Concur CEO Steve Singh sees much of the platform work amidst the backdrop of the 18-month old investment fund as the promise of the ecosystem - and compares it directly to what Apple has accomplished with its wide network of partners developing for its devices.
Tnooz spoke with the CEO and his team at the company's annual Fusion event in New Orleans.
Comparing Concur's ecosystem to Apple
Singh points out that the community is the essential value driver for the company, as it's about the ecosystem rather than the individual product - using Apple as an example.
The iPhone is an incredible product. It totally changed the whole cell phone industry. But by itself it's nothing - it's the whole community of partners on top of it that makes it indispensable. That's what makes it magical. It's the community of partners that drives all the value. And it's the same in every other industry.
In the business travel industry, this hasn't come about. This is the opportunity that we're pursuing.
If we can create a platform that anyone in the world can integrate on top of, absolutely magical things happen. I used to cringe at using words like magical, but I'm bought in - amazing things happen when others get to contribute. And that's the beauty of life.
And of course, being at the center of it all is generally a enormously lucrative position for any business.
For Concur, this is an amazing opportunity because no one was willing to invest literally tens of millions of dollars in a platform or hundreds of millions of dollars in other companies. We're investing $150 million in other companies driving innovation, and that's our commitment.
But what is the perfect trip and what does it mean?
The name has become a rallying point of sorts for the company, and has garnered significant interest from trade and mainstream press. But what does it mean - for both the customer and the company?
Mike Koetting, EVP Supplier/TMC Services, sees the seamless connection of already-available information as a vital component of the perfect trip.
An important component of the perfect trip is the traveler having the ability to choose how and where they choose to purchase travel within the confines of their corporate travel policy. So TripLink enables them to do that.
The second part of supporting the Perfect trip is that I want my corporate travel manager and TMC to be well-informed about where I am in my itinerary. It's keeping the travel manager and the TMC informed about all of the travel spend regardless of how it occurs, and allows the travel supplier to deliver a more customized, personalized service to the traveler.
One of the key architects of the "perfect trip" idea is John Torrey, the EVP of Corporate Strategy and the lead on the $100 million Perfect Trip fund launched by Concur 18 months ago. For him, the perfect trip is an amorphous concept that depends on the user - and that's the key point, when it comes to how that fund has been used so far.
With all of these items coming together, the Perfect Trip is coming together - and the great thing is that others around the industry believe it to. We can personalize the entire trip, we can build upon and advance each others' solutions. As we collaborate we can move our industry forward. Our customers benefit and we reinvent an entire industry.
Concur CEO Steve Singh calls the Perfect Trip the company's "North Star."
I talk about two things all the time: how do we get every company in the world processing expense reports on Concur? And how do we reinvent what is fundamentally an inefficient, broken supply chain? It all leads up into the vision of the Perfect Trip. When we started selling that perfect trip, we asked why the world didn't function like that.
That vision was driven by wanting to work in a perfect model, independent of our needs. What should it look like, and work backwards so we can get from where we are to where we should be. How is the experience beautiful for every traveler? Well, you can't make this happen on your own. You've got to go sell this concept, this vision, to other people.
And not everyone bought into it, as it breaks some business models in the corporate travel space. We had to really push and preach to partners and customers - and if an idea is good enough, people eventually get behind it and it has a life of its own. And that's what's happened here.
Singh goes on to talk about how the definition of the perfect trip has become more refined as large hotel groups such as Marriott, Starwood and IHG have joined up to facilitate out-of-program bookings via loyalty numbers - a partnership that ultimately makes it easier for corporate travelers to book the trips they want.
What is the financial return of the Perfect Trip?
Torrey points out that the company is not basing success on traditional financial metrics of exits and ROI - the fund exists to enhance the experience of the end traveler and not to pick winners.
Getting innovations delivered to end users to consumer and add value to their employers, to our corporate customers, has been the mission. It's not just an investment fund. It's not a traditional venture capital arm of a corporation. That's just not what we do. So 18 months in, it's been a ton of work, but we're really happy with where we are.
Financial returns that people would associate with a private investment fund, which is an analogy for what we do, those will come - but only if we're delivered on that promise of innovation in the supply chain. So that's our primary focus, and will remain our primary focus - to enable the perfect trip. If we can do that in a meaningful way for our travelers then we have accomplished our goal.
I'm 100% certain that financial returns will come in that case - but it's a secondary concern to us.
As far as CEO Steve Singh is concerned, the Perfect Trip Fund is about driving disruption in the travel industry that ultimately makes it easier for business travelers to get what they want when they need it - such as a last-minute table at a restaurant, something that the company's investment in table8 shows.
The Perfect Trip needs connections - not across one company, but across many. It's not just hotels, or air, or hotels. It's every restaurant in the world. There's $8 billion of transactions processed through Concur, and there's few itemized receipts, little data about who the customers are and what they like.
This is a huge opportunity, as small businesses start to benefit and a ton of companies can begin adding value here. There's so much more innovation that these companies can drive to help restaurants understand their customers.
We serve 25 million business travelers and I want to make sure we solve their problems. Business travelers don't always have time to say in advance that they want to make a reservation at a particular restaurant - most of the time those meetings are last-minute and getting a reservation at a great restaurant is not always easy. W
We love what table8 is trying to do, and that is being able to carve out business relationships with top restauranteurs and make space available for the business travelers we serve. We focus on how to make life easier for the business traveler, it's that simple.
Singh also suggests that there are plenty of innovations left in certain travel verticals in the dining space.
I'd love to be able to book a specific table. There's no reason why I also couldn't order what I wanted to eat in advance - think about how cool that is from the perspective of a restaurant owner. There's really incredible innovation that still can happen in this market.
Discovering and fueling this innovation is the company line on the point of the Fund. Of course, a publicly traded company doesn't easily get away with saying that financial returns aren't the point of an investment. How
Tough decisions ahead - or how to endure in the face of change
When moving forward and vetting companies, Singh claims to seek cultural and vision fit first and foremost.
The scale doesn't make it any different - it comes down to the same principles. What do you believe in? What's important to you? If what you do doesn't align with those principles than eventually you'll make a mistake. There's no way that you can create anything meaningful, anything valuable that endures, without looking at it like everyone who works hard at it has to benefit.
And so that helps define the principles. You have to accept that there are brilliant people everywhere, and that everybody wants to contribute. If you take an open approach that anyone can be a part of, the decisions are trivial and simple - things like, can you help our customers get greater value? If you can, then welcome to the party. Let's go build an amazing solution set together.
Torrey identifies three key areas of importance for new "perfect trip" companies:
[The process for vetting] is different for every company. It's ultimately organized around three different basic investment priorities; three different industry requirements. First and foremost, the number one thing we evaluate is the team. Are we actually investing in a team that has the credibility and capability to deliver against that objective? That's the threshold issue for us as we consider if a company is ready for a partnership through the fund.
Global content is the second category that we're focused on. This could be something like LCC air content in India, it could be Brazilian hotel content, it could be Japanese rail content, it could be Chinese air content. It's getting after all those individual pieces of content that make that perfect trip experience real and not just something you can only do in the city of New Orleans because that's the only content we make available to you.
The third piece to it ultimately goes back to the supplier systems themselves - the systems that manage the availability and the pricing and the ticketing and the e-commerce sites for the travel suppliers themselves. If you look at those environemnts for hoteliers, they tend to be legacy technologies provided by a number of different vendors. The systems maybe have been installed for maybe 10 or 20 years. They are not open environments that people can innovate on, they are not environments conducive to introducing mobile interfaces.
Singh reinforces the idea that the idea of the perfect trip - and its associated fund - is more about pushing tech forward upfront than a fast financial exit or turnaround.
It was only four years ago that Uber and TaxiMagic came to life - before that you literally had to call the dispatch center. And we invested in TaxiMagic, not because we want one company to win over another - we love Uber as well - we invested in it because we wanted to drive the technology innovation in the space so that you could start to see an amazing experience for the traveler. We were just prescient in this market, and as we built out TaxiMagic, others saw the potential in the market.
We buy in to the ingenuity of other human beings, it has nothing to do with one individual or one company. It's what we do together that matters. That's what endures.
And with certain strategic outcomes - such as Google and Room 77 - it seems that Concur is following through on its investments as long-term industry plays without quick acquisitions or sales to other companies in this bid towards long-term structural change that places Concur as the heart of the business travel ecosystem.
What's next: personalization for every single business traveler
Personalization, due to the confluence of these technologies, is the biggest trend in business travel, according to Singh:
"Over the next couple of years, you're going to see corporate travel become entirely personalized around every single individual business traveler. That sounds simple but that's not even remotely close to what happened five years ago. That's not even remotely close to what happens today. Within a couple of years, business travel will be entirely personalized - within the context of their corporate travel plan.
Business travel will also become completely effortless. Most of the things that happen in business travel will happen for you automatically. Whether you're talking about booking a cab or changing a flight or booking a hotel or getting a receipt into an expense report - all of this will become seamless and automatic without you having to do anything.
On stage, Head of Product Mike Hilton showcased some of this functionality, where an entire business trip - flight, hotel and car - was booked using voice and supplier-direct bookings. Singh says these features will be rolled out in bits and pieces throughout the next year.
NB: Perfection image courtesy Shutterstock.