February 7, 2017 7:30 pm JST

CWT pushes through data-led transformation in corporate travel industry

Asia Pacific to play a core role in innovation

MAYUKO TANI, Nikkei staff writer

SINGAPORE -- Carlson Wagonlit Travel, the leading business travel management company, wants to be the disruptor of corporate travel industry. With 25% more investment into product development planned this year, the Minneapolis-based company is tying up with multiple customers to innovate new data-oriented services that run on smartphones. Asia, where smartphone are widely penetrated throughout the burgeoning middle class market, is playing an important role in its innovation, Chief Technology Officer Andrew Jordan said to Nikkei Asian Review in recent interview in Singapore.

This summer, CWT is launching a new "very unique" mobile-based product, Jordan said, which will make it easy and personal for a traveler to manage their business travels. With internet travel services such as Booking.com being so prevalent, travelers are used to managing their own holiday trips, and expect the similar convenience in business trips, Jordan said. Corporate travel management companies, whose focus has been to meet client companies' demand, now have to focus on individuals to "make each traveler happy".

Jordan expects 25% increase in product development investment this year over 2016, and the pace of increase will continue. The company is on a lookout for mergers and acquisitions opportunities in data analysis and technology area. "We have a big focus on creating consumer-grade customer experience", Jordan said, referring to consistent and seamless services that Amazon and Apple provides. CWT is looking to use vast data available, to aggregate user preference and to offer the best suitable options to each traveler.

CWT's virtual travel agent tool called "CWTCarla", an avatar on smartphone app, is on the beta testing phase and being improved. Carla can help book flights, recommend connections and hotels, and give useful advice such as the clothes choice and necessary power adaptor. The goal is to create "a personal travel agent in every traveler's pocket", Jordan said.

Following CEO Kurt Ekert's vision to be "the first digital travel management company in the world", Jordan, who took the position in April 2016, hired chief data scientist in October to step up its capability. "Hundreds of" technological staff are being added, and New Product Development department was established.

The competition in the industry is pressing. Corporate travel market, led by American Express Global Business Travel, CWT and BCD Travel, is becoming more crowded with expansion of online travel booking companies. Expedia, for example, is gearing up the corporate travel division Egencia, and looking for acquisition opportunities.

CWT is partnering with clients who are interested in data and technology to co-develop new products that best suit the client's specific needs. There are interesting opportunities of incubating new products in Asia, Jordan said, not only because of its fast growth pace of the market, but also because of high smart phone penetration. The diversity in terms of language and user profile makes this region suitable for testing new products.

To adopt the best technology, CWT has equity involvement in incubators, the venue to connect technology startups and corporations, including Plug and Play in Silicon Valley. "At any point of time we have about 30 trials", Jordan said. In Asia, the company has technology team based in Singapore, China and Australia.

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