New Hotel Payment Solutions Emerging In Europe - Business Travel News

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New Hotel Payment Solutions Emerging In Europe

February 09, 2012 - 12:10 PM ET

By Amon Cohen

Following a rash of announcements during the past fortnight, hotel payment solutions appear to be the plat du jour in Europe. Both Sabre and Amadeus have announced deals with Conferma, a United Kingdom-based company providing virtual card numbers to automate and greatly simplify hotel bill-back. Meanwhile, fast-growing French hotel portal Hotel Corporate System (known as HCorpo) last week began distributing its content through the KDS online booking tool with travelers paying for bookings through the centrally billed AirPlus Company Account. At the same time, Best Western Hotels in the United Kingdom is promoting a payment card that allows business customers to book hotel stays at its properties and rail tickets through online reservations tool Redspottedhanky.

Considerably more common in Europe than the United States, bill-back is a payment method in which the hotel sends an invoice to the client or, more commonly, the client's travel management company—rather than the traveler paying at check-out. Bill-back is convenient for travelers and useful for companies that prefer not to furnish their employees with corporate cards, but it is manually cumbersome for the travel agent.

Travel Group Consulting managing director John Melchior said he is not surprised to see new hotel payment solutions emerging. "Bill-back has a lot to be said for it from the customer point of view, but agents can never make money from it," he said. "It's enormously inefficient for everyone involved, and TMCs have become much more aware of the cost of hotel processing. The essence of these solutions is to take a lot of the administration and credit risk out of the system."

Conferma's virtual credit cards greatly simplify the process by providing a unique identifier to trace reservations from initial booking to invoicing to payment and reporting. Conferma for a couple of years has worked with such card companies as American Express and AirPlus International and now is partnering with global distribution systems. Amadeus said it now is offering the Conferma solution in the United Kingdom and has launched a pilot scheme in France. The company also intends to make the product accessible via its e-Travel Management corporate booking tool.

HRG product director of product Brian Merry told BTN that he regards the continuing development of virtual cards as extremely important not only as a bill-back solution, but as a wider payment mechanism for corporate travel. "Virtual cards are an infant solution that are building up and getting better all the time," he said. "There is a challenge to them—to manage a VAT audit trail for the client—and we think that role sits with the TMC. But we believe the virtual card process is the way of the future. It will grow in use with low-cost carriers, and it also lends itself to becoming the lodge card of tomorrow."

Meanwhile, French, Swiss and Belgian KDS users now have the option to pay via the AirPlus Company Account lodge card following last week's tie-up with HCorpo. Using that process, travelers make their hotel booking via KDS and are issued a voucher to present at the hotel when checking out. The room cost and any other items included in the negotiated rate (such as breakfast or Internet access, for example) already will have been paid through AirPlus, leaving the traveler at check-out to settle only any additional items. Speaking to BTN at the KDS client conference in Paris, HCorpo president Stéphane de Laforcade said upfront, centrally billed payment ensures companies are charged the negotiated room rate and improves data by including such fields as employee identification number or cost center code.

HCorpo has an agreement running to June to use AirPlus as its exclusive payment services provider. The company is aiming to enter the German and U.K. markets.

Taking yet another approach, Best Western has launched a card to ease bill-back administration frustrations for its 274 U.K. properties. After considering co-branded credit cards, the hotel chain instead launched the Best Western Business Account card powered by information technology services company Atos. Clients can apply for individual cards for all their travelers or only for those who book travel. Best Western Great Britain director of sales Will Helsby noted that one client has chosen to use the account effectively as a hotel lodge card placed with its TMC.

Unlike the HCorpo product, the Best Western Business Account covers all expenditures guests incur at the hotel, including meetings expenses. Atos provides a similar card for 14,000 clients of U.K. budget hotel chain Premier Inn. Atos is not a financial services provider. Instead, it covers risk by obtaining credit insurance.

Atos also owns Redspottedhanky, making a good fit with Best Western GB for clients with a heavy preponderance of U.K. domestic travel, as the card enables travelers to pay for accommodation and rail and managers to obtain data for both.

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