Doing More With Data: Poll Says Many Buyers Satisfied With Data, But Vendors Plow Ahead - Business Travel News

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Doing More With Data: Poll Says Many Buyers Satisfied With Data, But Vendors Plow Ahead

February 07, 2012 - 04:45 PM ET

By Jay Campbell

To hear some travel managers and industry consultants tell it, corporate travel data isn't merely insufficient. It's flat-out useless. Perhaps there is too much data. It might be trite or wrong. Basically, it doesn't help solve problems.

Yet, Business Travel News found a mixed view in a survey of nearly 300 respondents identifying themselves as travel managers or buyers. In some categories, as many as one in six travel buyers said they were not at all satisfied with the data they receive and use for policy creation and negotiations. But most seem to think it's good enough.

Why this disconnect between buyers who provide anecdotes at events and a broader sample of the industry? It's tempting to think that it depends on the size of the travel management program, a criterion often conflated with the program's sophistication. However, BTN's poll shows that the size of the travel budget is more closely correlated with the types of data services firms seek, or can afford, than it is with their satisfaction.

A more likely explanation seems to be that some travel management departments want to do more with the data than others. "More" could mean all manner of new and different analyses, challenging travel management companies and providers of data management services to bring the data to life in a more consultative and flexible way.

"The conversation needs to change to, 'What are you trying to do with your program?' " US Foods corporate travel meetings and expense manager Jennifer Steinke said last September at The Beat Live conference in Las Vegas. "We need to look at how we reward good behavior and good decisions that our travelers are making. How do we highlight good things that are happening within the program? How do we show the value of a managed travel program?"

Steinke joined other buyers on a panel discussion in which they all criticized the typical reporting they get from TMCs. TMC executives tend to say they're doing the best they can, but the data coming out of various back offices is difficult to consolidate.

"The challenge with data is not showing you where you spent your money—that's easy," according to Protravel COO Tony Shepherd, also speaking at The Beat Live. "The challenge is showing you why you spent the money the way you did. There are so many subjective reasons that go into why a traveler selected a specific flight or specific hotel or manages the itinerary the way they do. It's important for TMCs to try to get inside your mind a little bit and understand clearly what you are trying to do with the data we give you."

Many agree that a big part of the solution is to look for data beyond the TMC. Upwards of half of the buyers responding to BTN's poll indicated they rely only on TMC data, but in doing so they cannot compare what was booked against what was purchased—a major hole in assessing program effectiveness. The survey showed that most buyers, including those at about three-quarters of represented large companies, do not use a third-party firm to consolidate data from multiple sources, such as from credit cards and expense systems. Generally they try to do this consolidation themselves.

2012-02-06 Data ChartThird-party data management service providers in recent years have sought to help TMCs and travel buyers simplify and tool up with modular displays, mini-apps or utilities and tablet-based dashboards—but what's new at data management firms goes well beyond the interface. Two of the largest providers, Cornerstone Information Systems and TRX, recently launched efforts to take the analysis of data to another level.

Automating The Manual 

This year will mark the six-year anniversary of TRX's acquisitions of data consolidator Hi-Mark Software and data analyzer Travel Analytics. With TRX's exit from the call center business largely behind it, and the recent sale of its online booking solution, the company is focused on a smaller set of services including its data management offering.

After asserting a more substantive role in TRX by buying a large chunk of its shares in 2010, executive vice president Kevin Austin, previously president of Hi-Mark, last year led the integration of services from Travel Analytics with the Traveltrax (formerly Hi-Mark) automation, starting with hotel data. He said air is next up, this quarter. The goal is to bring efficiency to data consulting services and make them more affordable for smaller programs. The reorientation also has transformed how TRX sells its data solutions.

"As a software developer I was always like, 'Look at what it can do—isn't it cool?' " Austin said during a January interview. "One thing I learned from [former Hi-Mark sales exec] Tim Fahy, who is now with ITA Software, is that we should be less about the features and more about solving problems, asking buyers, 'What are your problems?' instead of selling data or reports or so-called back office reporting, GDS pre-trip reporting, credit card reporting or expense reporting. Companies don't have a 'back-office reporting' problem. What they do have is a finance and audit need, or a program management need, a negotiation need, a duty of care need or a sustainability need. Regardless of scale, the same needs are at every company."

TRX now markets to clients discrete data and services packages targeting certain problems, say online booking leakage or lack of hotel compliance. Fees are based on transaction volume.

"Traditionally the typical way of solving this problem is a labor/time-and-materials consulting-type approach," Austin said. "But now six-plus weeks worth of consultant billing and engagement to process data and prepare everything can be generated in about 10 minutes on our platform. A lot of companies have their own experts, but they need the data."

TRX is hoping this combination of automation and consulting, resulting in a lower price point, will appeal to a wider swath of the market—perhaps thousands rather than hundreds of data services accounts. "Once we answer basic questions, clients often want to consider deeper questions which require a lot of knowledge and understanding of them and their business," said Austin. "That's where we see expanding the Travel Analytics-style consulting that was more focused on air and hotel sourcing into other areas."

Data consolidation experts generally agreed that the most holes are outside of air travel. For midsize and larger buyers, at least, BTN's poll found satisfaction with hotel data was weaker than with airline data.

2012-02-06 Negotiations Chart 

"The industry has a real issue in reporting hotels and cars," said CrossFire Systems Inc. president Richard Law. Clients often want to know "where an overnight stay was required but no hotel was booked [but] it's an issue of data quality and completeness. Or if I book air and hotel, and then later change the hotel, there's generally no way to get that change into the reporting process because the only way is through an invoice."

The Good, Bad And Fixable 

In announcing last summer a suite of data analytics and scoring tools, Cornerstone Information System tailored its first direct corporate travel product offering for larger firms that use multiple travel management companies. Although some buyers even have trouble with global data quality from a single TMC, the use of multiple TMCs is a commonly cited cause of bad data. "Say you use Amex, but book in Brazil," said Cornerstone senior vice president of marketing Alan Minton. Amex's Brazilian partner "Flytour puts data in different places."

The C3 product is "on schedule," according to Minton. "We signed two significant corporate clients by the end of 2011 and are on schedule to bring on three more in the first quarter of 2012."

Supporting the notion that some buyers don't trust the data itself, Minton noted that Cornerstone's Data Confidence Index, which analyzes the good and bad of data, has been the most popular element of C3. "There is still significant dissatisfaction from corporations with the quality of data they receive," he said.

The DCI "measures 51 unique data points and organizes them into four categories to give you an extremely accurate picture of your data quality at the source level, and it provides you with an objective plan to make corrections to improve the data," according to Minton. "We apply [Ruesink Consulting Group founder] Tom Ruesink's scoring methodology to these metrics and produce a single score for a trip, similar to producing a credit score or a [baseball] pitcher's earned run average. This way you can compare trips, travelers, costs centers, etc., on an apples-to-apples basis related to your travel policy and objectives."

Cornerstone also plans to offer a consulting service that helps clients determine what program fixes to make based on the results.

This report originally appeared in the Feb. 6, 2012, edition of Business Travel News. 

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