Travel Buyer Q&A: Jan Jacobsen, AIG

Catherine Chetwynd interviews the global accommodation manager at AIG

Tell us about your professional background, and how it led to a career in business travel.
I started life as a professional dancer and did that for 27 years. I was constantly touring and travelling and had to find a degree that I could do while I was on the road. Because I stayed in hotels and travelled on aircraft at least 200 days a year, I did a marketing degree focusing on hospitality on the supplier side. When I left my dance career, I moved into hotels.

I had been in a competitive environment since I was four years old and numbers, placements and performance have driven me my entire life. What I do now is about how much I can save or what cost avoidance I can achieve; it’s very similar and the more challenging the better. I was brought up with the philosophy that there is always something that can be improved and that is why I continue to look for opportunities to improve on what I’ve got.

How many travellers do you manage and how far afield do they travel? Why do they travel?
We have a community of 64,000 employees and one-quarter of those are frequent travellers who are on the road for 30 nights or more per year. The majority travel to see customers and partners, and in our commercial and consumer insurance division some of them are based in multiple countries. One person started in the US and went to Sao Paulo, London, Tokyo, Nice, London, Johannesburg…

Do you mandate travel policy? How do you communicate it to travellers, and what level of compliance do you achieve?
We mandate travel policy. It is part of the expense policy and because most of us have a corporate credit card, policy is part of the corporate card induction and education. It is also built into the online booking tool, so travellers cannot do whatever they want.

Our hotel compliance is 88 per cent. Regarding the remaining 12 per cent, I have some work to do, but much of that percentage figure is driven by sales or marketing teams attending an event. They tend to want to stay close to the conference or exhibition centre, and there is generally high demand for this accommodation, so the non-compliance numbers get pushed up.

Another group of employees that doesn’t comply is risk analysts. They evaluate markets and usually go to destinations where we don’t have preferred accommodation partners.

When I talk to industry peers, I understand 88 per cent compliance is higher than most other corporations.

I have a hotel council that consists of my top 500 travellers globally so that I have a good geographical spread and I get interaction at a local level from local general managers. We consult again before the launch, as we run a 24-month hotel programme. And every quarter, I do a secondary survey to make sure the programme is still fit for purpose.

What have been your greatest challenges at AIG and what have been your greatest achievements?
I have been with the firm for four years and the team came in at the same time. We were hired on the basis of changes in the market and we came into an old-school environment, with established habits and processes. It all comes back to communication; we might be over-communicating but that was the only way to move a community of 64,000. People don’t see the difference between personal and commercial travel, and a key part of the task was to educate them about that and the firm’s reputation.

My greatest achievement was that I managed to build an accommodation offering that was so broad in choice that people stick to it. Hotels and apartments are integrated into one programme and we managed to build that into an online, direct booking environment, which no other corporations have.

What advice would you give to anyone considering a career in travel management?
It is a lifestyle; be passionate about what you do; it is a people business. Although it is analytical and numbers-driven, to get results it’s about building mutually beneficial relationships.

When the working week is over, how do you like to relax?
I am an impatient person; that’s the reason I moved to London and never left. It has so much to offer. I might go to Bermondsey for the weekend and discover what’s going on there; then go to Notting Hill. I like to explore local neighbourhoods and that is also why I love travel – I like the element of continuing to explore the world and getting to know people. And, of course, I still enjoy watching a good artistic dance performance.

American International Group, Inc. (AIG) is a global insurance organisation. Founded as the American Asiatic Underwriters (AAU) in Shanghai in 1919, the insurer moved its base to New York in 1939. AIG member companies provide a wide range of insurance from property and casualty, life, commercial and industrial to retirement products and other financial services to customers in more than 80 countries and jurisdictions.

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