The Con­ver­sa­tion: Kurt Ek­ert, Carlson Wagonlit Travel

Pres­i­dent & CEO, Carlson Wagonlit Travel

The Business Travel Magazine - - Contents - Andy Hoskins

CWT, one of the world’s largest travel man­age­ment com­pa­nies, is in the midst of a tech­no­log­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion, says its Pres­i­dent and CEO, Kurt Ek­ert.

Branded CWT3.0, the TMC is as­pir­ing to be­come the “world’s first and lead­ing dig­i­tal TMC”, says Ek­ert. “It’s all about de­liv­er­ing a great con­sumer-grade ex­pe­ri­ence. It’s about the in­tel­li­gent use of data to drive per­son­al­i­sa­tion, to drive bet­ter an­a­lyt­ics to the buyer, and to look at soft­ware that changes the na­ture of our of­fer­ing. It’s a trans­for­ma­tive time for the in­dus­try but also for CWT.”

The chal­lenge, he ex­plains, is to sat­isfy the needs of cor­po­rates, end users and sup­plier part­ners alike, and not to lose fo­cus on tra­di­tional ser­vice. “Our job is be­com­ing more com­plex but the way we do busi­ness needs to be more sim­ple. That’s the co­nun­drum we’re try­ing to solve,” he says.

The TMC is much more of a tech busi­ness than it was even a few years ago, says Ek­ert, and in­no­va­tion is com­ing both from within the busi­ness and through third par­ties.

“What we’re do­ing from a data and an­a­lyt­ics per­spec­tive to in­clude per­son­al­i­sa­tion, what we are do­ing with our Roomit ho­tel of­fer­ing, and some of our front-end dig­i­tal techs – to me they’re very pro­pri­etary and it’s im­por­tant that we own and con­trol those as­sets.

“But in­no­va­tion is also out there in the mar­ket. There’s a lot of ven­ture cap­i­tal around and a lot of start-ups com­ing into travel so we have re­la­tion­ships with two tech in­cu­ba­tors. There’s no pride of au­thor­ship in terms of in­no­va­tion – we just want to make sure we bring to­gether the best mouse­trap pos­si­ble.”

CWT is ex­per­i­ment­ing with chat­bots, hav­ing “great suc­cess” with the use of big data, and says its work around pre­dic­tive an­a­lyt­ics is help­ing de­ter­mine the right time to make a book­ing and the most ap­pro­pri­ate chan­nel.

It also has two new data prod­ucts for travel man­agers in the pipe­line. IQ is an en­hanced data an­a­lyt­ics pro­gramme with “the abil­ity to query any­thing you want” rather than sim­ply “get­ting a set of canned re­ports”, says Ek­ert.

Mean­while, Travel Con­sol­ida­tor “in­te­grates our pro­gramme data, a client's ex­pense data, their card data etc, and you get one ver­sion of the truth. It’s ex­cit­ing be­cause there’s no­body who’s do­ing it that well in the mar­ket place so there’s a great op­por­tu­nity there.”

In air travel, Ek­ert be­lieves CWT has the “most ro­bust set of con­tent in the world”, while the TMC has also upped its game in the mo­bile and ho­tel con­tent are­nas, in­te­grat­ing Ex­pe­dia and book­ con­tent.

“We’ve now got the long­tail prop­er­ties and we’ve put more rate cat­e­gories on the ta­ble be­cause there’s so much frag­men­ta­tion with ho­tel dis­tri­bu­tion,” says Ek­ert. “I think we’ve made good move­ment on air but I think we’ve made break­through move­ment on our ho­tel ca­pa­bil­i­ties. Now we need to scale that across all our plat­forms and all our chan­nels.”

He con­tin­ues: “We ex­pect that, in three or four years, 70% or so of our trans­ac­tions will be dig­i­tal or elec­tronic trans­ac­tions – a com­bi­na­tion of on­line book­ing tools and mo­bile trans­ac­tions – so we’re very fo­cused on grow­ing our mo­bile chan­nel.”

Ek­ert says the com­pany over­all is grow­ing at a “very healthy 3-4% in terms of trans­ac­tions, traf­fic and rev­enue, and client re­ten­tion is in the up­per 90s”.

But is Amex GBT’S ac­qui­si­tion of HRG – two of CWT’S ma­jor com­peti­tors – a threat to his busi­ness? Ap­par­ently not. “While they’re fo­cused on do­ing in­te­gra­tion we’ll be fo­cus­ing on ex­e­cut­ing our strat­egy,” he says. “I can’t say I was sur­prised about it. It’s a ma­ture in­dus­try so con­sol­i­da­tion is nat­u­ral. It has oc­curred and I ex­pect it to oc­cur in the fu­ture.

“We’re very com­fort­able with the scale of our busi­ness to­day and with the value that we of­fer to both clients and our sup­plier part­ners. We’re not com­pelled to con­sol­i­date, but I wouldn’t rule out any­thing for our busi­ness,” says Ek­ert. “We be­lieve we’re on the right track or­gan­i­cally and we cer­tainly don’t need to be do­ing any­thing from an M&A per­spec­tive to ex­e­cute our strat­egy.”

Ek­ert con­cludes: “If we go and do what we’ve com­mit­ted to our share­hold­ers and clients in the next few years then we’re go­ing to be in ter­rific shape. We’ll re­ally be able to dis­tance our­selves from the com­pe­ti­tion and we’ll look and feel very dif­fer­ent to how we or any­one else in the mar­ket does to­day.”

The TMC boss talks to about CWT’S dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion, emerg­ing tech­nol­ogy and in­dus­try con­sol­i­da­tion We're very com­fort­able with the scale of our busi­ness to­day. We cer­tainly don't need to be do­ing any­thing from an M&A per­spec­tive to ex­e­cute our strat­egy”

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