Amex GBT's Evan Konwiser talks about how corporate travel is evolving [Video]

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This is the continuation of a series of articles spun out of tnoozLIVE@TTE, recorded live at the TTE event Olympia, London. More clips to come! To learn more about how to bring tnoozLIVE@ to your event, please email Ella Sopp. Many eyebrows were raised in surprise when Evan Konwiser took up the...

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This is the continuation of a series of articles spun out of tnoozLIVE@TTE, recorded live at the TTE event Olympia, London. More clips to come! To learn more about how to bring tnoozLIVE@ to your event, please email Ella Sopp.

Many eyebrows were raised in surprise when Evan Konwiser took up the reins of vice president, digital traveler, Amex GBT, about three years ago. His background was in startups and this was a new move for the corporate travel world which has traditionally been thought of as slow to innovate and hampered by legacy systems and processes. He talks to tnooz managing editor Linda Fox about the evolving landscape, large company culture and working with startups.

Full transcript:

Linda: You have been in the role for about three years, how has it evolved from when you started to now?

Evan: When I first joined, it was a few months after the joint venture creation where GBT separated from American Express and started to create our own identity. Priority number one was building our long-term product technology vision as an independent entity with some of the investment we had from private equity investors and using some of the ability to start from scratch on some of our product technology off our our new infrastructure. It was really a greenfield opportunity to look at where the industry was going able and with my partners in the organisation and Philippe Chereque we were able to really plan for a multi-year investment in product and technology.

Now we’re in year three of that, of executing on that investment plan, we’ve paid down a lot of technical debt as we would say, we have built a foundation that will allow us to innovate and be nimble into the future, and future proof some of our investments. Today we’re in position where we’re starting to plot the next three-year investment plan on top of the foundation and I have to say it’s even more exciting because we get to build on the fruits of our labour.  Where three years ago we were really thinking about what that foundation needed to look like to be future proof, today we’re thinking about how we use that to take our business, from the experience of our travellers and the experience of clients and the experience our travel counsellors, into the next generation of experience, using that foundation

Linda: It’s interesting that you talk about future proof because so much happens in three years is it difficult not to get distracted by chatbots, voice and bitcoin when you’ve got this strategy?

Evan: Absolutely. Like all companies we’re looking at what’s out there, we’re distilling the trends we see in the marketplace and certainly prioritising the things that we think are near-term value creators for our clients and travellers and the things we need to keep an eye on and experiment with. I think the traditional TMC space has traditionally been so slow to innovate because our foundation is so complex -operating in so many countries globally, so many different platforms of content, so many platforms of tools, global clients with their own solutions and tools, third party solutions whether OBTs or expense products etc. that you want to integrate with and partner with, so, really order of business number one was building that foundation, we call it power from the core, you build your core platform foundation that gets all of your data together and that allows you to innovate. Now when we look at trends that are in the marketplace we can experiment much faster and easier than we could have two to three years ago. It used to take 18 to 24 months to build a proof of concept on something that might be a little bit out there, now we can do it in six weeks and I think that’s the excitement we have been able to generate internally within our organisation. As times goes on, especially as we complete that first three year roadmap the distance from getting that in the hands of our clients and travellers is starting to shrink dramatically So, while it is always intimidating to look at everything that’s out there, we’re really making progress on getting those things to the forefront much easier.

Linda: So culturally how difficult how has it been to get everybody thinking different and in a more agile manner?

Evan: It has probably been our number one challenge as a company, not just from a product and  technology perspective, but across all of Amex GBT globally –  from commercial teams, supplier teams, travel counsellor teams, operations teams, product technology teams  – to think as an independent entity and be more entrepreneurial.

When we first started we called ourselves the 100-year old start up, we have a 100-year old business and business model with a 100-year old brand but we’re trying to be entrepreneurial in how we approach our new identity so that has been the most challenging piece but the most rewarding piece when we get it right so trying.

Trying to shift our development processes to be more agile has been one of our key efforts and is definitely starting to show incredible benefits from that today. We brought in a lot of new blood into the organisation too, folks that had been in non-travel technology, leisure travel technology or even folks from GDSs that have different types of experience. It’s about bringing together an organisation that is unified to a goal and enthusing it with some expertise that can help us push in the right direction.

Linda: Is it frustrating for you in the sense that business travel and distribution is a slow moving world?

Evan: Of course, as someone who came to GBT as an entrepreneur, from the startup world, there’s not a day goes by… The way I like to think about it is there’s healthy tension and healthy struggles and then, there are unhealthy tension and struggles. Healthy tension is between trying to be entrepreneurial and getting compliance protections and data privacy and GDPR all in line, trying to move fast and make sure your clients are supportive and on board and managing change with their processes – that’s healthy tension – that’s something we are always going to be battling as a TMC, that’s our job, that’s what we have to get really good at, Then, there’s unhealthy tension – bureaucracy around an organisation, too many chefs in the kitchen, that is endemic in any large organisation, we have had to try and reduce, collaborate better, take down the silos, be more entrepreneurial in how we work internally. I think we have made incredible progress on the frustrating unhealthy tension and the healthy tension is something we have to thrive off and be the best in the business at because where we create the most value is when we become the best at  knowing when to push and when to slow down and understanding what that product lifecycle and experience lifecycle is like for our clients.

Linda: I remember when Greg O’Hara talked about the money that was on the books for acquisitions two years ago at Phocuswright, can you outline any areas that you would be looking at?

Evan: Our M&A strategy is focused on two fronts, one on technology and one on agencies. We have all seen some news recently on the agency side and, we have had a couple of smaller things over the past couple of years on that front. On the technology side, obviously KDS was our big win in that regard and has been an incredible contributor to GBT and continues to be an amazing place of innovation and collaboration and source of value for the larger GBT family. We’re always looking at other technology acquisitions as well that we think are accretive to our business.

Every time we look at something it’s not just about what they have and what they bring but how do they incorporate into what we’re trying to accomplish and how together we can make sure that the sum is greater than each individual. We’re very conscious of the challenges of incorporating new technology into our environment. While some companies are better off partners, some are better off as acquisitions that are part the family, some as IP we want to buy that we can incorporate. We’re always looking at the build, buy, partner on everything. We’re absolutely open to buy being an answer and our teams are committed to supporting those but they don’t come every day.

Linda: As a final question, I’m sure you’re looking at the travel startup world and it’s very active when it comes to corporate travel right now there is a lot of money out there, are there startups you find particularly interesting or an element or avenue they are going down you find interesting or something you would highlight in the travel startup world?

Evan: There are definitely some things in the marketplace that are interesting. There are some things that we are are in a wait and see mode or maybe we are in an experimentation mode or proof of concept mode on.  Our attitude is very much to build relationship with entrepreneurs and startups, help them navigate the corporate travel ecosystem and create opportunities to do business with them when it makes sense for our clients or, for our business, depending on what they’re looking at.

There are a handful startups out there that we have engaged with at various levels. As a former entrepreneur, and hopefully will be an entrepreneur again one day, the challenge is always trying to do customer development with a startup and hone their value to be really specific for either a TMC or our client or the traveller. Entrepreneurs, as they learn corporate travel, you see them move around a little to understand where their actual value add is and where their integration point are is, we like to be a partner with them, helping them but that takes time. It takes, I hate to say it, but it takes often years, for them to get to the point where they have something that is clicking that integrates well, that works well and delivers value for customers.

We have seen a few that have been on the market now for a year or two starting to find their way, and we’re looking forward to continuing our collaborations with them. Then there are the greenfield things that are new and some we look at and wonder what direction they are going in and others we can get pretty excited about and some we have incorporated into our ecosystem. There’s one we are doing business with right now, we will talk probably about soon publicly. It’s in an area that we think has been under-invested in and  we’ve partnered with and we’re now bringing to market in a significant way.  We’re definitely keen to play in that space.

Linda: So, coming into business travel to the beast that is Amex GBT with your entrepreneurial background, what have you learnt?

Evan: I think I’ve learned a healthy respect for a large organisation and how to work for a large organisation. For me, I’m all about impact. I love making an impact on the industry. I like helping business travellers have better and easier travel experiences  My passion is in making it easier for people to travel. I think travel is ultimately a force for peace in this world, a force for positive economic value and positive personal value for our travellers. I think you can do that as an entrepreneur, trying to find ways to create value that has not been done on the marketplace and there, you get to make big change but it takes a long time to make impact or, you can be the opposite and work within an organisation that has a lot of clients and a lot of customers and impacts millions of travellers a year. The engine moves slower but when you do move the impact is great. It’s fun to try both sides of that equation.

I think in the big environment at GBT we have an incredible team and incredible clients and getting to work with them on understanding their needs and what makes travel important to them and how they view the value of travel. We can support their goals of retention of key employees, making them happier and easier for them to travel, ensuring the right value for their travel programme, supporting them in their professional endeavours is really incredibly rewarding and as an entrepreneur it’s difficult to duplicate that kind of hands on value creation on a daily basis certainly in the span of time I’ve had to do it at GBT. It has been incredibly rewarding experience and I’ve learned a ton about our industry and about what motivates our clients and travellers. It’s really fun to be now pushing GBT forward aggressively and I think we have and think we’re going to continue to make a big difference in the industry.