WellPoint manager of strategic sourcing for travel Cindy
Heston relies on more than off-the-shelf technology for her program, as she
believes technology often needs to be "bent" by travel buyer guidance
in order to be most effective.
Several years ago, Heston worked with Sabre and its GetThere
booking tool in such a way that Sabre could "scrape" airfares
whenever her company's travelers selected their flights. With that, she saw all
flights, airfares and departure times offered to travelers. She has since brought
that approach to hotel bookings.
WellPoint's contract with Travelocity Business, a travel
agency also under the Sabre umbrella, already required a report generated
whenever travelers received a preferred hotel price. Working with GetThere,
Heston leveraged that to get an email pushed to her anytime a traveler landed
on a hotel page and booked the preferred rate.
When WellPoint began using GetThere's live hotel
availability feature, which updates rate details by the second, it became
overwhelming. "I was getting hundreds of thousands of emails a week,
because they didn't have to select anymore. The price was there," Heston
said. "When they landed on Los Angeles, we would get all these emails that
would show us which hotels were displayed but not available and not offering
While the data was useful, it was too much to manage, she
said. Heston therefore worked with GetThere and her agency to store in an
agency database all the information a traveler sees when booking a hotel. The agency
also provides reports on that
Now, even if a traveler does not select a preferred
property, Heston can check to see whether the negotiated rate was available at
the time of booking. "It's like a constant audit based on their experience,"
she said. "I'll know who that traveler was, who the arranger was, what
rate was displayed, and what the room type was, because that was another key
piece that was missing. If everything was sold out, and I don't have
executive-floor rooms, I'm not going to go back and say, 'You're not honoring
our contract.' "
Heston also had capabilities to monitor the best-available
rate built into GetThere. With that, she is able to see whether the BAR is
trending lower than what she had negotiated.
The process took about three years to develop, but Heston
said it was worth it, given the value it adds to her relationships with both
preferred hotels and her travelers.
"I'll be able to have a conversation based on real data
as to how [hotels are] performing compared with their peers, what their
availability is, and even from a customer standpoint, I can go back to that
customer and say, 'I know you had this experience, and here's what I'll do to
resolve that and make it better,' " she said. "It really helps with
the hotel program, which is so dynamic and really difficult to get your arms
It's only one of several success stories Heston can cite
from her work partnering with WellPoint's current supplier base. She also
partnered with GetThere to modify her air program to recognize when travelers
have elite status with preferred carriers and to push them to those carriers
while demoting others, knowing they reap such benefits as free checked
luggage or upgrades.
"They get a little more room as far as cost, because we
know it's beyond point of sale," Heston said.
To make the business case for that development, Heston had
to coordinate closely with WellPoint's preferred agency and carriers to analyze
all transactions—including zero-cost transactions when flyers with status
received a free perk. From there, the value was clear.
"Once you build that cost in," Heston said, "we're
seeing 20 percent to 30 percent gaps as far as the value when you look beyond
the point of sale, looking at the entire trip journey and their activity,
behavior and experience on the road."
This report originally
appeared in the November 2012 issue of Travel