BTN’s 2020 Innovate Conference | Business Travel News


London-based green-tech travel startup Thrust Carbon last month captured The BTN Group’s Innovator of the Year award. By simplifying the path toward sustainable travel programs, Thrust Carbon beat out fierce competition from nine other entrants.

The Thrust Carbon platform includes several tools, centered around the Thrust Calculator, which crunches complex data to measure emissions for travel and other business activities. It presents emissions information via customizable reports and suggests offset opportunities to mitigate climate impact. 

In awarding Thrust Carbon the top prize, the Innovation Faceoff judges noted the power of using data to help companies solve the sustainability issue, which remains the biggest long-term priority in the travel industry, according to head judge Norm Rose, despite the current focus on the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Recommendations for the startup included automating travel data entry into the calculator instead of the current manual process, perhaps via global distribution system integration. But the judges were confident Thrust Carbon was moving in that direction and seeking partnerships with corporate travel stakeholders.

Co-founder and director Mark Corbett spoke with BTN’s Adam Perrotta about how Thrust Carbon could thrust the industry toward a more sustainable future.

Has Covid-19 taken the focus off sustainability? are you still seeing Industry green efforts?

As difficult as the pandemic has been for the industry, many forward-thinking and leading organizations and individuals are seeing the current pause in business-as-usual travel activity as a real opportunity to implement valuable solutions that bring new capabilities into the context of their travel programs, and no more so than where sustainability is concerned. The fact we support retrospective analysis to generate a baseline and accurate reporting is a big draw. Then, with a mind on the road to recovery, our tools that build on top of our emissions calculator ensure clients can build the frameworks to drive more sustainable travel decisions in the future. 

You offer your product through TMCs and directly to corporates. What’s the current mix?

It was an even split. Since the pandemic, large enterprises with high levels of resilience and little to no travel have benefited from the increased breathing space to proactively innovate with Thrust Carbon, which has shifted that balance of our client portfolio. By contrast, demand from TMCs has risen as a result of our partnerships with Advantage Travel Partnerships, WIN, UniGlobe and TravelOperations, but budgets remain limited with so few people traveling. Our model is designed with a reseller license, which means we will be a big part of driving a sustainable recovery in travel and across TMCs.  

Other providers offer emissions measurement services, like TravelBank, Egencia and Amex GBT’s Neo. What sets Thrust Carbon apart?

Not all calculations are made equal. Some competitors are a great step in the right direction, but the problem for the consumer is, how do you know who to trust without total transparency? That’s why our methodology is included on every single client report. Furthermore, our reporting is actionable rather than just displaying a raw amount of CO2. TMCs and clients can use data to create travel policies that answer questions like, ‘Which airlines are greener to fly with? What flights do we take that sit on high-speed rail routes? Who are the biggest emitting departments in my organization?’ Another core element that sets us apart is that we’re not just about flights. We offer calculations for the entire travel spectrum. 

How do you ensure your data is accurate and up to date?

We place a significant effort in the constant updating and maintenance of our sources. Every time a change is made, it will be published in our reports, and clients notified. Furthermore, our analysts are here to help our clients understand what this data means, how to set emissions goals and how to use the data to drive the necessary reductions in emissions. In terms of data sources, we’re not just saying this because our founders are British, but the U.K. government really is a global leader in emissions science, data and publications. We are immensely grateful for their rigorous approach and open data.  

To what extent are you seeing end-user clients leverage emissions data to push for more sustainability from providers?

We already have a client who is planning to use our data to influence airlines, and a potential client who sees this as one of the most exciting reasons to purchase our calculator subscription. As a starting point, it is incredibly valuable to see your travel split across various routes and carriers. It enables clients to compare average emissions per traveler in the context of destinations and other elements, and even make decisions regarding routing and providers. 

Prior to the pandemic, we were speaking directly to a lot of airlines. … They have a responsibility to accurately measure their emissions. What we’re offering is a cost-effective means to do so, with safe hands and total objectivity. Suppliers that can better articulate, reduce and offset their emissions may well have an edge over their competition.   

People’s Choice: Tripkicks 

Launched in 2017 as a corporate travel cost-saving tool built upon offering rewards to encourage travelers to save money when booking, Tripkicks pivoted its core service model with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. With travel grounded, the company got to work building a new booking tool add-on that presents relevant travel information and alerts within the booking flow—with the ultimate goal of helping support companies’ return to the road as business travel resumes. 

“The needs and priorities of travelers have changed, and with that, traveler experience has changed, and we at Tripkicks have changed,” noted Tripkicks CEO Jeff Berk. “Travelers who were asking, ‘What’s in it for me?’ are now concerned with the most fundamental aspects of travel: ‘Can I go?’ ‘Should I go?’ and ‘What can I expect?’ and that’s the new focus of traveler experience.”

The agility with which Tripkicks transitioned its focus and built out services to fulfill that new demand impressed both the Innovation Faceoff judges and attendees—the latter of whom named the New York City-based company winner of the People’s Choice award. 

Tripkicks’s messaging tool plugs into OBTs to deliver real-time insights and alerts to travelers while booking their trip. Companies can choose what information to display to travelers, including such Covid-19-specific information as infection rates, travel disruption alerts and border and visa entry requirements. Data is gleaned from a variety of public and industry sources, and the platform can be integrated via API with third-party risk management services, Berk said. 

At the moment, Tripkicks’ messaging tool is live only with Concur Travel, but Berk said the company is in integration discussions with other OBTs. And while Covid-related messaging is the main use-case at the moment, the service also can deliver other relevant information, such as safety alerts for additional types of risk, policy and budgeting notifications, and sustainability information—all of which are expected to remain priorities long after the pandemic runs its course. Looking ahead, Tripkicks is planning to deepen mobile integration and add post-booking messaging capabilities, along with expanding to more OBT partners, according to Berk.

But for now, job No. 1 for Tripkicks is to help business travel get up and running again—and Berk speculated that focus most likely was what resonated with the Innovation Faceoff audience and earned the company People’s Choice honors. 

“Every travel manager is looking for simple and tangible tools to help relaunch their travel programs,” said Berk. “By bringing the most essential information to the point of sale, Tripkicks is allowing companies to empower travelers to make better, more confident and safer decisions. As an industry, we’re seeing that become a top priority for all companies.”

Honorable Mention: Mint House

Apartment-style rentals are growing more popular, especially among younger professionals, but remain anathema to many corporate travel departments. Recent studies have found that nearly 75 percent of Millennial business travelers have stayed in an apartment-style rental for work, while fewer than 10 percent of travel managers allow such accommodations in their policy.

Enter Mint House, the three-year-old startup aiming to bridge that gap by providing apartment-style accommodations designed specifically for business travel, distributed over a platform designed to serve the needs of both corporate travelers and their organizations. 

For travelers, Mint House offers features like mobile check-in, 24/7 digital concierge service with guest preference tracking, smart room features and the ability to pre-stock room fridges with specific items. For corporations, the company offers flexible stay lengths, global distribution system availability and competitive pricing based on a lean business model that cuts out such typical cost centers as staffing and food service operations. And with health and safety concerns top of mind in light of Covid-19, Mint House has implemented a series of hygienic and cleanliness measures across its properties.  

The company’s operations have “significantly outperformed” the hotel sector amid the pandemic, according to chief customer officer Shane Berry. “Our occupancy has roared back,” since early summer, Berry said, with rates reaching 86 percent in June and remaining above 80 percent each month since. 

Currently active in 10 U.S. cities, Mint House plans by year-end to increase its unit count by 40 percent and has targeted more than a dozen additional markets for expansion in the U.S. and abroad. The company also has begun partnering with TMCs to reach more corporates, and earlier this year was added to American Express Global Business Travel’s Business Extras and Rest Assured Solutions suites.

The Innovation Faceoff judges were sufficiently impressed to name Mint House as one of two Honorable Mentions in the competition, praising the company’s emphasis on such smart room features as sound monitoring and in-room virtual exercise classes, as well as touchless check-in capabilities. Potential areas for improvement included increasing room inventory and offering some form of on-site concierge services for less tech-savvy guests.  

Honorable Mention: Shep

Already a complicated process, managing corporate travel has become all the more complex with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has disrupted policy rules and added quarantine policies, infection rates and supplier hygiene processes to the mix. To make matters worse, the information is spread across many channels and providers, requiring travelers to piece together data from multiple sources to get the complete picture for a given journey. 

Shep aims to simplify that process by presenting all relevant information in one central channel: the booking flow. Built as a browser extension for Google Chrome and Microsoft Edge and compatible with online booking tools, online travel agencies and direct supplier sites, Shep enables travel managers to deliver key messaging in the way that is most relevant for travelers, according to CEO Daniel Senyard. 

Senyard demonstrated during his presentation that corporate travel managers can craft messages simply and quickly, add photos and tailor delivery for particular searches and sites. Additional capabilities include pre-drafted email templates that travelers can access when planning a trip requiring pre-approval, along with flexible data sourcing, including the ability to integrate via API with third-party risk monitoring services. 

In the market for the past several years, Shep has earned accolades including a previous Honorable Mention nod at BTN’s 2018 Innovation Faceoff. The Austin, Texas-based company also has inked corporate clients including Discovery Inc. and struck a reseller deal with TMC group Flight Centre—one of whose brands, FCM Travel Solutions, this year made an equity investment in Shep. 

Awarding Shep an Honorable Mention, the Innovation Faceoff judges noted Shep’s increased relevance in the post-Covid era of corporate travel and lauded the platform’s messaging functionality. However, they noted that its browser extension model could raise IT security issues with some corporates, potentially hindering adoption. 

Amid increasing competition in the space, the judges suggested Shep could differentiate itself by adding mobile functionality and deepening integration with automated data sources to make its messaging even more actionable for travelers. 

THE COMPETITION:

Atriis 

Israel-headquartered Atriis set out to fix what it viewed as a “broken” business travel supply chain that hinders TMCs’ content and servicing ability, and leaves corporates overly dependent on TMCs.

As such, Atriis focused on bringing midsize TMCs and their corporate clients together on an OBT platform offering air, hotel and ground content from more than 20 sources, including GDSs, OTAs and aggregators, with an emphasis on NDC content availability. 

Integrating the OBT with a companion agent desktop enables the accurate flow of information, ensuring both parties are on the same page, said Atriis chief revenue officer Omri Amsalem. 

“By having your TMC with you on the same platform, you won’t hear any more excuses about certain content that can’t be serviced, supported or doesn’t fit the TMC’s processes” said Amsalem. 

Judges were impressed with Atriis’ collaborative model, range of content and API-based compatibility with back-office systems. However, they noted the closed-model platform’s limited potential with large TMCs that support multiple OBTs, while suggesting improvements to the user interface and enhancing NDC-based bundling options.

Gett 

Ground travel accounts for about 5 percent of a typical organization’s total travel spend but “90 percent of the headaches” for travel managers, said Keren Fanan, chief commercial officer for Gett.

That’s because existing corporate ground transport options often are low-tech, driving travelers to out-of-channel alternatives, while corporations contract with a patchwork of different suppliers to cover the full range of their needs. 

Israel-based Gett aims to alleviate that pain by bringing together all available providers in a market, including ride-hailing apps, taxi companies and black car services, on one platform. Integrating payment and expense reporting completes the picture, giving travelers the full range of choices via mobile app, while ensuring all relevant data flows into travel management systems.

Judges were impressed by Gett’s smooth user experience, demonstrated traction in the market, and its payment and expense integration. However, they sought the addition of other ground transport forms, such as car rental, train and public transit, to offer a fuller gamut of options.

Pilota 

Founded last year by four Cornell University graduate students, Pilota has earned attention for its AI-based flight disruption and rebooking services. But when Covid-19 shifted priorities,  Pilota steered a new course. 

In July, the New York-based firm launched FlySafe, a messaging tool designed to provide air travelers with “everything they need to know about the safety of their upcoming journey,” said Pilota co-founder and CEO Saniya Shah. 

Available as a Google Chrome browser extension or through API integration with booking platforms, FlySafe lets travelers select which health-related factors, such as capacity limits, cabin sanitation and cancellation policies, are most important. Once set, flight results are given a rating based on those factors, with users able to view further breakdowns of grades for each category. 

Judges commended Pilota’s pivot and were excited about a support chatbot’s ability to provide in-booking support. Pilota’s challenge, they noted, will lie in developing a business travel-specific focus for FlySafe, and figuring out the nuances of deployment into the corporate sector.

3Victors  

Founded by a trio of travel veterans with decades of industry experience (none actually named Victor), and billing itself as a pioneer in what it calls Travel Data Analytics as a Service, 3Victors aims to help air travel suppliers make key pricing decisions faster by leveraging real-time, streaming data. 

Founded in 2017, the Dallas-based company already has made a splash in the travel industry, earning venture funding from JetBlue Technology Ventures and Airlines Reporting Corp. During the Innovate Faceoff, 3Victors CEO Rick Seaney demonstrated a new feature in the firm’s demand insight suite focused on business/leisure segmentation, enabling users to track how the dynamics within each segment have changed due to Covid-19. Users can view and compare data for business and leisure travel between any two U.S. destinations to assess changes over time.  

The judges lauded 3Victors’ powerful data analytics capabilities and adaptable service model, but were a bit unsure on the applicability of its services to add value for corporate travel buyers. They also suggested expanding data beyond air into hotel and other segments.

UnDelay 

Every departing or arriving airline flight has more than 100 processes that take place that can result a delay. They typically are relayed via radio communication between multiple parties, such as pilots, ground operators and gate agents. UnDelay aims to tap into that communication to give travel companies information on delays, which can be used for reimbursement, rescheduling and planning purposes. 

“By analyzing radio conversations, we can determine the exact cause of a flight delay at a specific time,” said UnDelay CEO Safir Monroe, noting that most jurisdictions require such air-related radio communication be made publicly available. UnDelay’s platform uses artificial intelligence to segment radio transcripts into delay categories such as weather, airline internal codes, baggage, ramp handling and other reasons, he added. 

The judges were intrigued by the potential application of UnDelay’s platform, but were a bit unclear where it fits in the corporate travel process, and they warned airlines could alter communication habits to obscure compromising information.

ReadyBid 

Travel sourcing specialist ReadyBid simplifies the request-for-proposals process by leveraging preformatted, customizable hotel RFP forms, it says, designed using feedback from more than 50 travel buyers.

Available in free and premium versions, ReadyBid’s platform includes such tools as document preparation assistance, historical data and trend-tracking capabilities, rate-auditing assistance and follow-up services with hotel suppliers to ensure RFP documents were received. 

Carlsbad, Calif.-based ReadyBid plans to add RFP support for a bevy of additional services, including air, ground transport, corporate credit card, small meetings and TMC, according to president Joseph Friedmann. The company also is working on an integration with SAP Concur, he added. 

The judges welcomed an RFP tool with a free version and praised ReadyBid’s user-friendliness, large property list and support for Covid-19-related RFP questions. They suggested finding ways to more fundamentally change the RFP process, perhaps by automating more of the workflows.



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