The Conversation: Kurt Ekert, Carlson Wagonlit Travel
President & CEO, Carlson Wagonlit Travel
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 booking.com 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”