Kurt Ekert wants to make traveling for work as enjoyable as traveling for pleasure.
In Ekert’s first year as head of Carlson Wagonlit Travel, the company has invested heavily in improving the user experience of the typical business client who even on a work trip values convenience and personalization.
“They want to see all the same rates. They want to see all the same descriptions,” said Ekert, president and chief executive of CWT, in an interview. “They want to have all those benefits, but we have to do that within the programs of the corporations to still have safety and security, still apply the policy of the company.”
Getting it right is important for CWT, the only remaining piece of the Twin Cities-based Carlson Cos. empire, which until recent years also included Radisson hotels and TGI Fridays restaurants, among other hospitality-related brands.
For a long time, the knock on traditional travel management companies, or TMCs, was that they concentrated on keeping corporations happy without spending as much time on the experience of the employees who actually take the trips.
But TMCs are slowly changing with the times and working to change that reputation. Leisure companies like Expedia have always been much more innovative when it came to improving their users’ experience, said Douglas Quinby, an analyst for travel market research firm Phocuswright.
“It’s really the mandate now for TMCs that they have to make the booking experience as traveler-friendly as possible,” Quimby said.
Globally, business travel spending topped $1.2 trillion in 2015, according to the Global Business Travel Association. More than 60 percent of U.S. managed corporate travel is predicted to be booked online this year, according to Phocuswright research.
CWT, one of the world’s top corporate travel managers, has invested a lot over the past year in its digital capabilities as it tries to become “the leading digital travel management company in the world,” Ekert said.
Last fall, the company introduced a digital strategy that it calls “CWT 3.0” to address a shift to a more consumer-oriented, multichannel experience.
A big part of CWT 3.0 is better use of data to make real-time decisions. A message popping up on a traveler’s phone after a flight could say that co-workers are staying at a certain hotel for a conference and give the traveler the option to stay at the same hotel.
CWT already has some messaging capabilities built into its mobile app that bring up reminders during an individual’s trip, but the company has begun to also explore connecting co-workers’ itineraries when they are traveling as a group.
The “CWT To Go” mobile app saw an increase in users of almost 40 percent last year compared with the year before.
With so much of business travel being made up of repeated trips that are booked through a travel management portal, there is a vast amount of data that can be mined, including preferences for hotels and rental cars.
“Personalization is the absolute keyword,” Ekert said.
As part of the new digital strategy, CWT has also broadened its hotel offerings. It recently integrated Booking.com selections into its portal to expand its hotel options. Last year, the company also piloted an initiative to include Airbnb selections.
To support the more digital initiatives, CWT has hired more people with backgrounds in e-commerce and technology. It also partnered with Plug and Play Tech Center, a venture capital firm in Silicon Valley, to connect with start-ups that are developing technology that could be used in travel.
The company hired its first chief marketing officer last month and recently launched its first brand makeover since 1994, with the new tagline “Make the world work for you.”
CWT’s sales have dipped in recent years, from $27.3 billion in 2014 to $23 billion last year. Ekert says the downtick in the energy industry, which led to less travel by people in that sector, was a major reason for the slump. Another reason was the devaluation of the euro.
“I think we are getting back onto a growth path now,” Ekert said.
The company’s meeting and events business continues to grow, with planned events and meetings up 27 percent last year from a year earlier. To try to stimulate growth, Ekert said the company is looking to grow into other international markets such as China.
Ekert said he was originally attracted to CWT because of the support of the Carlson family. In 2014, Carlson Cos. sold its TGI Friday’s restaurants to buy out JPMorgan’s share of Carlson Wagonlit. Last year, around the time Ekert was hired, Carlson announced its sale of its hotel division to Chinese conglomerate HNA.
“I think we are very fortunate to be owned by the Carlson family. … I think they are very focused on the business,” said Ekert, adding that Carlson Cos. wants to make adjacent investments in the business.
In a statement, Carlson Board Chairwoman Diana Nelson called Ekert “a smart, strategic leader.”
“The Carlson board believes the strategy he and his team have launched will be transformative — creating value for the business and enhancing the CWT customer experience,” she said.