[UPDATE, Feb 3, 2017: We published new information related to this article here.]
In the words of founder Jay Walker, Upside aims to convert unmanaged business travel to self-managed business travel. So why does the company have a website showing nine corporate travel management company partners?
Currently in beta, Upside sells customized air and hotel combo packages. Travelers earn gift cards for picking lower-cost options. The company says small businesses can shave as much as 15 percent from their travel expenses.
Upside is recruiting TMCs to help with what Walker called “a full-service travel buying alternative.” He said they would support “the small businessperson” without a managed travel program.
Yet, the Upside site describes something different: “a partnership platform for travel management companies, designed so you can effectively deliver Upside to your client base.” It talks about “capturing rogue travelers” and earning a “financial benefit when you introduce your clients to Upside.”
“All of this,” it continues, “and you can continue to provide reporting and duty of care for your clients with fully integrated trip data.”
The site initially quoted BCD Travel senior vice president Jennifer Townsend Walley on bringing Upside services to BCD clients. A TMC official said the quote has been revised because it “implied a connection between Upside’s offering and BCD’s customers which was misleading.”
Asked to clarify its involvement, BCD provided a statement attributed to Walley: “BCD Travel is both an investor and supplier to Upside. We provide Upside with agent support, including reservation changes, cancellations and fielding questions on gift cards. BCD agents assigned to Upside are called ‘Navigators.’ Because Upside sells directly to individual travelers rather than contracting with corporations, and doesn’t offer negotiated corporate rates, their offering doesn’t overlap with current BCD Travel customer needs.”
Other TMCs apparently on board to provide support to Upside include BCD Travel affiliates Activa Travel, Balboa Travel, Christopherson Business Travel, Fox World Travel and Ovation Travel. Also listed on Upside’s travel agency network site are MacNair Travel (an American Express Representative Network member), Omega World Travel and World-Wide Travel Associates (a Tzell Travel Group branch).
Christopherson CEO Mike Cameron said that because his agency is a BCD affiliate, he was asked to help advise Upside. “I saw this as an opportunity for us to gain some insight into a new model that is being offered to unmanaged business travelers,” he said.
According to Omega VP of information technology and data analytics Nadim Hajje, the TMC during the Upside beta is “providing some expertise and guidance” but not customer service.
Officials from Balboa, Fox World Travel, MacNair and Ovation said it’s too early to discuss their involvement. Activa and World-Wide Travel Associates did not respond to inquiries.
Speaking this month during The Company Dime’s Teleconference, Walker said: “We need to provide top quality customer service and top quality support. All those we have partnered with have helped us learn how to better manage business travel needs so that when we serve the small business customer they will get the same kind of service that now is only available through a TMC or through a disappearing breed of super travel agents. We plan to be the best service option for small business buyers and maybe even midsize business buyers.”
He noted that Upside will use call centers in the United States and the Philippines.
Will it be awkward working with some BCD Travel competitors when BCD has a minority stake in Upside? “No,” Walker said. “They have no access to our information. This is an open platform and we designed it to work with any travel supplier. We are happy to have them all.”
Upside officials declined to answer additional questions about the role TMCs will play.
Good Things In Opaque Packages
Whatever role that is, and regardless of exactly who the end users are, the product is packages. Upside isn’t selling any standalone airfares or hotel stays.
Best known as Priceline’s founder, Walker said packages haven’t taken off in corporate travel because available technology didn’t suffice. “Leisure packages work because the customer adapts to the package,” he explained. “In business, I have to be there for a 9:00 a.m. meeting downtown and need to be home by 4:00 p.m. There is no package for that. However, with big data, the cloud and the ability to do things instantly, I can now create a custom package for you and service it.”
He said selling packages would make Upside “the low cost provider” by obtaining “opaque discounts” from airlines and hotels. “The beauty of custom packages,” Walker said, “is that neither supplier has to reveal what their real component cost is.” This, he asserted, will “completely change how the bottom of the market is going to play the business travel game.”
Walker said a thousand hotels and more than a dozen major carriers established Upside relationships “because they want us to concentrate our business travelers in their” properties and airplanes.
In any given city, Walker said in a June interview, Upside partners with only a few hotel properties.
Asked then about his target market, Walker said, “I think it’s less about employee size and more about company philosophy. Some giant companies are unmanaged. Some giant companies are loosely managed. I think the majority of our customers will be between two and 20 people on the road, say $250,000 to $500,000 in spending. But that makes up probably about half of all business travel expenditures in the U.S. The big guys get all the press, and dominate the front of the plane.”
For its initial service, Upside lists dozens of domestic and international destinations. According to the website, “There are no one-way or multi-city trips (yet).”
Without “too many holes,” Walker expects to exit beta in the next month or two.
Upside would join a spate of business travel tech firms to recently launch with TMC backing. Atlas Travel and Technology Group and W Travel, for example, work with NexTravel. S.R. Travel Service partnered with TripActions. TravGroup supports 30SecondsToFly.