Op Ed: Jeff Klee On Whether The Industry Is Wasting This Crisis

AmTrav CEO Jeff Klee is concerned that the industry isn’t doing enough to not only survive Covid-19 but emerge from the crisis stronger than before. He admits that he’s got many more questions than answers.


In 2008, incoming White House chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel famously talked about not letting a good crisis go to waste. The phrase has been repeated by industry CEOs, myself included, since the scale of the coronavirus became apparent. With purpose and resolve, we all promised to use this period to reimagine everything and emerge on the other side better able to serve our customers.

But now five months into the pandemic, I wonder if we’re living up to that promise. Since March, AmTrav has diverted a huge percentage of our product development to important but temporary Covid-related Band-Aids, crowding out investment for some of the more transformational projects we’re also working on. The whole industry is spending a lot of time using old technology to solve new problems, when ideally it’d be the other way around. 

The feeling that we’re not meeting this moment with appropriate vision and boldness is eating at me. With the lines between work and home so physically and emotionally blurred these days, there’s a tendency to want to channel personal feelings of sadness, frustration and powerlessness into something opposite and just as transcendent professionally, where we have a bit more control. So maybe this is all just misplaced emotion. Still, lying awake at night, I can’t escape the feeling that we’re not thinking big enough; that we are, in fact, wasting this crisis.

AmTrav CEO Jeff Klee

AmTrav CEO Jeff Klee

Some say Zoom has shown us that we don’t need as much business travel. Having spent most of the last four months on Zoom, I would argue it has shown us that we do. I absolutely believe that business travel will eventually return to 2019 levels, but that doesn’t mean things will snap back to “normal.” Inertia has been a great friend to the managed travel profession, but this increasingly long pause could disrupt that. When companies finally do return to traveling, they will find different choices than before with respect to where to source their travel. These include nontraditional models where bookings are made directly with suppliers and services like duty of care and reporting are arranged separately and à la carte

The continued relevance of TMCs is not a foregone conclusion. Although it now seems like yesterday’s war, it still matters that we haven’t adequately addressed traveler and travel manager pain points like content gaps, stale and out of sync data, conflicting sources of information, friction with servicing, burdensome reconciliations, no easy way to calculate total trip cost and no good answer for disgruntled travelers who ask, “Why do I have to use this awful booking tool?”

Lockdowns brought on a restlessness that will manifest in many ways. TMC clients of all sizes, out of necessity or opportunity, are using this time to better themselves. They expect us to do the same. The corporate travel industry is beset by impediments to innovation rooted in structural and foundational problems. We finally need to start tackling them. I don’t have all the answers, but I do think I have some of the right questions.

Alignment

Can we finally find a way to replace the broken economic models that misalign incentives between suppliers, GDSs and TMCs, and, ultimately, limit the content we can deliver to our mutual clients?

Open APIs

Can we embrace the API economy, like other industries have, to make it easy to share data between entities? Imagine what we could do if suppliers, TMCs, OBTs, payment systems and expense management companies all built the capability to grant access to their APIs — the same ones that power their own sites. Imagine if we didn’t have to sync everything across numerous systems because each stakeholder had real-time, unfiltered access to the raw data. Imagine if we didn’t have to run every inquiry through old, rigid gatekeepers and protocols which normalize away the richness.

Simplification

Can we begin to unravel all the crazy-old constructs, layers and processes that make simple improvements difficult, and difficult ones impossible? We can start almost anywhere. Within air shopping alone, can we get rid of tickets, flat file PNRs, booking codes, fare basis codes, interactive sells, passive segments, SSRs, OSIs, MCOs, Cat-31 and all the other Cats, while we’re at it? If someone wants to fly, how about we just offer a price and, if the traveler wants it, we sell the seat? And if the traveler wants to change or cancel, how about we just give them a credit instead of an “unused ticket document” with confusing penalties and restrictions that even a computer often can’t figure out? And do we really need all these intermediaries and service providers? Delivering a new air-related benefit to a traveler usually requires development work from an airline, a passenger service system provider, Google, multiple GDSs, multiple booking tools, multiple TMCs (and all their mid- and back-office systems) and sometimes a Farelogix. No wonder it takes forever to deliver new content to our customers!

Nimbleness

Can we be more agile as an industry, break down giant projects into small ones and deliver faster benefits? With all the uncertainty about the future, we need to prepare ourselves to pivot quickly. Can we make it commonplace for two or three industry entities to get together and try new ideas without needing 100 other stakeholders to weigh in? Can a small number of companies collaborate on micro-pilots, quickly get enhancements to market and maybe inspire a bunch of others in the process?

This may not be a logical time to think about big changes. With their very survival at stake, not everyone has the budget or the will to contemplate a major initiative. But if we take history as our guide, crises tend to accelerate the changes that would happen anyway, and changes in the world around us raise the bar for what’s expected from a TMC. In other spheres, we hear that returning to the “old normal” won’t cut it anymore. That should be true for business travel, too. If we endure all this carnage without using the time to make ourselves better, how are we going to feel?

In different ways and to varying degrees, we’re all hurting right now. The future of our industry has never been so uncertain, and that’s scary. But we can still use this time to improve our chances of a good outcome and start taking steps to enhance our value proposition for the long term. 

It’s always darkest before dawn, so I’ll take it as a hopeful sign that I can’t see a thing right now.


Related
Op Ed: Louise Miller On TMC Innovation Coming Back Into View
Op Ed: Sam Hilgendorf On Travel Management Company Business Model Resiliency
Op Ed: Mat Orrego On Approaching And Solving Problems In The Travel Industry, Part 2

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Jeff Klee

Author: Jeff Klee

AmTrav CEO Jeff Klee is a self-described computer geek who developed and sold his first video game at the age of 13. In college, he and a buddy got a crash course in the intricacies of the airline business while planning their own backpacking trip and later decided to use that know-how to help others save money on airfares. What was first known as 1-800-Cheap-Air was founded out of a University of Michigan dorm room in 1989. When the company took off, Jeff ditched his law school plans for a far more exciting journey, combining two passions — travel and software development. CheapAir.com was born, and soon after AmTrav for Business, which together serve almost 400,000 travelers annually. Jeff grew up in Los Angeles. He still lives there with his wife, two young kids, and golden retriever, none of whom, when the Dodgers are losing, want to be anywhere near him. Connect with Jeff on LinkedIn.
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