Zeno Labs Live

CWT’s Kurt Ekert Talks Post-COVID Priorities

1 March 2021

Tony D’Astolfo, SVP of North America for Serko, recently hosted Kurt Ekert, President and CEO of CWT, for a quick discussion on TMCs’ post-COVID priorities. The episode was the first in Serko’s new live video series – Zeno Live – featuring subject matter experts on various topics across the corporate travel industry.

Tony and Kurt covered the shifting value proposition (or client perception of value) of TMCs, what changes CWT has made to better serve clients now and in the future, and what travel managers should consider when looking to their TMC partner as travel resumes. The pair wrapped the conversation with a visit to the “Zeno Zone” where Tony posed three rapid-fire questions to help viewers get to know Kurt better.

Watch the full 10-minute recording or view the full transcript below.

Full Transcript

Tony: Hi, and welcome to Zeno Labs Live, the new live video series from travel booking and expense management provider, Serko, where we feature subject matter experts on various topics across the corporate travel industry. My name is Tony D'Astolfo and today, I'm joined by Kurt Ekert, CEO of CWT. Kurt, thanks for joining.

Kurt: Thank you, Tony. It's been way too long since I've seen you in person. So this will be a poor substitute, but I am excited to be here.

Tony: Yes, yes, yes. So true. So true. Can't wait for that moment, as many of us feel. Okay, Kurt, I've seen you've been on a speaking gig the last couple of weeks. You did an hour with the company Dime Guys. I saw you did another hour at Gov's Travel. Very nicely done. Today, I'm only going to keep you for about 15 minutes. Really much faster pace today, so let's dive in real quick, Kurt. First question: How has COVID-19, the pandemic, changed the TMC value proposition?

Kurt: Well, great question, Tony. I'm not sure that the TMC value proposition per se has actually changed. But client perception of value seems to be shifting from seeing travel management as a commodity, which was a long term structural trend, to now focusing on expanded duty of care and also end to end governance of travel.

Kurt: And so there's significant relevance that remains in both the human and digital travel service offering. But I think prospectively, there's going to be a stronger emphasis on traveler experience, on traveler confidence through all channels of the chain. And also for travel managers or the clients, traveler visibility through in-program bookings is going to become even more essential than it was pre-COVID. This allows travel managers to monitor travelers to react quickly to issues that may arise during travel and to on a real-time basis analyze, determine what's going on, and to better optimize their negotiations. So I think what you're going to see is the value orientation of travel management really come to the fore.

Tony: Yeah. And interesting that you say that. I think we've been doing this for years, right? And I think you hate to say it, but a pandemic kind of accentuates some of those historical value propositions, which are we've got you covered, whether it's covering the employees but also covering program management and all the things we need to do. All right, so now, let's talk specifically about CWT. What have you guys done to better serve your clients coming out of this and then into the future?

Kurt: Well, obviously over the past year, like everybody in this industry, our volumes and activity have been down substantially, but we've been very, very busy. So first, we took the opportunity to restructure and streamline our business operations around three business unit presidents, and now around eight industry verticals for the first time ever. We further scaled our global Always On service offering. We completed the rollout of our CX platform globally, which provides our travel counselors a ubiquitous view of the traveler across any and all channels. We've made great progress with our traveler-facing capabilities such as messaging or chat. We materially increased the penetration of key offerings such as remit, price optimization, and our data and benchmarking offerings.

Kurt: And then specific to COVID, there are some new requirements and some new things that we solved there. We deployed a Return to Travel dashboard, new pre-trip approval capabilities, CWT Travel Essentials. This is curated content that basically includes anything and everything to do with rules, travel protocols, and then enhanced health measures that are so critical in the age of COVID.

Kurt: We've also rolled out through our Solutions group an ECO, or employee, climate, and organization proposition. This basically helps organizations help tackle employee well-being while considering organizational goals and also the impact to the environment. But overall, we feel very good that the innovations we've delivered over the past year really help us be most fit for purpose against the new needs of the COVID world in which we're living.

Tony: Sounds like a lot of traveler stuff, but also... again, back to the management of the program stuff as well. I want to dive in a little deeper on the desktop change for your agents. I'm assuming that gives you a lot more flexibility, I would think in terms of just managing people regardless of time zone.

Kurt: Well, what you've typically heard of in travel management are basically upgrades of mid and back office systems. What we did instead is we focused on the front office. We implemented a third-party software called Pegasystems. And what this does is basically give the client a retail-like screen experience or excuse me, our counselors a retail-like screen experience. And when you couple that with the upgrade to the GUI desktops that we've done with the GDSs, it basically is a full digital environment for the travel counselor. It allows them to focus not on green screen commands, but on providing the best service, the best optimization to the client, to the traveler.

Tony: And then will they be dedicated to certain clients, or is there opportunities to say, "Hey, I got a whole bullpen of guys. No matter where they are, I can route calls?"

Kurt: Traditionally Tony, we've had a hybrid. We've had certain teams that are dedicated clients, certain that are shared, and then some in the hybrid. I think there's a movement towards more shared teams and more pan-regional service capabilities rather than in-country operations. It's important, the software language. But especially for example if you're running a travel program and you want to make sure you have standardized capabilities and services across all geographies, much easier to do that on a pan-regional than a local basis.

Tony: Yeah, good. All right. Last question in this section. What should our travel managers consider when they're looking for their TMCs as business travel recovers?

Kurt: Look, the CEO, the head of HR are going to have more of a say and an interest in travel than they did pre-pandemic. But number one is travel managers should ensure that their TMC can deliver the best ROI to them, both in a depressed travel environment and then as travel resumes and once again begins to scale and grow. But for me, ROI is not just about cost.

Kurt: Cost is a very important element, [but] it's also about traveler safety, traveler productivity, and traveler experience. Those are so fundamental now. And so to deliver this, TMCs need to provide a combination of relevant choice and the best price of content in all channels, at all times. You can't use traditional negotiated price. You have to get the best spot price at a point in time. You have to deliver data and insights at scale. And the TMC has to provide products and services globally that are standardized across many, many geographies. But in sum, a TMC really should serve the travel manager as a partner and help them optimize their program end to end.

Tony: Sounds good. Sounds like a plan. Okay, I'm going to move you into the Zeno Zone. Okay? This is the Zeno Zone. Three questions, very fast. Very different. Different types of questions here. So you've most recently probably had a bunch of major business decisions you had to make. But in this particular case, Kurt, if you have really a real challenging business decision you have to make, and there is only one phone call you can make, who gets that call from Kurt Ekert?

Kurt: That's a bit unfair. I'm going to actually provide an unfair answer, and say that I make a call to my three business unit presidents, Michelle Frymire, Niklas Andréen, and Patrick Anderson who basically partnered with me to run this business and they're fabulous executives. But we tend to do things as a team, and I wouldn't want to deviate from that.

Tony: Nothing wrong with that. That's a good answer. Now this one, I'm not sure if you're going to do the same thing here, but you can have... Kurt Ekert can have three dinner guests, dead, alive, in the history of time. I just want to know who Kurt Ekert has at his table. Three dinner guests, and I don't think your executives would be offended because…

Kurt: No, no. I'm going to actually go with three who are no longer with us, just because of the curiosity of being there. My two favorite leaders of all time, Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill, great wartime leaders. And then my father who I lost 21 years ago. That would be an unbelievable conversation. I'm not sure I could get a word in edgewise, but it would be a heck of a lot of fun.

Tony: That's the point. Good stuff. Now, a little further on that one, are you guys sitting in a fine dining establishment or a dive bar?

Kurt: Oh, we are in triple D, Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. We're putting back beer and brats.

Tony: And one of my favorites as well. So I'll be there anxiously looking and trying to eavesdrop on that conversation. All right, last thing before I let you go. I do this all the time when I speak to executives. I want one prediction. Give me a prediction. Something you think is going to happen to our industry in the next 12 months?

Kurt: So we've had a lot of negative news over the past year in the industry. Infection rates have not fallen the way they need to. But there are grain shoots. Vaccinations are growing. I think you're going to begin to see society liberalize a bit. And for business travel specifically, I think you're going to see the sector boom come this fall. And I'm really excited for that, and there's so much pent-up demand and excitement. And I can't wait to get out and see my employees and customers and all my friends in the industry.

Tony: I am certainly with you. You heard it here first. Prediction, Kurt Ekert, industry will boom, business travel in the fall of this year. Let's all hope that that is going to be the case. All right, Kurt Ekert, I want to thank you so much for joining us today on our first installment of Zeno Labs Live. I'd like to thank our audience for joining as well and I'd like to encourage them to meet us again on Zeno Labs Live. Tony D'Astolfo signing out. Kurt Ekert, great to have you.

Kurt: Thank you so much, Tony. Take care


Have feedback for our team or ideas for other guests we should host on future episodes of Zeno Labs Live? Drop us a line.

About the Speakers

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Kurt Ekert

President & CEO for CWT

Kurt Ekert was appointed President & CEO of CWT in April 2016 with more than 20 years of experience in global travel, tourism and technology. In addition to his impressive career, Kurt saw active duty as a US army officer. 


Tony D'Astolfo

SVP of North America for Serko

Tony joined the Serko team in 2018 to lead the launch into the North American market. Prior to Serko, Tony served in leadership roles at Deem, Phocuswright, and GroundLink. In his free time, you can find Tony in the New York area quoting "The Godfather" to all who will listen. 


A third contact

SVP of North America for Serko

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