Travelbank's Duke Chung discusses:
- The pandemic's effect on Travelbank's strategy
- The broadening scope of virtual cards
- The evolving nature of subscription pricing models
TravelBank's recent reseller deal with Adelman Travel was the latest step in the travel and expense management provider's strategic push into the partnership distribution channel, which began last year. The effort is part of TravelBank's larger goal of advancing its offerings for a corporate travel ecosystem that had been evolving even before the onset of Covid-19 and has seen that transformation accelerate amid the pandemic. TravelBank co-founder and CEO Duke Chung spoke with BTN payments and tech editor Adam Perrotta about the company's recent moves, along with what's next for TravelBank and the industry at large.
BTN: Your deal with Adelman in February followed last year's agreements with World Travel and Upside to distribute your platform through those partners. To what extent was that strategy driven by Covid-19 and how the pandemic has changed how established travel management companies need to serve their corporate clients?
Duke Chung: The partnership strategy was largely driven by the pandemic. TMCs and technology platforms like TravelBank [hadn't] collaborated as deeply in the past [but] the last year changed that because of how business travelers' needs shifted. Travel dipped, but companies still needed a way to manage their unused tickets, new work-from-home expenses, reimbursements and corporate payments. ... The pandemic essentially accelerated digital transformation by years, if not a whole decade, in the span of one year.
BTN: On the flip side, does the partnership route give TravelBank the ability to reach types of potential clients you might not otherwise have been able to access? I'm thinking of Upside here, given their focus on lightly and unmanaged travel, but it seems this could apply to the other partnerships as well.
Chung: Absolutely. Through these partnerships we're reaching customers who already have a travel solution but didn't realize how helpful an expense solution would be until they saw it integrated into the respective platform they already use. Our focus continues to be on creating products and features that streamline the travel, expense, and now, corporate card management experience. By partnering with TMCs, we're able to stay focused on that.
BTN: Let's talk more about the corporate card piece. TravelBank last year began offering U.S. Bank virtual cards through your platform, via the booking tool and mobile wallets. Can you give some insight into client adoption of that service?
Chung: It's been growing rapidly and now represents a greater percentage of our pipeline opportunities. One rising use-case we were surprised by is procurement spend. One of our newest clients buys steel from different manufacturers around the world, and through the use and management of virtual cards, they've been able to reduce the type of paperwork that purchase orders require. When we built the card management experience on our platform it was with different use cases in mind, including for payments to consultants and for regular T&E. Right now … we're also seeing virtual cards distributed for relocation costs.
BTN: Are you seeing an increased interest overall from bank issuers of corporate cards in distributing their virtual cards through platforms like yours? Do you plan to add additional issuer partners?
Chung: Yes, we do plan to add more bank issuer partners. We're seeing a lot of interest from various potential banking partners and we're uniquely positioned to collaborate as we're not a card issuer. [Instead,] we work with existing commercial card products. … We serve as kind of a "Switzerland" of cards, and we'll continue to partner and integrate bank issuer virtual cards into our expense solution.
BTN: Along with the TMC partnership route, are you still focused on reaching clients directly as well? What's the activity been like on that front?
Chung: Yes, we are still focused on our direct-to-client channel. We've doubled our customer base during the pandemic and signed on clients across a number of industries. At the beginning of the pandemic, our customer service and sales teams were heavily focused on re-educating our existing clientele on TravelBank's new offerings and renewed the majority of our customers' subscription contracts well before they expired.
BTN: When offering your platform through a TMC, what types of customization can you offer to meet those partners'—and, in turn, their clients'—specific needs?
Chung: In addition to customizing the logo and branding on the front end for our partners, we can also connect to a TMC's GDS system so they can continue to leverage their own ARC and IATA statuses. … We're flexible and can configure our platform on a per-TMC, and sometimes even per-customer, basis to fit their needs. We're focused on providing a seamless experience for [TMCs'] customers, and sometimes that also includes integrating only one side of our platform if a customer selects a different vendor for travel or expenses.
BTN: Can your platform integrate with other, existing proprietary services these TMCs might otherwise be offering their clients already? For instance, I know Adelman recently launched a pre-trip approval service. Can that function work with the booking tool you've built for them?
Chung: We can integrate our partners' existing proprietary services within our OBT where appropriate. However, if we already include the service, [such as] pre-trip approvals or duty of care, then we would become a turnkey solution for their new customers moving forward.
BTN: Under the Adelman deal, your platform is being offered on a per-user, per-month subscription pricing model. We've heard a lot about how the sudden stoppage of travel last year may affect prevailing pricing models for booking, and specifically could drive a move away from transaction-based pricing. What's your view on what pricing model will prevail in the post-Covid world?
Chung: The pandemic showed us that the TMC industry cannot rely on a transaction-based pricing model only. We were the first to introduce a flat subscription service user fee for an all-in-one expense and travel solution and believe the rest of the industry will follow. The subscription pricing model presents clear value to financial decision-makers and users. Right now, CFOs are looking to consolidate the vendors and software they use. … In the past, I've spoken about the consumerization of business travel, [offering] more design-focused experiences and easy-to-use apps and the subscription pricing model is yet another result of that. The way a user knows the value they're getting when they sign up for a Netflix or Spotify subscription, business users want one easy-to-understand price from the platform.
BTN: What's next for TravelBank? Are there any areas you're particularly excited about or focused on for the year ahead as travel hopefully resumes?
Chung: In addition to our recent partnership announcement with Adelman, we also recently received our [ISO] security certification and have begun hiring again. This year, we'll add new distribution partnerships, advance our data and AI capabilities and help lead the way for our customers in preparing for a safe return to travel. We're in a unique position … where we can see rising problems and leverage our technology to solve them. For example, post-pay hotel reservations have been a huge problem in the travel industry, whereby having to fax in user itineraries to confirm a user arriving at a hotel can be checked in because they booked on a [virtual] commercial card. We were able to solve this by innovating on the expense and card side to enable any user to check in to their hotel with their mobile wallet tied to their commercial card.
BTN: Speaking of the resumption of travel, I can't let you go without asking for your prediction on what that might look like. Do you see any significant recovery happening this year?
Chung: We will see some recovery in 2021, but more meaningful recovery will depend on a number of factors such as the speed and availability of vaccines. While vaccines are being distributed, we need to stay safe and continue to wear masks to reduce spread. I do think we'll see an increase in business travel when it comes back. Now that more and more companies are announcing they're going completely digital-first, it will lead to more people traveling for internal meetings and company meetups year-round.