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Concur Travel president Charlie Sultan
Concur this summer has released a more detailed roadmap of
its full re-platforming, with a new car booking experiencing debuting later
this year, followed by new hotel and air booking experiences. Recently
appointed Concur Travel president Charlie Sultan sat down with BTN
executive editor Michael B. Baker during the recent Global Business Travel
Association convention in San Diego to detail some features the booking tools
will have as well as his larger vision of building a
"platform of the future."
BTN: How is the roadmap for the new booking
Charlie Sultan: Overall, there's been a ton of
investment that we've put into the travel tool. We've hired 200 new developers
to augment the staff that's already there. A lot of our peers in the industry
were not so fortunate to continue hiring throughout the pandemic.
We continue to accelerate the roadmap. We've been talking
about some of these new features that our customers want for a while. On top of
the existing integration from travel to expense and some of the other systems,
it's just a matter of continuing to build more flexibility.
With car, it's building some direct connects to some of the
other car rental companies, if people need drop-off or more information about
sustainability and carbon offsets. We expect that the car experience should
probably launch right around the end of this year. It's not going to be a
switch one day to the next, where everyone is going to see it, so we'll start
rolling out a subset of users by the end of this year or maybe the beginning of
next year, depending on holiday schedules.
With everything that we're doing, the desktop and the mobile
are going to be the same. There's a lot of functionality built in around
helping travelers with their productivity, so things like autofill where you
start typing things where you can see on a map where you are going to be and
where the locations are. The [user experience], the visuals are going to be
great, the functionality for the travelers are going to be great.
Hotels, we'll probably start rolling around the end of the
first quarter. A subset of hotel users will start seeing the new hotel
experience with the upgraded [user experience], features and functionality. By
the time we get to GBTA next year, we'll start rolling out the air experience
It's a continuous evolution. You can't just work on it and say, “I’m done,” because the next day, an airline decides they're going to start including different bundles and fares coming through different channels.”
BTN: How have you incorporated customer feedback into
Sultan: Everything we do, we're consistently talking
to the customers. What differentiates us from others out there is we're not
just talking to travel buyers, but we're also talking to the procurement,
accounts payable, the finance group. Everything we do, we want to build it in a
way that's going to add a lot of productivity to everyone in the ecosystem. So,
it's not just productivity for the travel and travel manager. It's a matter of
figuring out the different pain points people are experiencing, be it the
traveler, the travel manager, the [travel management company] that's servicing
it, the car rental company. We chat with all of them, figure out their needs
and the most impactful things we can do, and then set up to figure out the
fastest way we can get these to market.
With car rentals, it might have been using a partner to help
us do some of the connections. We had some customers in Europe who were very
vocal about a form of pickup and drop-off, [Delivery and Collection, in which
rental car companies bring a rental vehicle to any address for pickup and
drop-off], so that's something we needed to be sure was involved. A lot
of it is also just leveraging what is already out there in the consumer world
and ensuring our tool becomes more of a consumer tool as well.
BTN: Is there a beta version of the car booking tool
for customers to test yet?
Sultan: There's not. There are a small set of customers
and TMCs with whom we've shared what it's going to look like, what it's going
to do and how it's going to work, so they can actually ensure that their back-end
systems and everything are integrated through. We've had some internal tests.
BTN: What talent resources did you tap in this
Sultan: There is a core set of people who have been
working. Fred Fredericks is our chief product strategy officer. He's one of the
original guys who helped develop Outtask many moons ago, the
precursor to Concur Travel. He's got Brian Hace on his team, who is a travel
guy who was at CWT and has been in the industry a long time. Becky Tatum, one
of the chief VPs working in that group, came from Sabre and ATPCO. The core of
who is leading the effort has a ton of travel industry experience.
BTN: What's happening with rail?
Sultan: Rail has been a gap for most booking tools
for a long time. For us, it was a matter of trying to figure out how to pump
through the relevant information. Customers have a desire to see rail next to
air in some of the markets. That's really what we're working on now, how that
experience will piece together.
BTN: You've talked about building the "platform
of the future." So, what does that mean outside of these new booking
Sultan: A lot of it is about how we give our customers
flexibility, how we give our users the best grade experience where they can
have the best productivity. It's about how we give productivity to everyone in
One of the other things that differentiates us is that we
offer choice. You can use a variety of TMCs with us, you can use a variety of [global
distribution systems] with us. You can pick your content sources with us. You
can decide whether you want to use just the booking tool or a fully integrated
supplier website through TripLink. It's about how we build as much choice into
the ecosystem so every travel manger, every company, every finance professional
can figure out how to configure the tool in a way that best suits their needs.
It's not just the [user experience]. A lot of the back-end plumbing
that integrates into multiple systems that makes life easier, that's where the challenges
of development lie. Working with a lot of multinationals who have very specific
needs across a lot of countries, you have to make it work right for those
people, and that's what takes a lot of the effort. It's a continuous evolution.
You can't just work on it and say, "I'm done," because the next day,
an airline decides they're going to start including different bundles and fares
coming through different channels. That is why it's important for us to be
plugged in and keep talking to everyone in the industry to figure out and be ahead
of the changes. By the time someone is reading about it in BTN or The Beat, if
we start our work at that point, it's too late.
BTN: Will you be looking at any acquisitions to
Sultan: I wouldn't comment on acquisitions per se,
but I don’t think we have a pride of ownership over, "We have to be the
ones to build it." We are multi-TMC, multi-GDS and partners, I think we
have over 700 partners who our corporate travel managers can plug in. We are a
multi-faceted entity that will allow you to plug in many different things to
meet your needs.
BTN: What's the latest on TripLink's supplier
Sultan: The bookings have trended along with the
general economy, but TripLink has been doing well. Southwest Airlines will be
integrated into TripLink, so they're going to hopefully start the development
work soon. Amtrak will be doing the same thing. We continue to add the
suppliers that our customers are asking us for. More so than ever, you see a
lot of the airlines taking fares out of traditional channels or surcharging things,
so being able to book directly on the website for a lot of travel managers
offers them not just the convenience and flexibility for travelers but also substantial
savings, because they're not paying the GDS surcharges and other fees that come
along and getting access to some of the better content.
BTN: For you, what was the biggest surprise in your
recent industry survey?
Sultan: The biggest one is that 100 percent of travel
managers said they expect their job to be more challenging—100 percent of 700
travel managers. [Also,] one of the key points is the Gen Zs seem to be willing
to make more decisions based on sustainability, which isn't too surprising. Clearly
the older generation are maybe a little more set in their ways, where they'll
try to modify but won't cancel a trip necessarily.
BTN: What else is Concur Travel doing in
Sultan: The surveys we've done and travelers we talk
to, it's becoming a bigger and bigger issue, and for some, it's becoming a
dealbreaker if they can't find a sustainable solution. We all need to work
harder to reduce or eliminate our emissions in some cases. The tool will have
different elements to let you know which hotels are green, to give you
different filtering and sorting capabilities to try to identify the things you
want. We recently
partnered with Chooose and Thrust Carbon to augment the data for travel
managers to understand what they are using and what they could be doing
BTN: We've seen some criticism
about the slow progress with NDC. What's your assessment?
Sultan: I will never think that anything in
technology is moving fast enough. We have the idea and want it in our hands
tomorrow. It's pretty much API-based distribution, and a change is necessary.
We've been shopping on Amazon now for however many years with images and
recommendations, and the experience for travel simply hasn't caught up, so the
change is necessary.
The GDSs are working really hard on it, the companies like
Travelfusion have been working hard on it and airlines have been working on it
a long time. When I was at American Airlines, I did our
Farelogix contract at American Airlines to enable direct-connect
distribution. It's complicated regardless, but it's super complicated for
corporate travel: exchanges, refunds, partial refunds, multiple cabins, codeshares.
While I wish it was further along, I understand why it's not and everyone's working
Like many of us in the industry I do wish it was more of a
standard to make it easier for partners down the line to plug into one plug and
get everything out of it. I saw a great image of one of those converters, meant
to be like, hey, you bring whatever plug you have and plug it in, but I think
there are a lot of sparks coming out of it.
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