BTN's annual answer book for business travel managers.
October 2017 marked the dawn of a new era for AirPlus' U.S. operations. The company, along with launching its AirPlus A.I.D.A. Virtual Payment solution in the U.S., reshuffled its leadership for the market, naming Diane Laschet head of Americas and appointing Rebecca Kilby as president and CEO for the U.S. and Canada. Kilby discussed the eventful months since she took the helm, along with AirPlus' ambitious plans for the future of its U.S. virtual card business.
BTN: Since assuming your leadership role for the U.S. last year, what have your goals been for the region, and what initiatives are you tackling in the market?
Kilby: Where to start? The goal for AirPlus in the U.S. is to really cement our place as the niche travel payment provider. That is what we do. That is all we do. We just do travel and we specialize in it. We specialize … because we think that will bring our customers the best possible payment product for travel. The other goal is really to bring virtual payment to the forefront and to expand virtual payment usage across the U.S. We've been doing a lot of education sessions with GBTA and local chapters and different speaking events to really try to help educate the market and try to be a thought leader in this arena.
BTN: The AirPlus A.I.D.A. Virtual Payment card launched in the U.S. last year. How have the results been?
Kilby: Good! The intention … was to bring [the virtual card] to the U.S. for multinational customers who use it elsewhere, love it and want to use the same here. So that's been a big focus—bringing on our existing customers that utilize it—but also bringing on new customers. The U.S. market in general is somewhat more skeptical of virtual cards than Europe because it's just earlier in the adoption cycle.
BTN: How do you overcome that skepticism?
Kilby: Particularly around virtual payment, it's about education: educating buyers to understand the real benefits of where this can really help them in their travel program, educating the travelers on how to work with virtual payment, educating the merchants, the hotels, the front desk staff on what to do in those situations. And that's why organizations like GBTA … are really focused on how to educate and expand the market.
BTN: Is awareness of the benefits of virtual cards increasing?
Kilby: Every year, you see more and more about virtual payment, so it's definitely a hot topic for everyone and with that, the comfort level rises. Some of the fears that people have around virtual card like it's difficult to administer or [doesn't offer] much control or visibility—it's actually the opposite. You get more visibility and control. It's much easier to administer because you don't have to issue cards. The understanding will grow … and we're going to see a big jump in the not too distant future.
Some of the fears that people have around virtual card like it's difficult to administer or [doesn't offer] much control or visibility—it's actually the opposite. You get more visibility and control. It's much easier to administer because you don't have to issue cards."
BTN: How does AirPlus' experience with virtual cards in Europe inform your perspective on the U.S. market?
Kilby: We've had our virtual card in Europe for over 10 years, and the questions that people ask today, here in the U.S., when you're talking about virtual cards—the fears, the concerns—are the same questions that were being asked 10 years ago in Europe. Today, that's gone away [in Europe] just because they're used so commonly now. The issues that people encounter happen so rarely and the understanding within the industry of what the benefits are is now there. So it's going to take a bit of time and it's going to take all of us to keep talking and asking questions.
BTN: Other than increasing awareness and understanding around virtual cards, what other challenges do you foresee in the U.S. market?
Kilby:The challenge in the U.S.—and it's a challenge for everyone—is the constant technological advancement. Everything keeps changing and new things come along. But that also brings with it opportunity. That brings with it the chance to really be innovative and move ahead of the game, rather than just staying with the status quo, and to be looking for the next advantage that we could bring to the market and to our customers, which I think is quite exciting.
BTN: AirPlus recently announced partnerships in the U.S. with Pana—which specializes in recruit and other nonemployee travel—and Psngr1, a mobile booking app. You also have a U.S. partnership with Conferma. How do those partnerships bolster your offerings to U.S customers?
Kilby: We always look at things from our customers' perspectives and how we can make travel easier for them, especially around payment, of course. A big part of it is working with partners, working with all the moving parts of travel and travel payment and expense management together. So that's always a consideration of ours: Can we bring the expertise that we have from payment and apply that to other areas? So we've really been working in the local market and looking for partners that ... our customers want to use and [use] in conjunction with our product.
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