American Express Travel: Finding Opportunities in Change

tony goncharAt the general session of American Express Travel's Retail Travel Network Learning Forum in Nashville, Tennessee, ‎two of the company's leaders stepped up to discuss change—both specifically for the company, and for the overall travel industry as well. 

Tony Gonchar, vice president, Consumer Travel Network at American Express, started the general session by looking at the way consumers have changed the way they purchase anything—including travel. “It used to be face-to-face,” he said. “Now, it's a decision journey.”

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That journey can still involve a face-to-face conversation, he added, but increasingly, it's a combination of technology and connectivity. Across the country, people are spending one trillion minutes per month online using a range of devices and platforms. “They want dynamic, up-to-date resources to plan their travel,” he said of today's consumers.

With growing minority populations and an increasing range of lifestyles, travel providers also have to be aware of cultural differences. It's helpful to know, for example, that many Latin and Hispanic families celebrate a girl's turning 15 rather than 16—especially when encouraging them to book a celebratory family vacation.

Gonchar offered several tips for agents to remember:

- Know who you're selling to. Probe them, and understand the demographic and its needs.

- Know what you're selling better than your customers do.

- Be accountable. Customers care about trust and transparancy.

- Be the advisor who provides consultancy services—rather than an order-taker.

- Build long-term relationships.

- Give clients details they can't find on Google.

Most of all, never be afraid to ask questions about what clients want, and what they're willing to pay extra for. “A full 70 percent of cruise customers ask for higher end staterooms,” he noted, adding that they can often use their credit card reward points to get the upgrade.

New Partnerships

Earlier this year, American Express sold Travel Impressions to Apple Leisure Group, including the licensing of American Express Vacations. 

Next up, the company will launch a program with TripAdvisor that will provide exclusive content for members. Cardholders can connect their eligible card with TripAdvisor and limit the visible reviews to those of other members. This way, customers can see vetted reviews, and the insiders program will get new leads. “Consumers are doing their homework in advance. Let's meet them there, at an elevated level of doing their investigation.”

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But some partnerships ended, too: Last month, the company announced that it would close its 20 remaining storefront branded agencies in favor of a work-from home model. This, Gonchar emphasized, did not mean that AmEx is getting out of the travel business. “Consumer travel is in the AmEx DNA,” he said.

Looking forward, AmEx is investing in its new destination management program, Crafted Journeys, and investing in new travel technology that will be available exclusively to agents. For example, AX Connect, a new travel disruption management tool will soon be available to help agents see how close anything that might affect a trip (a storm, for example) is to their clients. If an agent sees that clients might experience problems, a text or email can be sent instantly to update them on the situation.

AmEx is also creating a new benefit for Gold Card members, who will soon (as of early 2014) be able to call affiliated agencies that opt in to provide services to the members. An agent directory will be included in Gold Card membership.

Ultimately, he said as he closed his portion of the session, the partnerships are vital to push the company forward into a new generation. “They say it takes a village. For us, it takes an army.”

claire bennettCreating Change

Claire Bennett, EVP and general manager, travel and lifestyle services, took to the podium to discuss the changes the company was experiencing, and where it would be going in the coming year.

A brand legacy, she began, is disruptive innovation. “Look at opportunities for growth,” she said. “We constantly do this...It's why we're successful.” It's also important to play to one's strengths, and to know what is changeable and what must remain constant.

Up until recently, AmEx had 30 call centers around the globe, 20 travel walk-in offices, five outsourced call centers, nine websites, two central teams to manage large aspects of the business (like 'recommend a friend,' hiring and staffing). “Our opportunity was to bring it all together,” she said. “We reinvented it and created an integrated global network.”

The Membership Effect

A successful network, Bennett said, must be the five Ds: Diverse, Dynamic, Desirable, Directed and Determined. A bad network, however, can also be five Ds: Divergent, a Dinosaur, Dull, Divisive and Distracted. It is vital to find a healthy balance: Be diverse in your network, but not so diverse that it becomes divergent. Evolve. Attract the best rather than the masses. And, of course, stay focused on the primary goal.

“Our network must be selective about our members,” she said, looking over the list of 10 Ds. “We don't want everybody to be a part of this. We want to be selective about who is in our representative network.”

And AmEx also wants “win-win-win opportunities” that benefit both the client, the agent and the company. To that end, AmEx is looking to grow its international business and small business groups as well as invest further in digital innovation. Increasing awareness of using points to pay for trips will also help everyone—keeping the customer loyal and encouraging add-ons for the trip.

After the general session, we had a few moments to ask Gonchar and Bennett about what they had shared in their talks, and how the company was stepping up its game.

“We're good at saying, 'What do our customers want, and what can we provide?'” Bennett noted. Gonchar said that a business must have empathy for its customers (for example, its hotel options cover the spectrum from budget to luxury) and for its team as well. “Agents have had to change the way they serve their customers and earn a living,” he said. “There are concerns and fears that can be generated, so we talk about how these changes are all good. Empathy crosses both sides.”

“It's all about listening,” Bennett said. “People who are great at customer service are always great at customer service.”