Michelle McKinney Frymire, CEO
Michelle McKinney Frymire became CEO of CWT in May 2021. She
joined the company in 2019 after prior leadership roles at Starwood Vacation
Ownership, Delta Air Lines and Continental Airlines.
CWT’s history dates back nearly 150 years. The travel management
platform currently has a presence in about 140 countries.
You’ve just passed your six-month anniversary as CEO. What
has been most surprising in your time on the job? And what has been the most
There have been lots of things that were both surprising in
a positive way but also surprising in terms of challenging. On a positive note
I can’t tell you how surprising and yet meaningful to me it has been to have so
much positive feedback, both internally and externally, as the first woman to
be a CEO in this space. As a company that has 70% of our employees women, the
notes of support and congratulations that I’ve received and continue to receive
have been super positive.
On the challenging side, this is a challenging time for our
industry. And the piece that has been slightly more challenging than I expected
is just making sure I’m allocating my time where it needs to go. For us there’s
heavy lifting we’ve been doing securing our financial future but also ensuring
our team has the right resources, that we’re allocating capital to the right
initiatives and that we’re thinking long-term about the mission we have. And I’m
always thinking, am I allocating time the right way and making sure I’m looking
forward and giving the right time to the right activities?
Where do you see opportunities for growth?
The first and highest best opportunity is the investments
we’re going to be making in technology and in our product. We have a
significant investment plan ahead of us and making sure we are prioritizing not
just the right things but the sequencing of those is so critical. There are
elements to the MyCWT app that we want to make sure we get in the right order,
particularly driven by the needs and desires of our clients.
There are elements
around the sustainability. We continue to focus on RoomIt and development
there, we continue to focus on our MyCWT China offering, we continue to focus
on innovative developments as well. Thinking about the sequencing and planning
of those is a huge priority for us. While we are making a big investment, it’s
important that we are making it at the right time and in the right places.
What are one or two of the main aspects of business travel
that still need to be fixed or updated?
As people get back to travel, they also realize the things
about travel that are really painful. The in-airport experience, the time it
takes to go from curb to the gate, is still really long. It can be really
painful and really unpredictable. It’s an area that is so ripe for the
incredible technology innovations that we are seeing in that space. You think
about facial recognition, AI and all the amazing technology that can come to
bear on that. I think as people return to travel, and we see this massive rise
in the use of technology around every kind of business, it’s a place and part
of travel that will really benefit from the technology innovation that is
And then I think the booking experience itself is so
important to travelers. Travelers and travel arrangers want it to be easy. They
want to have all the information they need right at their hands. And that set
of information is growing every day - information about sustainability,
information about safety and health, information about requirements. That’s
part of where we are excited about our technology investment is how we be a
part of elevating that experience.
What emerging technologies or solutions interest you the
most right now?
AI, blockchain, machine learning, they all have a place in
the ecosystem. The way they get deployed is what excites me the most, if you
think about that true omnichannel experience and our ability to use something like
AI and machine learning to make our messaging applications even more effective
for travelers. I love, love this idea of how people can make their work day
more efficient using messaging on our platform. We have over a thousand clients
I think about myself... I’m going from meeting to meeting...
and I realize that my day is changing and that my four o’clock flight could be
a two o’clock flight or maybe it needs to be a six o’clock flight. And how easy
it is to go through messaging and say I need to change my outbound flight today
and how the technology we deploy can know instantly know who I am, where I am,
what trip I’m on and immediately use that to help me change my day with me
expending less than 60 seconds of effort. Using technology to do those things
is really going to bring a much different experience to the traveler.
What’s your view on newer entrants in the TMC space such as TripActions and
Travelperk – what can legacy players, like CWT and others, learn from them? And
what can they learn from you?
What they can learn from us is that this is in fact people
plus technology. It’s not technology in all capitals and people in lowercase.
It’s capital T and capital P. This business is a service business, and it
requires great technology backed by great people. On flip side I think what we
have learned and continue to discover is our ability to accelerate innovation,
to move nimbly, to implement things quickly, to ensure that we are adopting and
incorporating startup technologies in our own technology set.
I love the pace
at which development is happening in our business. It’s exciting to see how
rapidly we are evolving. And I’m excited for CWT about how we can accelerate
our own brand of innovation that we are bringing and the investments we are
making in accelerating innovation. But in the end, this is a people
business ... and it is backed by the power of people, whether it is people
developing technology, people servicing clients, people servicing travelers –
it is ultimately a people-plus-technology business.
Speaking of people, CWT like many other companies in travel reduced
or modified staffing due to the pandemic. As the recovery continues, how are
your positioning the company to have appropriate staffing to handle the needs
I am super excited to see the recovery that is happening. Even in the last six to eight weeks, it’s been notable ... and we are all
excited to be on the road ourselves. As it relates to people, that has been one
of the real benefits of these part-time working programs that we’ve put in place. As volumes come back, we have someone working one to two days a week, we are
able to very quickly ramp them up to three to four days a week in response to
volumes. It also allows us to adjust our expenses to the fluctuations in
There are also places where we are absolutely out in the market
hiring. You look at our global hubs that we operate, you look at some of our
technology organizations. We have hundreds of jobs that are posted, and we are
seeing real success about getting people excited about coming back to travel
and being part of travel and that’s in part because of the strong future we
have ahead of us.
Can you briefly outline your projections for recovery for
CWT in terms of returning to 2019 levels. And how do those projections and the
financial restructuring CWT announced in September impact your strategies
We like everyone else think recovery is multi-year journey.
I’ve looked at probably 50 different iterations of projections for business
travel and none show next year at 100%. We also know there’s a lot of different
perspectives that you have to consider. The recovery is highly disparate,
it’s very different by country around the world.
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We take into account who are our clients and how are they
thinking about returning to travel. We’ve taken into account who are our
largest suppliers and how they are thinking about it. In general our view of
recovery that we took for purposes of re-capitalization was actually a fairly
conservative one. We wanted to ensure the company was tremendously financially
strong as we go through that journey.
On the other hand, as we are experiencing
recovery, and it’s above our somewhat conservative projections, we are also
constantly rethinking the next three months and six months to make sure we are
staffed, we’re ready to service our clients, we know who is returning to work
and to travel.
It is a very fluid process for us, but I think I, like most
people in the industry, see a strong return to travel happening today, with likely
to be some pause on that in the winter holiday period because people do want to
reconnect with family and friends. And then a really optimistic expectation for
early 2022. I think we’ll see strong recovery. I do think it will differ by
industry and by geography ... but when I think about the benchmarks around
2022, we certainly think that where we are today says that you could see 60 to
70% of 2019 levels in 2022, and then beyond that I do think it will recover.
Why hasn’t NDC been the distribution panacea that it was portrayed
to be for TMCs and airlines? What needs to happen?
If you ask 50 travel people what NDC is you get 60 different
answers. That fundamentally is at the root of why it’s not a panacea – because
there’s no one definition of what it is, how to do it, how to make it work. And
that’s why I think it still remains this illusive goal for many of us around
how we make it work. I’m excited about the things we are doing in this space
and our ability to help guide toward aggregating content in different ways and providing
that harmonized content to clients.
But I do think its biggest challenge is the
disparity of just the definition of what it is and how people are going about it. And that’s not uncommon in the early stages of disruptive technology, for there
to be different views and different approaches. Over time those will coalesce
around certain things that seem to work, and I think it will gain traction ... I think it will flourish. We have a
fantastic team focused on NDC ... and the work we are doing with suppliers and
clients and the distribution system on it is exciting, but I do think it still
needs a bit more definition and perhaps a refinement and alignment on how do we
get there collectively.
I understand CWT will soon be announcing some goals related
to sustainability. What role can a company like CWT play in helping the
industry make progress in this area?
I think of sustainability, diversity, equity and inclusion,
social justice – I think about these topics in a concentric circle model. The
center of the circle is that we have to do what we do the right way. Doing the
right thing for the right reasons at the right time. But more importantly, just
like when you throw a rock into a pond and the circles ripple and get bigger
over time, we have the ability to impact beyond that.
If you ask 50 travel people what NDC is you get 60 different answers.
Michelle McKinney Frymire - CWT
We can bring innovative
thinking about sustainability in a travel program to thousands of clients. We
can benchmark what the biggest trends are and what the best practices are and
spread those ... to our other clients. We can help people integrate technology
around sustainability into things like the booking practice, the pre-trip
To me it’s a really exciting place to be. But doing that for your
clients means starting at home. And making sure that we are doing the right
things and that we are focused inwardly on being the right part of that
ecosystem. It’s more exciting to multiply your impact in a big way because you
can then bring to clients and connect client who can work together on things.
You are one of the few women leading a major brand in the
travel industry. What will it take to get more diversity in the C-suite?
What will work there is going to work everywhere. For the
circle to be larger, everyone who is in the circle has to be willing to bring
more people who are different than them into the circle. It’s fundamentally
that simple. Whether you look at the board room, the C-suite, the executive
ranks, middle management or your employee base, we have to focus on bringing
people into the circle at every level who are different than us - different
backgrounds, different colors, different religions, different belief systems,
different ways of thinking. It’s all tremendously important.
The world is an
incredibly diverse, wonderful place, and when we ourselves look like the world –
and that means not just in your employee base but in your client base, your
supplier base, in your executive ranks, in your board room -then we will be
more successful in building a better CWT for the world. We have made
tremendous progress in the C-suite and the board room but we have way more
progress to go. I think every company around the world has a role to play in
this, because it’s only collectively we can make progress we need and the pace
of progress has to increase. It cannot take 100 years to achieve the kind of
diversity we need and that is reflected in the world.
You’ve had a broad range of experience in your career,
including both airlines and hospitality brands. What have you learned from
those that is applicable for you now?
One of the things I was really fortunate to experience early
and often very frequently is companies going through transformation. I worked
at Delta right after 9/11. I worked at companies post the financial crisis. I
worked at companies in high, uber-growth periods. I worked at companies that
were highly acquisitive - in the span of three years we bought 50 to 60
companies at one of my experiences. And every day I find myself drawing on
those experiences of how did we manage through transformation, how did we make
transformation our own, how did we make transformation work for our company and
how did we build a culture within that company where transformation and
innovation was part of our DNA. So I feel really fortunate I get to draw on
those experiences every day.
What advice do you have for young people just entering the
I think my biggest piece of advice is stick with it. It’s
worth it. It’s a fantastic business. It’s exciting. It’s interesting. Your experiences
will be varied. The places it will take you will be robustly enriching to your
life and your world view. Don’t give up on travel just because it goes through
hard times. Right now specifically I think it’s a fantastic place to go to
work. What I saw after last two seismic crises that impacted travel ... was
incredible growth opportunities. When I worked in those businesses post-those
crises, I was presented with so many opportunities, opportunities to have an
impact, opportunities to grow, opportunities to gain new experiences and that
is true any time a business is going through transformation or high growth.
More from our In The Big Chair series...
PhocusWire talks to leaders across the digital travel landscape.