So for those remaining, we need of course a high quality, high-touch concierge-type service where people get a really great experience.”

Carlson Wagonlit Travel in March announced it won a bid for Siemens’ European operations outside of Germany. About half of the 32 countries had been using BCD Travel, which supports the direct-connect initiative as the designated agency in Germany. Direct connect was one of the topics in the European tender process, said Steinmann. Siemens plans by 2020 to consolidate to one TMC provider globally from three.

According to Eicke, “it’s not about ticketing, reconciliation or credit card handling. It’s really about where they can bring service in. I’m even willing to maybe pay a premium for a nice concierge-type experience.”

While the bookings aren’t flowing through the GDS in the direct-connect environment, payment and ticketing processes are unchanged.

“We do ticketing on BCD’s IATA number,” said Eicke. “It’s the traditional way to do the core payment process.” Using the IATA Billing and Settlement Plan “is close to their current workflow,” he said, but did require the partners to establish “bridge” for data reporting.

Other payment solutions could come into play, but that’s not part of the immediate focus, said Steinmann.

Meanwhile, as Siemens moves to Concur Expense, officials are considering how to bring the direct-connect approach into an end-to-end framework.

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ETA’s Business Travel App Impresses In Beta

It’s hard not to gush over the new business travel app from ETA Inc., a startup that enjoyed investment from the International Air Transport Association’s NDC Innovation Fund. With travel distribution legend Jeff Katz and other Orbitz vets among its investors and advisors, ETA has produced a slick app. No two ways about it.

The app remains in limited beta and there’s plenty of room for error. But if testing and trying countless apps and bots from established firms and startups within a couple years teaches you anything, it’s how to spot a great user experience.

Like many mobile solutions, the “executive travel app” starts by asking for an email address to get you registered. The user quickly realizes that servicing is centered around chat, powered by customer messaging platform provider Intercom. “Shake to chat with us,” says the iOS app. Cute.

“Enter your name and make sure it matches your government-issued photo ID or password.” Fine, but can I do this on a website? Nope, mobile only. Okay, I guess my thumbs will have to do. Home address, etc.

“Allow me to find you the most comfortable seat on the best flight. Tap Edit and drag what’s most important to the top.” Choose from: aisle/window seat type, price, timeliness, loyalty, chance of upgrades (what!?), Wi-Fi.

That’s all pretty cool, if not so far afield from what others have talked about or already allow in their preferences.

ETA Inc. CEO and co-founder Choon Hong Peck

“Tell me what you care about in a hotel room, and I will find you the best room in the best hotel.” Choose from: proximity to meeting (nice!), price, workspace, Wi-Fi, loyalty, fitness center, chance of upgrades, quiet room (huh?), business center (LOL), view, swimming pool.

Permit the app to read my calendar? Sure, why not. Just testing here. Continue.

Manually enter a trip or pick from a calendar meeting? Sure. “New York Yankees vs. Boston Red Sox, Boston, Mass., July 16.” Sounds like an important meeting. Maybe there’s something work-related going on in town at that time as well. Better plan travel. Tap. “Where?” Okay, it might have known Boston, but anyway, type “Boston.” Save.

Now the Boston trip appears on the Trips page with a nifty local photo as the backdrop. Is that Paul Revere? Anyway, tap to search for travel.

Retrieving preferences. Looking for the shortest flight. Trying to get the flights with the most convenient departure and arrival times. Found the best flight, checking on-time performance. Finding the hotel closest to your meeting. Checking that the amenities suit your needs. Looking for premium seats …

It took less than a minute to return No. 1 air and lodging choices. Before it’s even done you can tap the cards that already came back to see details, or swipe to see more options.

In this example, “Tap to see details” showed various data on the first result, a JetBlue flight from LaGuardia. This option was “18 minutes longer than shortest flight” and “$38 above lowest price (good — top 30 percent).” Swipe showed an air-only card with more flight options and prices from JetBlue and other carriers.

Back to the main results page, the middle card showed a Hyatt Place. A tap showed this choice was “$55.85 above lowest price (great — top 10 percent)” and revealed other details like amenities. In a separate test with a different meeting location and hotel property, this details list indicated “walking distance to the meeting.”

The design was top-notch. Reminiscent of Uber’s. (To which, by the way, ETA deep links for when you’re on your journey.)

Not everything was perfect. In the setup phase, scanning the credit card didn’t work. In booking results, Hyatt Place showed as around five miles to the Fenway Park area. It’s more like seven.

There was little in the way of rate and fare rules. No way to know what the cancellation and refund policies were before committing to the purchase. ETA Inc. CEO and co-founder Choon Hong Peck said in a Tuesday interview that early testers already raised the issue of the rate rules, so it will be fixed.

“I don’t believe the app is ready for prime time yet,” said Peck. “We’re still working through the kinks and looking for feedback.” The app is currently only usable for domestic U.S. travel.

Peck and his team are engineers with backgrounds mainly in e-commerce. They see meetings, proximity and preferences as the drivers of travel planning. They’re targeting unmanaged business travel because there are fewer competitors, though he acknowledged the marketing challenge.

Peck met Katz when he sold a prior company to a non-travel firm that Katz was running. When Katz was coming back to travel, he met Peck and his co-founder for coffee and suggested they come, too. Katz is now chair of ETA.

Peck said that at the moment, there is no fulfillment partner. ETA is acting as its own agency. It uses Travelport. Some of the bookings are made directly, like a reservation on American Airlines that was processed by Farelogix using its NDC-compliant direct connect. ETA employees are using Farelogix’s Sprk interface to service those bookings.

How does that “chance of upgrades” thing work? “We apply algorithms using frequent flyer and loyalty data, and whether the next class has space,” said Peck. “We apply probabilities, but also are pushing suppliers to give us some help.”

He said there are “lots” of sources for hotel property info. How does he know what’s a quiet room? “We’re also trying to push suppliers there,” said Peck. “We’re the guy in the middle. If we can show them that users care about content like this, we go back to suppliers. Otherwise, we use proxies for something like that. A corner room is probably quiet.”

Peck said the team is still “batting” around a fee structure, but it will likely be a per-trip handling fee or annual subscription. In the beta, the first two trips are free.

Other investors include NDC Innovation Fund committee member and longtime industry attorney Gary Doernhoefer, Kalibri Labs co-founder Cindy Estis Green and former Orbitz VP Anne Marie Razza.

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American Express Global Business Travel Redesigns Midmarket Offering

American Express Global Business Travel last month started offering a bundled platform for new U.S. clients spending less than $20 million annually on air travel.

In partnership with Jigsaw Research and design consultancy Livework Studio, GBT crafted the program based on several guiding principles for the client experience: personalization, proactive servicing, consistency, value, local expertise and ease and clarity of deployment. It went into beta with some existing clients in December.

Customers benefit from the new approach through better call recognition, preferred rates and amenities and simplified pricing. Having invested in its telephony services and a new onboarding process, for example, GBT can automatically identify travelers and incorporate their preferences when they call for help.

The company reoriented its servicing teams to provide help regardless of booking channel or time of day. There’s only an online fee and an offline fee. Proactive traveler care, card and travel data visualization and air re-shopping through Yapta are included.

Colin Temple, American Express Global Business Travel VP & GM, U.S. and Canada

GBT vice president and GM for the U.S. and Canada Colin Temple leads the initiative. “I came into this role specifically with the goal of growing GBT’s share of the midmarket,” he said in a Tuesday interview. “It appeared to be an underserved space. Companies do not have a tremendous amount of resources to dedicate to managing travel. Clients who are new to managing travel appear to struggle. Travelers aren’t used to it. Many companies seem reluctant to mandate policies and programs. Once deployed, they’re struggling with getting returns.”

Temple said that while the goal is to be online booking tool-agnostic, most clients are using a portal backed by Deem. GBT owns KDS, but he said Deem remains “fully integrated into our roadmap.” For mobile, midmarket clients may use GBT’s app.

The $20 million threshold in the past was lower, meaning some accounts previously thought of as part of the large or global segment are now “middle market.” Exceptions may include firms with smaller budgets but complex multinational needs, or those with larger budgets and simple travel patterns.

Temple said clients previously considered large should expect no change in account management or customization capabilities. The new midmarket solution meets 90 percent of the existing client base’s needs, he said, and optional services like complex international faring and VIP or on-site configurations also are available.

At the moment, this is a U.S.-based program. Canada by year-end may be the first follower, Temple said.

In its former life as a fully owned entity of American Express Company, GBT made a few attempts at targeting the midmarket. It bought a midmarket specialist in 1998, and in 2010 created a bundled service for clients with less than $10 million in air volume.

Growing, Lucrative And Competitive

The space is highly competitive. Midsize to large TMCs like those affiliated with BCD Travel, GlobalStar and Radius often best the megas on local loyalty and customer attention. Egencia has loads of midmarket accounts built on its strengths in self-service and technology. Concur has a number of TMC partners to which it delivers leads. Startups are nipping at the lower end. On the upper end, even Carlson Wagonlit Travel sees opportunity in the small and mid-market segment.

Midmarket accounts are highly coveted. Often without their own negotiated rates, these clients help provide TMCs leverage with suppliers for commissionable rates and other special benefits.

The Ohio State University’s National Center for the Middle Market regularly surveys more than 1,000 midmarket firms on business performance and prospects. The latest revenue indicators, covering the December quarter and full year 2016, are among the strongest recorded since the research began five years ago.

“Forty-eight percent of middle market companies grew through expansion into a new market in 2016,” according to the group. “Projections for future growth have risen each quarter and are now at the highest levels seen in two years.”

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Still Looking For The All-In-One Business Travel App? What’s That?

Corporations are looking for an all-in-one business travel app that doesn’t, and won’t, exist. Developers think messaging, natural language and “deep linking” between apps bring the notion as close to reality as possible.

A single mobile app that does everything sounds great. Why? Simplicity. It’s natural for procurement pros to seek fewer suppliers. It’s easiest to point travelers to one thing. It’s better for compliance if that thing does more. It’s handy to have a single point of contact for help.

However, this scenario has drawbacks and loses out to realities. Not the least of these is the fact that employers can make suggestions but often they do not control what travelers download. They’ll always find something better if it exists.

“One of the cautionary tales of the all-in-one travel app, which a lot of corporations are asking for, is that the more things a mobile app does, the more watered-down it becomes,” said BCD Travel VP for digital and product strategy Will Pinnell during our mobile tech Teleconference last month. “The best apps and the ones that are most-used are the ones that have a single purpose — a weather app, Uber.”

“A lot of clients are interested in a Swiss Army Knife app,” said American Express Global Business Travel VP digital traveler Evan Konwiser. The industry debate over the right approach, he said, is “very real.”

Festive Road consultant Aurélie Krau had sparked the conversation by raising the idea of a “one-stop shop” or “single point of entry instead of having so many apps.” But she also agreed with Pinnell.

Others have raised the all-in-one idea, notably BCD Travel CEO John Snyder. In 2015 he told The Beat that buyers are “sort of waiting for that perfect travel app to be developed and be out on the market. We’re well along the way on that. By the middle to the end of next year, it will be the all-encompassing app that folks are looking for.”

Asked during a phone interview last week about the comments, Snyder conjured Bill Clinton: “It depends on how you define all-encompassing.” Later, he asked rhetorically and answered correctly, “Will it do everything every traveler wants it to do? No. That would be impossible.”

In a separate conversation, Konwiser agreed that such an app is a “hope and a prayer at this point. There isn’t a tool that can do everything, but you can tie together the right elements and be in the center of it to provide some key services.”

Business travel apps often do include simple functionality for ancillary needs. But those that specialize in a given service go deeper. These may appeal especially to frequent or international travelers, restaurant hunters or amateur weather gurus. Some like to explore when they have downtime. Others seek alternatives to typical transportation and lodging choices.

IT pro John Morhous is about to mark 10 years working in travel. Now chief strategy officer for Flight Centre USA’s corporate brands, Morhous cut the all-in-one seekers a break during an interview this week:

“Every client asks for the same thing. It’s around simplifying the traveler experience. I really think it comes down to them trying to find a way to provide an excellent user experience to travelers, knowing that what they do now is [junk]. And there’s some naiveté on what’s possible. Some travel managers don’t understand mobile. One app to rule them all? There’s no way to get a boarding pass without Delta’s app. You can’t get keyless entry without Hilton’s. It comes from the legacy command-and-control mindset with not as much understanding of some of the practical challenges.

Mobile deep linking, which allows apps to direct the user to a specific location in another app, helps cut through app clutter. FCM’s Sam app sends customers directly to taxi alternatives, for example.

“The beauty is we’re living in an API world and we’re supposed to be able to connect different services more easily,” said Krau.

Tell that to app developers, said Morhous. Some are more of a breeze than others.

Messaging platforms, contextual intelligence and natural language processing may help, as well. Long press on the button, tell Siri what you need.

“In the end, the app is just an interface,” said Roadmap CEO Jeroen van Velzen during the Teleconference. “Many people relate mobile to the app, but roughly 80 percent of the work we’re doing isn’t the work on the app but it’s trying to understand what the travelers are trying to figure out. Whether you put a bot on top of that or a voice interface, it’s just another interface.”

Van Velzen half-joked about a smartphone with a single button. The user presses the button and the software just does what it has to because it knows everything else that is going on. With a trip, that would be weather, flights, check-in status, etc.

Language parsing with regard to business travel apps isn’t just for non-techies and journalists. Roadmap bills itself as “the ultimate all-in-one white label business travel app.” Asked to explain that, van Velzen argued that inasmuch as Roadmap can guide the traveler to the appropriate tools, his app is all in one.

“My clients aren’t asking for, technically speaking, one app,” he said during a followup interview. “They want one interface. Through the eyes of the consumer, it’s one app.”

Van Velzen agreed that, technically, it’s not one app. “But that’s semantics, right?”

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TripLingo Translates Roaming Plans For Additional Travel Management Value

As with areas like expense, meetings, payment and risk, mobile phones and plans don’t fall within the typical travel manager’s bailiwick. Building on its language and Wi-Fi dialing capabilities, TripLingo is looking to challenge that norm. Its latest service helps companies that do not have a centralized mobile phone program to manage excess charges.

From one country or region to the next, there are loads of cell phone networks. Keeping track of them isn’t a human task, let alone one for a busy international traveler. Knowing which plans to enroll in for lower roaming fees is even harder.

“This isn’t a big issue when the entire company is on a centralized mobile plan managed by IT and they have huge contracts with an AT&T or Verizon and a centralized companywide data plan,” said TripLingo founder and CEO Jesse Maddox. “In these cases the rates are already negotiated.”

An unrelated firm called Visage partners with Concur to pull expense and travel data, and advise clients on when to activate discounted roaming programs from their existing mobile providers. But “most” companies don’t have such providers, according to Maddox. And sorting through “180 different plans from 30 carriers” is all but impossible.

Based on an employee’s travel itinerary, home location and carrier, TripLingo can recommend phone plans, even for temporary use. The service is now live with a large customer whose procurement official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the firm’s media policies. The manager said that for safety and security reasons, the company wants its travelers to keep their phones on and connected when they travel internationally. The result is big roaming charges.

TripLingo founder and CEO Jesse Maddox

Now, when travelers book international trips, they get an email recommending an add-on plan, cutting down on those expenses. “IT is happy,” said the official. “Finance is happy.”

For some travel managers, it may be challenging to establish a program like this since it can cross multiple departments. According to surveys by Business Travel News between 2013 and 2015, no more than 15 percent of travel managers have responsibility for mobile phone contracts.

“It’s not usually a travel manager’s responsibility or budget, but they have the data and the ability to drive savings,” said Maddox. “So for travel managers taking a holistic approach to it and being proactive, it’s a great place to add value. There’s only so much you can get from air, car and hotel.”

ITW director for strategic sourcing, global travel and expense management services Cathy Sharpe is a TripLingo booster. A subset of the company’s approximately 14,000 travelers logged in to TripLingo more than 1,000 times during a recent 30-day span. They enjoy its language and Wi-Fi calling features. ITW hasn’t pursued the new roaming management service, but Sharpe said it piqued IT’s interest.

“A lot of companies have just gone to reimbursing a fixed amount, but that doesn’t really work for the international traveler,” said Sharpe. “You can’t just leave them high and dry out there. So we’re partnering with IT on it.”

Asked about travel management personnel reaching beyond their fiefdoms for such services, Sharpe drew a parallel with expense management.

“Looking back 12 years, as a travel manager I had nothing to do with expense,” she said. “If I asked travel managers how many had responsibility for both travel and expense, no one did. But now most travel managers have something to do with the expense side, too.” She said Concur “forced that hand,” and similarly TripLingo “puts a spotlight on that mobile phone spending and how we’re managing it.”

TripLingo’s Maddox sees TMCs as the main means to get the service to end clients. It recently signed a partnership with BCD Travel. TripLingo has a few dozen enterprise customers.

‘Instant Confidence’

Meanwhile, TripLingo has updated some other facets of its app. Last summer it added an image translator, allowing users to photograph a sign or menu, read the translation and hear the pronunciation.

Sharpe said this and the app’s other tools — the phrasebook, plus language learning, safety tips and culture info — all add up to “instant confidence” for travelers when they’re abroad.

These intangibles mean a lot, said TripLingo clients.

Is it possible to calculate the app’s return on investment? Savings can be attributed to the Wi-Fi dialer by comparing minutes used versus what they would cost on a cell plan — but otherwise, not really.

“It’s a very easy-to-use app that more than pays for itself,” said Tokyo Electron manager of travel and fleet services Dianne Bradley.

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Privacy Shield Alive For Now As Europe, U.S. Set Annual Review

A European Union commissioner said Friday that the first annual review of the Privacy Shield data protection framework would take place in September, supporting optimism for the scheme’s prospects. Uncertainty had been brewing as the European Commission threatened it would dismantle the program without reassurances by the Trump administration.

The review “will be an important milestone where we need to check that everything is in place and working well,” said European Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality Věra Jourová during a Friday appearance at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. “This first review will be crucial to continuing this mechanism. We need to cover several important topics. One will be whether or not there are positive or negative changes in the American legislation.”

Jourová had previously tweeted optimistic comments about talks this week with U.S. officials on the framework. Yet, a Commerce Department press official on Friday morning said any statement about the outcome of talks was “kind of up in the air at the moment.” By Friday afternoon, an official said Commerce would not be commenting on the situation.

Věra Jourová, European Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality
Image: EC – Audiovisual Service/Mauro Bottaro

Even if the Privacy Shield survives the new U.S. presidency, it could be impacted by legal challenges in Europe.

Nearly 2,000 U.S. companies are participating in the Privacy Shield framework. The self-certification program counts several U.S. travel management companies and other industry providers as signatories. It lays out protocols related to transfers of personal data on European citizens to the United States. Without it, companies may need to comply with the regulations of each individual country from which they export data.

“If they were to repeal Privacy Shield, it puts more friction into doing deals,” said Oversight Systems CEO Patrick Taylor. “Laws of different countries force clients to behave in different ways. They have to comply with that and that then forces that on me.”

An expense fraud detection company, Oversight in December announced its certification under the framework. World Travel Inc. was the first travel management company to join, followed by others including FCM, Omega World Travel, Ovation Travel Group and Travel and Transport.

“We’ve always viewed Privacy Shield as a tool in the toolbox that we can use to facilitate cross-border data transfers,” according to World Travel Inc. EVP and corporate counsel Maribeth Minella. “If Privacy Shield does not work for a client — now or later — our alternative is always to put in place a secure data transfer that meets applicable laws, rules and/or regulations. There are many moving parts connected to cross-border transfers that range from different requirements from country to country, the upcoming General Data Protection Regulation, Brexit, etc. The key for any business is to stay informed and be able to put in practice, quickly, administrative and technical solutions that meet a client’s needs.”

Other companies including American Express Global Business Travel and BCD Travel have said all along they would use other means.

According to BCD Travel EVP for technology, products and innovation Russell Howell, the TMC’s U.S. operating company “decided last year to not certify under the Privacy Shield, the replacement to the U.S. Safe Harbor Framework that was declared invalid in October 2015. Instead, we are pursuing Binding Corporate Rules, Model Clauses and other more highly regarded mechanisms used to transfer personal data between the European Union, U.K. and the U.S. It appears we made the right decision given current concerns over whether … Privacy Shield will survive as a long-term solution in the European Union and the U.K.”

Model clauses are “doable but it’s just much more painful” than a broad program like Privacy Shield, according to Taylor.

“Information security has made business harder,” he said. “If we wonder why productivity numbers don’t go up more, I could argue all the time we spend on security is decreasing productivity. But you can’t not do it. The threats are very real. Our network is probed by potential hackers regularly.”

Of course, self-certification and the other commitments do not in themselves protect personal data. Taylor said Oversight doesn’t house personally identifiable information, but “we act like we do.”

The company employs data-protection best practices from storing only the data it needs to employing firewalls, encryption, intrusion detection systems, third-party tests and regular software updates. Only those who need to see data to do their jobs have access to it.

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Today In Chatbots: Concur’s Hipmunk Demos, HelloGbye Launches

Concur still isn’t saying much about its plans for Hipmunk, but a client conference this month featured a roadmap for its natural language processing capabilities. According to a March 15 tweet by Concur VP of business development R.J. Filipski, Hipmunk showed attendees it was enabling “chatbot-based business travel booking via Concur and your preferred TMC.”

Meanwhile, a new NLP-based app for small businesses called HelloGbye last week joined Apple’s store.

These apps and numerous startups are applying natural language, chatbots and artificial intelligence to business travel. NLP allows travelers to type or voice (using Siri and the like) requests for travel options into apps using everyday talk. Algorithms and data on the back end return personalized results and purchase capabilities.

According to a presentation document obtained by The Company Dime, Hipmunk co-founder Adam Goldstein showed clients one way Concur is using the travel planning company it acquired last year. The presentation started by describing the beginnings of Hello Hipmunk as “a simple email bot.” The idea was to “take the agony out of group travel planning by allowing customers to ‘cc’ a bot into their email conversation [and] allow the bot to respond back with hotel results,” according to the slide deck. The Wall Street Journal reported on March 14 that Concur has rolled out this feature.

Hipmunk-bot

Image: Thinkstock

The presentation indicated that the simple bot would grow in two directions — one as “core functionality” and another in channels like email, Slack, Facebook Messenger and Microsoft’s Skype. Goldstein also noted functionality for fare alerts and budget-based searching. A partnership with Facebook on payments apparently is in the works.

It’s not clear how experimental some of the demonstrated features are. Concur would only confirm that Hipmunk “is exploring ways to incorporate data from Concur Travel to offer more personalized and relevant experiences for business travelers.”

According to the presentation, the “Hello Hipmunk team has created extensive NLP and back-end bot ‘services’ to power future Concur bots.” These include “in-trip management capabilities” by Concur and TripIt — “becoming a true travel agent.” Allowing travelers to change, cancel and rebook “in the channel of their choice via bot” would deflect customer service calls, the presentation noted. The “long-term vision” for Hello Hipmunk includes end-to-end travel services — “on par” with the web — that manifest a conversational, personalized “front-end travel agent experience,” according to Goldstein’s slides.

Just how much new NLP services are aiming to go without human travel agents is one of the ways they’re differentiating from each another.

“I see an evolution from this phone where you have tons of apps on it to a future where, for example, my Facebook Messenger right now is a mix of people and companies and bots,” said Sabre Labs head Mark McSpadden. “Now some of those companies I’m talking to have people behind them so I’m actually chatting with a real person when I chat. Some have automated that chat process so that … I am interacting with a computer system. What gets interesting is [whether] things evolve so that you blur the line. Maybe I’m starting by talking to a company and it’s the bot that is helping me but seamlessly I can transition to an agent if the bot can’t help me.”

The founders at HelloGbye, who released their app on the Apple iTunes store last week, believe users should be able to do everything without human intervention.

“Where the intelligence lies is in taking that text and applying an algorithm to it that understands the context,” said HelloGbye head of marketing Greg Apple. “We have a rich conversational platform that’s fully digital. No humans. We have a semantic capability to understand what you’re asking for and a sentient capability that understands the context of your request.”

Apple acknowledged that other providers may be offering “a richer experience” because there are people behind the scenes who “are smarter than machines … but they can’t scale.”

HelloGbye partnered with American Express for its artificial intelligence component. Amex’s credit card data helps deliver to users ranked sets of hotel properties from which to book.

HelloGbye has subscription-based individual and small business programs that offer access to preferred hotel rates from Priceline. Users can earn cash back and make changes to airline reservations without incurring an extra fee (airline change fees still apply). Subscribers still pay a fee when they make changes by phone, handled by Ontario-based fulfillment partner Flight Network Inc. “We’re not saying ‘no’ to calling, but our goal is to automate whatever we can,” said Apple.

Asked if the technology could be made available to other travel agencies, Apple said the company is open to it and already heard from some.

Additional info: McSpadden and officials from American Express Global Business Travel, BCD Travel and others spoke last month on a Teleconference about the challenges of adjusting travel operations to incorporate bots.

Requests for information on where Evature fits into Concur’s natural language functionality went unreturned. Evature provided the technology for Concur’s mobile app voice-powered search as part of a 2012 partnership.

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Amadeus To Retire ‘Workhorse’ Mainframes

Amadeus expects this year to reach a major milestone, decommissioning the last of its mainframes. This is the culmination of a multi-year process to achieve “more flexibility and resiliency.”

Sabre isn’t there yet. Under new CEO Sean Menke, the company has embarked on a general tech upgrade program. “We will make investments in our IT infrastructure this year to modernize, drive efficiency in development and ongoing technology costs, further enhance the stability and security of our network and accelerate our shift to open source and cloud-based solutions,” said CFO Rick Simonson in February.

Improving speed-to-market, flexibility and cost efficiency are key goals, according to Sabre.

Amadeus and Sabre together provide reservations technology to airlines flying more than half of all passengers boarded globally, according to Travel Technology Research. They are the two largest players, with China’s TravelSky a distant third and the rest of the market highly fragmented. Amadeus and Sabre also lead the markets for airline departure control and inventory management systems, according to T2RL.

With many media outlets blaming system problems on antiquated technology, readers may hope that these upgrades will tackle the gremlins behind recent airline IT outages. Unfortunately, the premise is oversimplified. Say an airline’s systems go down and flights stop. It blows up on social media. Maybe the company declines to tell reporters exactly what happened. Journalists then quote industry observers who guess at the cause. Often not airline IT experts, these observers cannot resist assuming that old technology is involved, and that old tech is bad tech.

An article last week in The Wall Street Journal attributed problems to complexity and implicated “aging” reservations systems. But those systems did not cause the referenced outages, according to the article itself. The problem-causing systems cited by the Journal were a computer router, a power system, a piece of texting software and the Internet.

Image: IBM

When the media mention “antiquated technology,” they typically are referring to mainframes running the Transaction Processing Facility (TPF) operating system. When IBM invented these in the 1960s, some of the hardware looked like oversized reel-to-reel audio recorders. These systems and their successors are known for being secure, reliable and crazy fast. The hardware has evolved. The latest mainframes look more like Batman’s refrigerator, as one Bloomberg editor joked.

Originally created by IBM and Sabre, TPF software that runs on these mainframes is still a top choice for computing environments asked to handle the highest volumes of transactions by the largest number of users. Almost all of the biggest banks, insurers, retailers and airlines still use it, according to IBM. Global distribution systems were built on it.

Nowadays, IBM’s z/TPF mainframes also can run more modern software. Airline IT companies for years have been moving functions in steps either to that new software within the mainframes or to new hardware as well.

“There’s nothing wrong with TPF,” said one former Amadeus executive who preferred to be unnamed since he’s no longer with the company. “It’s a workhorse. Everyone knows it’s limited but I don’t blame TPF for outages. It’s stable.”

The Amadeus migration is more about commercial endeavors than IT reliability, he said. “It’s like a religious debate. There are reasons for and against.”

TPF has its flaws. Finding programmers can be a challenge. It’s rigid. Of late, the limitations have made it difficult to keep pace with airlines’ retailing ambitions. These downsides change the equation.

Sabre does not run everything on mainframes. Some components don’t need their processing power. The company has moved shopping, inventory, customer profiles, availability, ancillaries and other applications to open-systems environments.

It was a failure in the pricing system that hurt a handful of Sabre’s airline clients last fall, Sabre executives said last month. The company will spend $20 million this year to move that pricing system from a Hewlett Packard Enterprise-managed facility to an internal one, they revealed. Mainframes were not to blame there; nevertheless, Sabre is planning for life without them.

“We will continue to replace mainframe services with open systems services where it drives innovation and value for our customers,” Sabre senior vice president for delivery solutions Dolly Wagner-Wilkins said Tuesday. “The discussion at Sabre is not if but how. Over time, as the marketplace evolves, we expect the mainframe to be completely replaced with new services.”

Amadeus “has almost completed its move,” according to a February statement attributed to Amadeus IT Group VP for reservation, distribution and mid- and back-office Denis Lacroix. “The rationale here is that these mainframes are very heavy and centralized, and today’s world is no longer centralized.

“A number of years ago, Amadeus decided to decommission its mainframes and move all its core applications to a large network of Linux computers,” Lacroix explained. “Beyond Linux, we have a number of open source initiatives ongoing, and have built our own cloud platform called Amadeus Cloud Services. The open source model has had a massive impact on how the company works, giving us a host of benefits — from the collaborative work sharing ideas and experiences with other open-source companies, to being able to hire the right talent that can help us to stay ahead of competition.”

Additional info: For Sabre, the overall modernization effort is a driver behind recent layoffs, according to Simonson’s fourth-quarter presentation to investors.

No longer a provider of res systems per se, Travelport years ago moved certain services to open systems, including fares and shopping. Most of the new capabilities the company has built use open systems, but the mainframe remains “the system of record,” according to CEO Gordon Wilson. He said Travelport has not found anything better than z/TPF to do the “back-end system work” for its GDSs. “There are very few players who were TPF-based that are not still using the system of record, albeit having moved the more dynamic stuff into open systems,” Wilson said during a February interview.

Wilson also said Travelport is adding services to provide disaster recovery for Delta’s systems. “In the event of a systems issue or a fire, they have asked us to provide those services,” he said. “They are moving from another provider. We’re building another data center which is an investment we are making. We are going live with that in the summertime.”

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Taxing Calls For Tracking

Tax jurisdictions around the nation and globe increasingly are going after companies for revenues owed based on business activities within their borders facilitated by travel. Ernst & Young last year pointed out “a significant increase … in both business travel and nonresident income tax enforcement” by the state of New York. That’s not the only state that stands to gain by increasing audits.

What does this have to do with corporate travel? Travel departments often get roped in when there’s an audit or when a company has decided to get its act together in case of one.

“Inevitably, corporate travel gets stuck with this because if anyone knows how to get to the data, they do,” said Monaeo co-founder Nishant Mittal. A winner of this year’s Concur app center “partner of the year” award, Monaeo offers automation to track travel activity under the lens of possible tax liability. Mittal and his partner created the company six years ago after getting caught up in the tax issue as travelers.

Monaeo co-founder Nishant Mittal

The biggest challenge to better preparation is that no one owns the whole process, Mittal said. The head of tax typically handles enterprise tax issues. These include the management of permanent establishment and BEPS. Employee tax issues often fall within mobility, human resources or payroll. These include expatriate taxability, stock compensation allocation and payroll withholding. The former bucket of issues likely does not require employee engagement, while the latter may.

With a background in global mobility tax, Vic Arora co-founded Blackspark Corp. in 2011. He said he’s never seen a corporate travel department responsible for overseeing the issue. “They’re involved in the implementation side of things,” he said. “Generally we start working with leadership in tax and HR and payroll on the more advanced inquiries, where the company has a mandate in place and a budget.”

Arora said on rare occasions companies will tackle the issue using a pre-travel authorization process, in which case corporate travel is involved. Even if companies do not go that far, he noted, “you certainly need a consolidated process where even data you don’t have can be collected. An open travel policy is not a defense with tax collectors.”

The process requires tracking and examination of travel and expense records for visibility into where employees have been and why. For tax purposes, Arora said, travel itineraries rank as the highest-priority data source followed by private charter information, card swipe data and expense details.

“These are also the sources that tax departments ask for during an audit,” Mittal said. “Ten years ago, it was not worth New York state’s time to go through a room full of paper receipts and itineraries and figure out how much to collect. The ROI on that effort was very low. Now, it’s ‘give me a thumb drive of your travel and expense data’ and they have technology to process that data. Governments are investing in this. It’s only going to grow.”

Accounting firms of course help clients with these issues, but Blackspark and Monaeo specialize in automating a largely manual process. They pull in the data and run it against databases of tax codes and jurisdictions. They can then warn companies about potential liabilities, or at least make sure they’re accounted for at tax time.

Blackspark has not received a request for a mobile app, though Arora said it would build one if asked.

Monaeo provides an app to individuals and enterprises that uses GPS to track movements. Mittal said this offers more accurate information than expense and travel data, but also has drawbacks. Notably, some users are not comfortable being tracked. Risk management providers face similar issues. Another option for Monaeo clients is to load software on company laptops, he said. Employees still would opt in to use it.

Most organizations are checking expense records and time sheets, rather than putting the app on employee phones, said Mittal.

Both providers consult with clients before establishing pricing on subscription-based models.

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Concur Partnership Over, Egencia Announces New Expense Management Solutions

The partnership agreement between Concur and Egencia will end on March 31, Concur confirmed Tuesday in a written statement.

Declining to comment on what Concur “is or isn’t doing,” Egencia VP of global product and marketing Michael Gulmann said, “We’d like to partner with everyone.”

The firms commented in response to information in a Concur memo obtained by The Company Dime. In it, Concur informed travel management company partners that its “TripLink” relationship with Egencia would be over at the end of this month. “The TripLink feature allowing Egencia to pass non-Concur Travel itineraries to the Concur platform and Concur Expense is no longer available to new clients,” Concur wrote.

Concur’s statement indicated it would “work closely with Egencia to ensure our customers are taken care of through this transition.” Gulmann said he was expecting an ongoing relationship with Concur for clients already using the linkage.

The change follows a Feb. 16 Egencia announcement of plans for integrated travel and expense management through affiliate Traveldoo and other expense providers. Egencia unveiled its Open Sync service, which allows users “to consolidate receipts and credit card transactions directly in Egencia, and then feed them in one click into their expense system.”

Expedia Concur

Bellevue, Wash.
Image: Heston Photography for Visit Bellevue

“This product is currently in beta and will be piloted with a select group of customers and expense partners,” according to Egencia.

In the memo to TMCs, Concur described its 2013 agreement with Egencia as the “first effort to capture non-Concur Travel bookings under the banner of TripLink.” Since then, Concur wrote, TMC resellers and preferred partners “have engaged with TripLink by writing to our itinerary API and integrating” with the Compleat mid-office solution. “These are the areas where Concur will focus going forward.”

The Bellevue, Wash., neighbors nearly four years ago announced the “global” partnership for mutual clients using Concur Open Booking, the former name for TripLink. “Itinerary details, e-receipts and credit card charges are all matched,” the pair said.

According to coverage in The Beat, Egencia officials in 2015 and 2016 said the two companies had a “prominent” partnership that was “much stronger” three years after it started. The publication last October quoted Expedia CEO Dara Khosrowshahi as saying that Egencia did not “want to be in the expense business.” This despite a stated desire to make Traveldoo “more of a global product.”

Then last month, Khosrowshahi told financial analysts “we are working to dramatically improve our capabilities on the expense management side.”

Speaking Tuesday evening by phone, Gulmann said he did not see this as a reversal. “We’re not going into expense management,” he said. “I don’t want to solve, and we’re not solving, the financial side of expense. A lot of expense companies have done a fantastic job of coding and connecting to ERP systems. This is not Egencia wanting to solve the back end.”

Also an Expedia company, Traveldoo separately last month announced its own connectivity and partnership solutions for TMCs. Does Traveldoo have a U.S. product? “Not at this time,” said Gulmann.

How important is integrated travel and expense to Egencia clients? “Some customers have a huge need,” said Gulmann. “Many others do not.” He said Egencia is not ready to share whether expense integration would come with an added fee or be built into travel management services.

The breakup follows termination of a reseller arrangement between American Express Global Business Travel and Concur, revealed in October by Business Travel News. That news followed GBT’s August announcement to acquire Concur competitor KDS. Concur declined to comment on the GBT relationship.

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Airline-GDS Negotiations Heat Up As Parties Try To Sway Lawsuit’s Outcome

[UPDATE, March 22, 2017: U.S. District Judge Lorna Schofield denied American Airlines’ renewed request for declaratory judgment relief. She wrote that the request was “untimely” and “otherwise inappropriate.” Although American’s negotiations with Sabre for a new contract “may be newly imminent, they are not unexpected,” according to Schofield. “Reconsideration on account of a changed, but entirely expected, circumstance is not warranted.”]

The impact of the US Airways v. Sabre trial remains uncertain as motions fly and an appeal looms. Concerned that the effect of the verdict may be limited, airlines are urging the judge to more broadly define it. American Airlines is looking to bolster its position in talks with Sabre for a content agreement that is due to expire this year, according to court filings. United could be next. Delta has been quieter.

With these matters on the horizon for corporate travel professionals, the foreground features deadlines on International Airline Group’s GDS deals. Multiple sources indicated distribution agreements with IAG airlines including British Airways and Iberia are due to expire in June. Some analysts think the company may establish a surcharging program much like Lufthansa Group’s.

Airline companies can be measured by planes, passengers or revenue. For all intents and purposes, the aforementioned carriers plus Air France/KLM are the world’s biggest. As such, the economics of key airline-GDS relationships over the next year or so are in for an evolution, if not a revolution. What could this mean for travel management companies and their clients? Added cost. Tweaked contracts. Uncertainty. Pressure for alternatives.

The changes will differ depending on location, client profile and competitive positioning. Just because, say, British Airways might surcharge GDS bookings doesn’t mean that’s the best strategy for partner American Airlines. AA has far more exposure to its (far larger) domestic market. From that base and for the global corporate market, it has two serious rivals. AA would be hard-pressed to maintain a surcharge program that goes unmatched, as Lufthansa Group has for a year-and-a-half.

IAG CEO Willie Walsh
Image: Stuart Bailey

Further differentiation in GDS pricing is the outcome analysts at Morgan Stanley are modeling, at least with regard to the European carriers. The firm’s Feb. 26 research note on Amadeus suggested Lufthansa’s fee may not go unmatched for long.

“We had thought IAG was very unlikely to make a Lufthansa-type surcharging move, but see it as possible now versus very unlikely previously,” according to Morgan Stanley equities analysts led by Adam Wood. Commenting that “we think” IAG’s GDS deals expire next quarter, the analysts put the chance of a surcharge at 40 percent.

Another analyst who follows Amadeus declined to be quoted by name so as to protect the integrity of commentary he sells to investors. According to this expert, an IAG surcharge is “more likely than not.”

IAG executives in November told analysts they had a new distribution strategy that would reduce cost and increase control, according to company transcripts. They said at least parts of the plan will be revealed this year.

“We have aligned all of our GDS contracts — the negotiation is an IAG negotiation,” said IAG CEO Willie Walsh. He continued:

I believe there is a role for the GDS. We have used them. We will, I think, continue to use them where they are relevant to our business. If they are not relevant to our business, and some of their pricing models suggest that they are not relevant to our business, then we will look at alternatives. However, the plan that we will put in place will be a plan that is appropriate to IAG. We are not going to model this on what anyone else has done because we are not the same as Lufthansa, for example. What they have done may have worked for Lufthansa. It is not necessarily what will work for us.

The unnamed equities analyst believes IAG will no go so far as Lufthansa did. This could mean differentiation by market. In a model where any surcharge is added to the fare, airlines can modulate it based on competitive pricing. “This is not about cost-cutting,” said the analyst. “It’s cost reallocation and revenue management.”

A separate airline technology contracts expert also declined to be quoted by name to protect client relationships. He supported the concept of different approaches by market. According to Morgan Stanley, airlines are less interested in paying GDS firms for simple bookings made in their home markets. For complicated trips booked in foreign markets, GDS distribution is more highly valued. What’s in between varies by degree. The concept of stratified pricing isn’t new, but the tech expert thinks it will become “much more complex, because value-add is the key.”

Noting that Air France’s GDS contracts are due next year, Morgan Stanley analysts described the Lufthansa program as a “win-win” for airlines and Amadeus. Airlines have more control over distribution and can sell more ancillary services when travelers come to them directly. Amadeus gets a higher fee for bookings it still processes, as well as software revenue for new technology built for Lufthansa.

But someone is paying. That would be you, employers of those who travel for work.

The tech expert argued that the surcharge model could not happen in the United States largely due to Expedia’s clout but also as a result of competition. “If the airlines all do it together, it will appear as though they have colluded,” he said. Still, he thinks the U.S. market will go through a process of identifying what distribution services the customer is willing to pay for.

That may depend on the outcome of the latest machinations in the US Airways v. Sabre trial. After the jury found for the airline — that is, American Airlines — Sabre asked the court to set aside the verdict or order a new trial. Its arguments remain under consideration, and Sabre has promised an appeal if they fail.

Meanwhile, airlines have filed their own motions in an effort to clarify the effect of the verdict through a legally binding declaration by the court. Sabre has argued the jury’s decision only applies to past contracts.

Sabre ‘Open’ To Dropping Full Content Contract With AA

According to a court filing, American claimed it “currently faces demands from Sabre to renew imminently the same contract provisions that the jury declared unlawful.” These may include prohibitions against surcharges, content discrimination or direct connect programs. In response, Sabre told the court “there have been no such demands.”

“After the verdict, American asked Sabre for a proposal that did not include terms the jury in this case found to be unlawful,” according to AA. “Tellingly, Sabre has failed to respond.”

According to Sabre, “Putting aside that all contract discussions have been preliminary, Sabre has in fact told American … that Sabre would provide American with a variety of commercial models to consider, including a PCA model.” The “PCA model” refers to a non-full-content agreement in which the airline pays more for booked segments but is free to differentiate content in other channels and, potentially, to surcharge GDS bookings. In a separate filing, Sabre’s general counsel affirmed that Sabre “has informed American that Sabre is open to a PCA agreement.”

Sabre pointed out that the court declined a similar September 2015 request by AA for declaratory judgement. The plaintiff “provides no reasonable justification for reconsidering the court’s ruling, and instead simply rehashes the very arguments the court previously (and correctly) rejected,” according to Sabre. Its attorneys claimed that AA’s and Sabre’s 2012 settlement agreement bars litigation between the parties until at least late 2019. But an AA filing argued that this prohibition does not apply to all circumstances.

The current AA-Sabre contract expires “within a matter of months,” according to AA attorneys.

In its own filing, United indicated that it has a “multiyear” Sabre agreement that began in May 2013. Absent changes to the prevailing contract parameters, United’s attorneys wrote, the carrier “will be faced with what it expects will be difficult negotiations with Sabre when the Sabre agreement is up for renewal.”

Half of United’s bookings go through GDSs and about one in four United customers is ticketed through Sabre, the carrier noted. “Sabre has indicated during contract negotiations that it would only enter into an agreement that did not include its full content provisions if United would agree to pay Sabre fees that were so high that Sabre’s proposal was not economically feasible,” according to United.

Along these lines from a European point of view, the Morgan Stanley analysts wrote that they expect GDSs to “maintain their higher price points that they have gained as airlines turn off full-content agreements. The next negotiation with … Lufthansa will be very interesting as at that point it will have made a concerted effort to get as much business as it can direct. What is left on the GDS (which we still expect to be the majority of bookings) is clearly business that Lufthansa has struggled to shift or which it is uneconomical to shift. We question why a GDS would lower its pricing for those bookings.”

Lufthansa Group also filed a court document supporting AA, seeking a judgment that could help its own case against Sabre in a Texas state court over the surcharge program.

Attorneys for Air Canada wrote that the airline’s “current agreement with Sabre includes parity provisions that deny Air Canada the flexibility to work to expand and enhance its partnerships with other, lower-cost GDSs.”

Sabre dismissed the cooperation of these other carriers, arguing that they merely “seek to gain leverage in ongoing business negotiations of distinct issues in separate contracts.” For example, “Air Canada’s contract with Sabre contains no full-content provision, and the airline’s principal complaint appears to be that it made certain concessions (e.g., a higher booking fee and no guarantee of a neutral screen display) in exchange for that freedom.”

AA had said it also expected Alaska Airlines, Virgin America and JetBlue to support its motion.

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Startup Applies Policy To Web Buys For Small Businesses

This site’s readers are well aware of the parade of startups looking to tackle small-market or unmanaged business travel. None has gone quite as niche as Compl.ai. The new firm from Daniel Senyard, formerly of Tripchamp, is aiming to bring a policy tool to small businesses. That’s right, it’s a travel policy startup.

Reminiscent of ProcureApp — which disappeared within Runzheimer — Compl.ai for the moment exists as a gestating extension on the Google Chrome browser. The small piece of software is installed on the browser and watches as travelers shop online for business travel. It guides them on policy, tracks their spending and reports reasons for over-spending.

The platform allows managers to create “lightweight” but customized policies. A gamification component contemplates upgrades and lounge passes for compliant travelers.

Daniel Senyard

Compl.ai founder and CEO Daniel Senyard

Senyard is the latest innovator using software to bring some benefits of managed travel to firms that otherwise have nothing. Although it has accelerated in the past couple years, the trend goes back to 2012 when TripIt first offered a business version for a low monthly fee to departments and work groups.

“We’re not trying to match big online booking tools and expense tools,” said Senyard. “We’re targeting way down-market, more the growing companies. If you look at the evolution of software as a service, it’s a lot less of the top-down mandate. SlackTrello — these applications are introduced by a department as opposed to a chief operating officer.”

He said the solution could “in theory” work for larger businesses. While he has been researching interest among firms that spend under $1 million on travel, Senyard noted that there are bigger companies with no travel policy.

Compl.ai’s closed beta starts this month with a handful of companies employing people Senyard knows personally. They’ll do some experimentation with its minimum viable product.

The business model is to be determined. The company could seek affiliate fees from travel sites based on directing traffic their way. Senyard knows he does not want to make bookings or charge for transactions.

While he wants to “make our mistakes on one platform,” Senyard said he has an idea for mobile, which offers a bigger challenge to the concept than desktop browsers.

To scale, Senyard faces the same issues innumerable companies have when it comes to getting the brand in front of small and middle-sized prospects. He hinted that he could pursue channel partners in financial or HR circles, like Serko and Fraedom.

Compl.ai received support from startup accelerator Capital Factory.

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CWT: Still Plenty Of Low-Hanging Fruit On Clients’ Mobile Wish Lists

Many software builders during the past several years moved toward a development process that involves clients in more steps along the way. This “agile” method allows them to prove the utility of smaller components of the technology, avoiding the commitment involved with major releases. This can increase speed to market for top-of-the-list features.

Carlson Wagonlit Travel shifted to this approach starting last year. Now clients will see shorter development cycles and more frequent informational updates. With mobile, for example, customers this year can expect quarterly communications about the development roadmap. They should see the next bulletin in March.

Amir Kirshenboim, chief technology officer for CWT’s digital division, offered some glimpses of the mobile plan in a Feb. 13 phone interview. Clients can expect better design continuity with other CWT systems, more personalization and more global hotel content. CWT is considering air bookings, too.

Mobile app development isn’t cheap, so it’s important to be confident about development priorities. Kirshenboim noted that the digital strategy under relatively new leadership in CEO Kurt Ekert and CTO Andrew Jordan means the CWT To Go app would no longer be funded particularly by hotel booking revenue.

“Our mobile channel is part of the overall digital strategy,” said Kirshenboim. “Our CEO and shareholders believe a best-in-class customer experience eventually will fuel a more successful business for us. There will be KPIs, but the reason we’re building it is that it will benefit clients.”

That means delivering on what they want. Kirshenboim said identifying that is fairly easy, for now.

Amir Kirshenboim

Amir Kirshenboim, Carlson Wagonlit Travel chief technology officer for the digital business

“The basis of every product management exercise is trying to find the widest common denominator (not the lowest). What will achieve the most impact?” he asked rhetorically. “Wherever we can, we’re trying to avoid specific customizations because that would not scale. Scalable solutions have to be relevant to as much of our client base as possible. At this point, it’s not very hard. We’re pretty much at the beginning of the journey. We’re now still finding capabilities that 70 to 80 percent of our clients want.”

He said a few dozen large clients specifically anticipated one of the app’s latest enhancements — hotel rate caps and justifications for travelers exceeding them. A CWT press official said that about three in four large clients have defined hotel rate caps.

“Clients are setting caps and daily budgets, and there are lots of complicated rules that differ by city and country and currency,” said Kirshenboim. “As part of this, when they book over policy, they need a reason. Maybe the other hotel was booked or they need to be close to the airport. So we’re supporting that to the full extent now. It’s important to make sure we’re working toward client priorities. We’re trying to make travelers happy but also balancing client requirements.”

Is it hard to determine what to build when traveler desires and their employers’ needs differ? Yes and no, he said.

Mostly it’s a no, because a lot of features help both. He called this overlap the “golden circle.” Hotel bookings, for example, please travelers for productivity reasons. They also help companies maintain compliance and comprehensive reporting.

Kirshenboim said clients can expect to see more small features such as the rate caps and reason codes. “They will seem minor, but they will be very important to clients,” he noted.

Down the road, Kirshenboim said chatbots would “probably” become a mandatory mobile app feature.

“Bots and artificial intelligence will facilitate a better user experience — quick answers and productivity,” Kirshenboim said. “It requires significant infrastructure changes.”

In an earlier interview, Jordan had described Carla, CWT’s chatbot that has been trialed in China. “If you read the science, we are nowhere near as far forward as the world would like to think we are,” said Jordan. “AI still is nascent. If we can liberate agents and surface those [requests] in To Go, the useful time with which agents can do more complicated things goes up. We see that as an intersection between online and high-touch.”

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