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For Business, Corporate Travel & Meeting Buyers & Arrangers

Interview: Mike Eberhard, president, Concur

Concur’s new president on maverick behaviour and the single-app experience

I MEET MIKE EBERHARD IN THE MESSE FRANKFURT CONVENTION CENTRE, where the recently-appointed Concur president is appearing onstage as a keynote speaker at the GBTA’s European conference.

The cloud-based travel and expense (T&E) management firm announced at the show its partnership with British Airways and Iberia, which enables travel managers to capture bookings made direct with these airlines via Concur’s Triplink tool. Mike tells me this latest agreement brings the number of airlines signed up with the platform to seven – Concur already has deals in place with Air Canada, American Airlines, Etihad, Lufthansa and United.

“Our customers are experiencing booking outside the usual channels,” he says. “Part of that is they’re going to suppliers directly. There’s a perception of a better price, the ability to get rewards, convenience…” For example, he says, when a traveller books directly on ba.com via Triplink, the system “knows your corporate policy and negotiated rates”.

He adds: “The key component is that the data comes back into the system, so the travel manager has the ability to manage the programme, whether that’s the location for duty-of-care, or the spend that they’ve negotiated with BA and bringing it back into the programme in a transparent way for them.”

ROGUE TRAVELLERS

All well and good, but there are many reasons why travel buyers don’t want their travellers going outside policy and ‘open booking’. Is Concur disrupting corporate travel programmes by enabling or even encouraging maverick behaviour? Mike says this accusation has often been levelled, but less so these days.

“The fact of the matter is, it is happening,” he says. “Why? Because the suppliers want it to happen. They want to be able to market directly to travellers. You can pretend it doesn’t happen, but even in the best-managed travel programmes, there’s acknowledgement that hotel bookings take place outside preferred channels.”

So what does he say to those travel management companies or corporate partners – or potential partners – who say Concur is enabling bad behaviour? “I say you can’t ignore consumerisation to the point where corporate tools become meaningless. It’s our role to balance the evolution of the two along the way.” He argues that, in fact, Concur is enabling compliance and control. “When Concur brought T&E together, it really allowed you to see the difference between what you think was booked and what you actually spent. That leakage pops right out at you, and you have a greater travel perspective.”

JOINING THE DOTS

The debates that constantly whirl around the travel industry, on distribution channels and who owns the customer and the data, look set to continue for some time to come. But with Concur sitting somewhere in the middle of these, how does Mike see the managed travel arena evolving over the next five to ten years?

“You’ll begin to see corporate tools and consumer tools become much more interoperable. On this trip I may use five or six supplier applications. I arrived here on Lufthansa, opened up a separate app for my ground transportation, another for my hotel last night and yet another for a different hotel tonight… That’s going to evolve – the ability to have a single-app experience across multiple app functionalities.”

I ask Mike what the barriers are to this travel industry holy grail. At the moment suppliers are striving to stay at the “leading edge” of consumer tools, he says, “investing incredibly heavily on their own platforms” – rather than focusing on interoperability. “But we believe they’ll become more open to collaborating.”

Another area Mike sees as ripe for progress is duty-of-care. “For example, if I’m staying at a hotel in Mumbai, but I’m entertaining clients at dinner in a different part of the city, if I take a photo of my receipt and it’s loading into Concur, precise information about my location is on the system.”

Presumably this is some way off, and involves some challenges around data privacy, as well as integrating various data sources? “It’s happening now. We’re making significant investment in our APIs [application programming interfaces]. So if you’re bringing in information about location or digital data about payment... these are all different avenues that we interact with. You’ll see big developments in 2017.”

SENSE OF PURPOSE

Mike has seen plenty of developments over his career, having worked in technology sales for almost three decades. “I had no idea what I wanted to do when I left college, but I have always felt I wanted to do something that had an impact,” he says. “I think most of us want to have a purpose. For me, the travel industry is a fantastic place to do it. It’s dynamic and constantly changing. Whatever challenges we have today, there are going to be new ones tomorrow.

“It’s cerebral and complex, and you can apply both technology and people to solve business problems. It’s perfect for me; I find it a great place to be a part of.”

MIKE EBERHARD joined Concur in 2003 and was named president of the company in November 2016. He has more than 25 years of global sales and executive management experience in hi-tech. Prior to Concur, Mike was vice-president, worldwide sales, at Xign; vice-president and general manager for Ariba; and vice-president and general manager, education and government, at Peoplesoft.

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