BCD Travel is one of the world’s largest
corporate travel management companies, with services in 109 countries and sales
of more than $27 billion in 2018.
Yannis Karmis joined the company in 2016 after working
at Sabre in the dual roles of vice president for corporate solutions and president
of GetThere, Sabre’s online travel management solution.
At BCD Travel, Karmis is senior vice president
of product strategy and development, leading a team that sets the vision for
all aspects of the company’s products, platforms and solutions.
As part of our monthlong series on business
travel, we talked to Karmis about emerging technologies impacting the sector,
virtual payments, digital identity and more.
the biggest pain point in the lives of business travelers that still needs to
be solved, and how can technology help?
For infrequent travelers, the biggest challenge lies in
getting reliable and actionable information in time to make informed decisions
that both support company policy and individual preferences. Can I expense
this? What’s my best option getting from the airport to my hotel? What are my
options if my flight is cancelled?
For frequent travelers, who tend to be better informed due
to past experiences, the challenge is empowerment: does company policy give me
the freedom I need to make decisions I know will result in trip value for both
my company and me. Traveler engagement platforms with mobile applications are
proving invaluable for this, allowing companies and their travel management
companies to provide guidance to these travelers at every point within the
To give an idea of how this is playing out, consider some
benefits provided by BCD’s TripSource traveler engagement platform:
- Insight: We
deliver flight status alerts, including information about gates and delays, in
near real time. We make it easy to find confirmation codes and trip details. We
provide information about travel risks. We share recommendations on a range of
trip-related decisions, from transportation options to whether hotel rooms
include Wi-Fi and breakfast.
- Context: We share
information to help travelers better understand their options and make informed
decisions. We remember their preferences. We provide travelers access to their
travel policies and procedures. We make emergency contacts easy to find.
- Empowerment: We
provide convenient self-service options within our TripSource platform that
give travelers direct control over the trip management process. We give
travelers the tools they need to get service in the way that best fits their
needs: Click to call their agent. Cancel trips in the app. Chat with an agent.
- Control: We give
travelers multiple ways to take control of the booking process. With just a few
clicks, they can shop and book from a massive inventory representing hotels in
over 200 countries. They can make an air reservation. Soon they will be able to
reserve a rental car. We can even make it easy to connect them to their
company’s preferred online booking tool. It’s easy to search based on personal
preferences – or save their favorite properties.
BCD is working with Travelport, IBM and Hyatt on using
blockchain for hotel commission settlement. What are your thoughts on the
potential for blockchain?
Blockchain holds the promise of being a transformative technology, but it’s
still very early days and there are very limited applications in corporate
travel. A key benefit of blockchain is the ability to allow partners to share
transaction information with each other in a common, immutable format – a smart
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One obvious use case is the settlement of commissions. To
accurately settle commissions, there needs to be an agreed truth between the
agency and hotelier on what was booked, the appropriate commission, whether the
stay occurred as planned and if the commission was remitted. A byproduct of
this complex process is that agencies and hoteliers both spend a lot of time
and money to track and reconcile commissions. Blockchain lets us rethink the
BCD is partnering with Travelport, IBM and Hyatt to explore
how blockchain could simply and accelerate commission tracking. IBM is recognized
the leading practitioner of blockchain. Travelport brings extensive experience
in deploying scale technology to process complex travel transactions. And Hyatt
is among the most innovative hotel brands. Together, we hope to explore how
blockchain technology can move commission collections into the digital age.
Last year BCD put out a series of papers on emerging
technologies such as blockchain, bots, machine learning and virtual and
augmented reality. In addition to blockchain, which other of these do you think
have the most potential to impact business travel and the work of TMCs in the
Corporate travel has been a pioneer in bot technology for over a decade,
particularly in “front office” and “back office.”
Back-office bots are proven and efficient in processing
transactions. We’re undergoing a renaissance as we add AI to the traditional
configuration engines. A great example here are the bots BCD uses to augment
booked data with additional information using AI rules to give travel managers
greater insight in their reporting.
Front-office bots, made possible by massive advances in natural
language processing and artificial intelligence by leading technology
companies, are traveler-facing. For example, BCD uses natural language processing
technology from Amazon in our TripSource Alexa skill. We are also testing AI
technologies from Microsoft to allow travelers to get immediate answers to
How is IATA’s New Distribution
Capability impacting your products and services and what are your thoughts
about how it will impact distribution in the coming years?
BCD is committed to ensuring our clients have access to the relevant
content they need for their travel programs regardless of whether we use NDC or
older technologies. We have been a leader in adopting NDC and integrating it
into our operations. We recently signed an agreement with Qantas Airways to
participate in the Qantas Channel. We previously struck channel booking deals
with Air France/KLM and British Airways/Iberia.
provide travel agents who sign up for them access to a wider range of fares and
content and allow BCD clients to book reservations without paying the airlines’
channel booking fees. We’ve also signed an NDC agreement with Lufthansa Group
while working with Amadeus NDC.
While we have made
much progress and invested heavily in NDC enablement, there are still many
challenges to address. We are building new air shopping and booking APIs,
adapting agent tools, updating mid- and back-office systems and much more with
NDC in mind. We are actively working with our global distribution system and
online booking tool partners to redefine workflows and ensure we can shop,
book, service, reconcile and report on an NDC booking regardless of channel.
Our strategy and
goal around NDC is to ensure that companies retain the ability to shop from
among multiple competing offers between like city pairs - and can capture
essential data needed to keep travelers safe on the road.
BCD recently announced a new
dedicated hotel division, Stay by BCD Travel, offering “dynamic, data-driven
solutions.” Tell us more about how data is being used for that.
Stay by BCD Travel is going beyond the industry’s traditional emphasis
on resource-draining seasonal sourcing, using data to focus on spend management
strategies that deploy successful tactics from consumer marketing, such as
merchandising and market-level rate targets and price assurance to optimize our
clients’ hotel programs.
Analyzing the available data and mining it for
insights on an ongoing basis allows BCD to provide a unique approach using
digital marketing to build traveler awareness of the hotel program, increase
program adoption and influence buying decisions - yielding more value with less
It’s been about 18 months since BCD launched its marketplace,
SolutionSource, to connect travel managers to third-party services. How has
that been received and what’s planned for that in the future?
Our SolutionSource platform
has been extremely well received by clients, technology providers and the wider
industry. Over 300 clients have implemented one or more SolutionSource
technology partners into their program – with many opting to integrate more
than one. We now have 19 innovative third-party technology providers in the
marketplace, including six new additions since the year began.
These new entrants offer incredible potential value to the
corporate travel industry but are often barricaded by legacy systems and
contractual red tape. As a trusted advisor, we want to ensure our customers
have access to the latest technology providers to help drive the success of
their travel program.
Toward that end, the second phase of our SolutionSource
platform supports developers with access to BCD’s APIs and data feeds. We look
forward to expanding the number of SolutionSource partners as needed to ensure
our customers have the ability to select the partner or partners that best suit
their program needs for a truly tailored program.
What are the pros and cons of being a massive global
company when it comes to innovation?
The biggest challenge for a global TMC is that massive diversity across
regions and countries produces a lot of obstacles when rolling out change
across the entire organization. There’s always a given market that requires
greater effort and expenditure of more time. We overcome this by investing in
open, flexible systems that can be adapted to local requirements while still
maintaining global standards and integrations.
Why have financial investors gotten really interested in
corporate travel‐focused startups in the last few years? And have you learned
anything from watching what those companies are doing?
It’s a great question. Orange is the new black, and boring
corporate travel is the hot new landscape for innovation - accounting for a
significant portion of the $5.3 trillion global travel market. Travel investors
have realized over the past several years that making it in the consumer market
means you have to have the muscles (and cash) to go up against not only the
large consumer players like Expedia and Booking Holdings, while competing for
customer acquisition through expensive channels like Google, Facebook and metasearch
engines. And, there is the looming possibility of other tech giants turning
their attention to leisure travel.
The biggest challenge for a global TMC is that massive diversity across regions and countries produces a lot of obstacles when rolling out change across the entire organization.
Yannis Karmis - BCD Travel
Corporate travel is a highlight consolidated market where
successful innovators can focus on their technology and rapidly scale sales by
winning over travel managers rather than individual travelers or individual
This is great news for BCD because we are looking to harness expanding
pool of innovation for our clients. We have built an open platform, developed
new APIs and established our SolutionSource marketplace. We recognize that a
greater focus on innovation in corporate travel is good for our clients and for
us. We are not expecting to build everything our clients want and need on our
One thing I’ve learned is that entrepreneurs and venture
capitalist are quick to sniff out unmet opportunities in strong markets. BCD is
committed to enabling this innovation through partnerships, open systems and
There’s currently a lot of discussion around advances
creating a digital traveler identity to enable a seamless journey. How much
potential does that have and how quickly could it happen?
It’s time for everyone to start with the traveler when developing new
technologies and solutions. Digital traveler identity is an essential
investment for any company that expects to remain competitive in corporate
travel. Digital traveler identity is not the same as traditional profiles. It’s
a suite of capabilities which include traveler identification and access
management, travel consent management and traveler personalization. It enables
an expanded set of integrations while adhering to more complex regulations and
BCD has been leading this transformation for several years. Most
recently, we announced a landmark deal with SAP to deploy their next generation
customer data cloud platform. SAP is widely recognized as the leader in digital
identity management with a strong focus on B2B and B2C technologies.
The potential here is enormous: in order to make good on the
vast promises of personalization, a strong identity strategy, supported by a
global platform is critical. This isn’t just about seat preference and form of
payment – we are building a platform that creates a 360-degree view of each business
traveler, stitching their identity across multiple silos of data within our
systems so we can create new levels of intelligence for not only our human
agents but the countless bots automating tasks for travelers and travel agents.
Identity is where it all begins.
And what about virtual payments – what benefits do they
provide and how do you see that evolving in the future?
Travel managers and travelers alike are realizing the value of virtual
payment and increasing the demand for it. The usage of virtual payment
solutions by our clients continues to grow by strong double digits every year -
no doubt in part because a virtual payment address (VPA) reduces fraud, and we
know the travel industry is a major target for organized attacks.
VPA also simplifies the payment and settlement processes for
travelers. The traveler impact of reconciling hotel charges and automating
expense reporting is massively positive, and that drives better program
adoption, which makes travel managers happy.
We foresee virtual payment adoption steadily increasing from
both the corporate and supplier side. Travelers today expect digital
interactions that are easy, seamless and omnichannel. Virtual check-in,
location-based services, smart rooms, digital concierges, virtual payment and
digital invoice management are just a sampling of the technology hotels are
embracing today in response to the changing travel landscape demographics. (Digital
invoice management allows us to coordinate virtual payment with the traveler’s
Folio when we perform full reconciliation of the virtual card invoice.)
What are the top challenges for CTOs in the travel
- Talent: More than ever, a TMC is
hiring for new skills (such as data scientists or software developers) while
retaining the deep institutional knowledge that only those with years of
experience in the travel industry have. This means we must invest heavily in
our people while at the same time creating space for, and attracting, a new
breed of professionals.
- Digital transformation in the services industry: A good CTO worth his or her salt is moving mountains
right now – removing daylight between what we have always called on the one
hand “operations or fulfillment” and on the other hand “technology solutions.”
In many cases these are still two distinct operating units. To the buyer – the
client, the end user – this doesn’t make sense. True elegance in business
travel management comes when the lines between the technology and the service
are indistinguishable. This is big work.
Are there any examples of how technology is being used in
other industries that you think have implications for travel?
Retailing in the consumer market is driving more sophisticated online
shopping strategies. The online and mobile channels are, and will continue to
be, the primary ways our clients and travelers experience our services.
Online software sales with low friction deployment and
freemium models – all the ways software companies are selling their solutions
online is changing the way some buyers are looking to buy. Traditional
procurement cycles are relevant and necessary for the most part, but more and
more research (and even testing) is being done online by buyers before entering
into a direct sales discussion. First impressions for travel suppliers in the
digital space are therefore critically important.
Commodities trading – in some industries, buyers are
constantly buying and negotiating. Their “always on” approach to procurement is
very much relevant to the business travel industry. This is why you see some
leading companies moving into dynamic hotel program management – sourcing
hotels throughout the year, reacting to dynamic market conditions as they
happen. Price assurance solutions already have bots shopping to take advantage
of price drops, but new bots are starting to determine when to hold ticketing
altogether to wait for price drops. The trader working corn futures has
technology to support his or her objectives – many of these themes apply to the
volatile supply of business travel.
Banking – payment, payment, payment. Around the world, digital wallets are
growing in adoption from the consumer side and pressure for adoption is mounting
within the corporate travel space, particularly outside the U.S. where their
everyday use is much more commonplace. This brings a variety of challenges as
well as benefits (such as greater security through the use of virtual cards) to