And now there is one.
With the Carlson family signing a deal to sell its hotel division to a Chinese conglomerate, the lone corporate division under the second- and third-generation shareholders lies with Carlson Wagonlit Travel, one of the world’s top two corporate travel managers.
And CWT, as it’s widely known, is embarking on a new chapter as well.
Just a week before announcing the sale of the hotel group, CWT replaced its Chief Executive Doug Anderson “with immediate effect” after eight years on the job and installed travel industry veteran Kurt Ekert.
The change at the top came on the heels of a less-than-stellar year, after the company reported overall sales of $24.2 billion in 2015, down from $27.3 billion the year before. Anderson had attributed some of the drop to a reduction in travel expenses by energy customers affected by declining energy prices.
Despite CWT’s dip, the corporate travel business has been relatively steady over the years, though it can be affected by shivers in the global economy, said Paul Tilstone, managing partner of business travel consulting company Festive Road.
Over the past few years, CWT has been a “quiet achiever” in the industry with a reputation for investing in staff and technology, which is critical in today’s market, Tilstone said. Younger travelers especially are expecting better and more personalized services and tools to help them have travel experiences that can sometimes mix business with leisure, he said.
The company’s “CWT To Go” mobile app experienced 62 percent growth in user registrations to 560,000 in 2015.
There has been a fundamental shift in the travel agency landscape with the rise of online shopping in the past 20 years, turning companies like CWT into business consultants and launching consolidations among the players. They play the traditional role of travel agent — booking air travel, hotels and rental cars and solving problems on the road. But they also help companies track travel expenses and negotiate with credit card companies.
Demands of the business travel marketplace are becoming more complex, more global. Technology is at the core of the industry. And, traditional corporate management systems have lagged behind leisure systems such as Booking.com and Priceline, said analyst Douglas Quinby, of the global travel market research firm Phocuswright.
“As more of us become accustomed to booking with our own devices … it puts incredible pressure on travel management companies to deliver products, information, and all of the travel expertise you’d typically expect,” Quinby said. “Otherwise, travelers will look elsewhere.”
CWT also faces increasing competition from consumer-facing companies that are making bigger plays into the corporate travel sphere, including Expedia and Booking.com.
CWT already competes well in the bigger arena, ranking fourth among all travel agencies (leisure and corporate), behind Expedia, Priceline and American Express.
In an industry where size equates to market power, analysts say CWT is in position to capitalize on its ability to negotiate favorable deals with airlines and hotels.
“The more scale or volume you’re driving, the more improvement you see in margins,” Piper Jaffray analyst Michael Olson said. “It creates a virtuous cycle where you have the ability to drive more bookings, which allows you to do more marketing, which drives more bookings, which allows you to make acquisitions in the space.”
The travel space is enjoying “underlying tailwinds,” he said. Hotel revenue per available room is rebounding in the low single digits, and emerging middle classes in China, India and Latin America are driving travel bookings.
Ekert is a former top executive at Travelport, a global technology company that provides a platform used by nearly every company in the travel commerce industry, from travel agents to Priceline.com to hotels and airlines.
Carlson Cos. declined to make him available for an interview.
As incoming chief, Ekert will need to guide the company into a new digital era where customers expect to find a full range of travel services instantly on mobile phones. Companies such as Uber are changing the car rental business, and the popularity of Airbnb and HomeAway.com are gaining traction with corporate travelers and eating away at the traditional hotel bookings industry.
Phocuswright’s Quinby believes Carlson Wagonlit will “be in good hands.”
“Kurt Ekert is highly regarded in the industry and has an incredible track record at Travelport,” Quinby said. “He knows this space inside and out.”
Carlson Cos. is now controlled by the latest generation of descendants of Curt Carlson, the entrepreneur who used a $55 loan to launch a grocery store loyalty business in 1938.
Over nearly eight decades, Carlson Cos. has owned a diverse range of businesses, including jewelry makers, catalog showrooms, and companies that traded in tobacco, candy, binoculars and telescopes.
The company sold its TGI Friday’s restaurants in 2014 to buy out JPMorgan’s share of Carlson Wagonlit, which now has clients spanning more than 150 countries and territories.
Whether the Carlson family will invest proceeds from the sale of its hotel division to HNA into Carlson Wagonlit remains to be seen.
In its message to employees last week, the 10 family shareholders said they would “redeploy the capital” from the sale of the hotel division as a show of their commitment to the long-term success of the company.
“We want to express something that has been top of mind for us throughout this process,” the shareholders wrote, “and it’s a question we’ve each been asked more than once over the past few years: ‘Is your family stepping away from running businesses?’ It’s a reasonable question, and the answer is ‘No.’ ”