When Andrew Jordan was appointed Chief Product and Technology Officer at Carlson Wagonlit Travel (CWT) in May 2016, he was surprised to find that one of the biggest players in the $1.4 trillion corporate travel industry remained largely untouched by digital transformation.
“I'd come out of the media industry where people were using very sophisticated tools and technologies around creating great experience, particularly digital experience, and I came into this industry, and it was like the 1990s again,” Jordan recalls. “People were using effectively terminals in call centres with text and command line scripts.”
There were two things missing that got his immediate attention: a next-generation graphical experience and effective use of data for a business whose whole commercial model is built on transactions. Jordan believed that a key reason why these were missing was that many people working in the corporate travel industry had been working in it for their whole careers, which led him to seek an outside perspective.
“I think if this industry is going to change itself - and we like to think of ourselves really at the vanguard of that - we've got to bring people in from outside who don't know about corporate travel,” he says. “That might seem a little bit paradoxical, but you need those perspectives so we can say the 'rest of the world does it this way' and 'you can do it this way' inside corporate travel.”
To harness the power of data, he recruited Eric Tyree from Capita to become CWT’s first Chief Data Scientist, and tasked him with building a new data group. To transform the graphical experience, he drew on what he learned in the media industry during stints at Thomson Reuters and NBC, where he had witnessed a sector being transformed by the rise of the likes of Amazon, Apple and Netflix.
He approached CWT CEO Kurt Ekert, who had joined the company at around the same time as Jordan, and asked him: who was the Netflix of corporate travel? When the reply came that there wasn't one, they decided to create it at CWT.
“[Ekert] had an ambition when he came in to really rethink the way that corporate travel was viewed as a very old and very dusty industry,” says Jordan. “We took what was the original business plan and completely rewrote it as a newly formed executive team, and some of the ambitions were around things like digital transformation, experience, and data.
“Even to this day, I would say the strategy gets informed not just by commercial opportunity, it's also informed by where we want to take the industry. And one of the most recent developments is thinking about the services we provide as a platform rather than just as a set of services. Now, once we have platform architecture, if you want to just go onto Google and say, 'book me a flight to New York', then why not?”
This platform model is a core element of Jordan’s strategy of “putting experience at the heart of everything”.
“In the early 2000s, I worked for Citigroup, and we were a CWT client, and the only interaction I ever had with CWT as a traveller was when I got a little envelope with my airline tickets in it, and then I was on my way. That was it,” Jordan remembers.
“A lot of what we've done in the past three years is to rethink that and say, forget the transactions for a second, what does the experience mean? How do you make the traveller experience the best it can be?”
Personalisation is a big part of the answer. If a traveller is a mile away from Heathrow Terminal 5 and set to arrive at an enormous queue at the north security area, they might receive a message on their smartphone advising them to head to the south section, with a map to help them on their way.
“It’s thinking how to make it so that the amount of time that the traveller spends not doing their job is kept down to the minimum,” says Jordan. “When I think about experience, it’s actually trying to rethink what it means to be a really effective traveller.”
Data is integral to improving that experience. Jordan got his first exposure to its power after leaving Citigroup to take on the role of CIO at Dunnhumby, a customer data science company used by the likes of Tesco. He then left Dunnhumby to set up his own data science business, Beyond Analysis, before moving into media as Thomson Reuters CIO.
Data was an underused resource in the corporate travel industry when Jordan joined CWT, but now plays a key role in the company’s service.
In 2018, Jordan introduced predictive analytics capabilities that have improved the accuracy of forecasts and given clients new ways to control their travel spend. CWT’s data team can now sift through the company’s vast datasets and any public data affecting travel, such as weather and commodity prices, to predict the number of trips that a company will need, and how much each of those trips will cost.
Clients can then use these predictions to make big savings by changing travel plans. One client used this new capability to identify changes, leading to potential savings of up to 10%.
CWT also offers price optimisation tools that monitor fluctuations in ticket prices and advise clients on when to book.
“It will say the most optimal time for you to book this ticket is going to be in three days’ time. You can book it today, and what it will do is it will hold the reservation and wait for the price drop, and then it will book it,” says Jordan.
“We've seen savings running into millions across all of our customers that have deployed this, and for no pain. This is all happening behind the scenes. All they see are the benefits flow through and recoup some of the price they would have otherwise paid for the airline ticket.”
A newer analytics tool that could have a big impact is the CWT Travel Consolidator. This assesses hotel and transport transactions alongside credit card, expense and HR data to reveal the hidden costs of business travel, accumulated through spending outside official channels, such as hotels booked on personal cards, and poorly-understood expenses such as meals, laundry and incidentals.
CWT used this to assess this extensive dataset to understand the tipping point at which travel starts making staff unhealthy enough to take days off work, which allows CWT to alert clients before staff become sick.
The company then explored the true value of travel by analysing the financial benefits of staff, such as salespeople, going on the road against the cost of the trip.
“It gives you that complete 360 view on travel spend,” Jordan explains. “But the ambition really is that we're going to have it much more as an extensible platform so you can start to look at the data that runs your organisation rather than just the travel programme and see the impact that travel has on it.”
Jordan gives much of the credit for CWT’s developments in analytics to Tyree, who has been given freedom to run his team in the way that he thinks works best.
This approach is part of Jordan’s efforts to foster an entrepreneurial spirit among his staff, who he divides into small groups focused on specific capabilities that function like individuals startups that are judged on results rather than the methods by which they reach them.
He hopes this strategy will ensure the innovations keep rolling out of the IT department, which is currently exploring the potential of bots, machine learning and AI.
“I think what's most important in that realm, is that you have a group whose job it is to look at it,” he says. “I did the same when I was at NBC and set up a kind of incubator there. If you try and give it to people when that's not their day jobs it just never happens.
“You've got to have people who are focused on tapping into the startup community, tapping into incubators and early-stage companies, trialling them, and seeing if there's something that we could either acquire or invest in. That's proven really with us. In fact, a lot of the price optimisation work that we've done came out of that unit.”
Any ideas that make it into production will have to keep that focus on creating experiences that challenge the conventional thinking of the corporate travel sector.
“I think success to me, if I was sitting here in 12 months, would be that we've really made the industry look hard at itself and think about where the value sits in corporate travel,” he says.
“In a sense, that's been the journey that we set in motion three years ago. It's just reaching that level of maturity now where we can progressively talk to customers about things like experience, and they actually know what you're talking about.
"I was with our CEO last week, and we did a tour of our clients in the West Coast, and that was the theme we kept going back to, and it resonated 100%. Everyone was saying you need to bring the traveller into this now. You can't just leave them out in the cold, because there are so many different ways that they can achieve their objectives.”