WellPoint Leverages Tech To Advance Supplier Partnerships - Business Travel News

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WellPoint Leverages Tech To Advance Supplier Partnerships

December 04, 2012 - 04:15 PM ET

By Michael B. Baker

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 last-room availability."

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 information.

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 around."

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 Procurement. 

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