In Depth: American Express Execs Talk Bringing Business Together

Claire Bennett talks integration at the American Express Travel Forum's opening General Session.
Claire Bennett talks integration at the American Express Travel Forum's opening General Session. 

At the recent American Express Travel Forum the company announced plans to integrate its representative network, in-house relationship and destination managers and Travel Insiders into a seamless travel experience. Travel Agent got a chance to sit in on a series of panel discussions to learn more about what’s next. 

In attendance were Claire Bennett, EVP of American Express Travel; Relationship Managers Elisabelle Wakim, France, Paulina Pena, Mexico, and Ray Barnes, US; Destination Managers Megan Shoemaker, New York City, Sam Cattell, London, and Stephanie Mariotti, Miami; Travel Insider Catherine Hoffman, France/Disney; Tanuj Suri, VP premium customer experience; and Rena Pandya – director, global lodging programs and partnerships. Also attending from American Express’ Representative Network were Michael Dixon, president, Travelink, and Lisa Bauer, EVP, International Cruise + Excursions.

At this year’s event American Express announced a series of new initiatives aimed at bringing together its business, including a new knowledge management system designed to share insider travel knowledge with the various parts of American Express, efforts to showcase and quantify the value of its Fine Hotels and Resorts program and an expansion of its Travel Insiders program. 

“It’s about customers being able to pick what they want,” says Bennett. For example, if a traveler wants to book a trip to Florence, they can work with their existing relationship manager if they have one, a relationship manager can refer them to a destination manager in Italy, or a traveler can look for a Florence Travel Insider on the American Express website. 

“We have relationship managers in every market now, and we’re starting to build out our destination managers,” says Bennett. There are currently about 150 Travel Insiders, and that program is set to expand as well."

Travel Insiders are qualified through a rigorous process that includes an application, interviews and a mystery shopper program. 

“This program is a scalable way of getting to exactly the right expert,” says Suri. “They can go on the directory and find one of five people who know exactly what they want.”

Currently American Express is using customer travel data to see where it needs more coverage in terms of Insiders, says Suri. They company will probably start with Myanmar, with other potential destinations including Ireland, Israel and Southeast Asia

“That’s the art and science part of it,” says Bennett. “We have a lot of data where we know where people are going. Las Vegas is our number one destination, but it’s not that complicated, versus an India or a China, where our demand may not be that high yet, but people may be intimidated and want to talk to someone who’s been there.”

The projected expansion of the Destination Managers program
The projected expansion of the Destination Managers program

Destination Managers

American Express destination managers can fill a similar role in offering curated, local experiences to customers working with a relationship manager. 

“When we started this program, it was very controversial, even with our reps,” says Bennett. “It was I want to have this customer, I don’t want to send them to an Italy expert. I think the customer gets to vote, and if the customer wants an Italy expert that’s what they get.”

“We’re tightening what we had already,” says Barnes. “What’s beautiful about this whole thing is for me to try to wow a family that has been to London 30 times, how am I going to do that? I’m going to rely on Sam [Catell] and have him curate a really special experience for them. I have 29 years of travel experience but I don’t have 29 years of London living.”

“I put together a monthly dining newsletter each month, and it’s a fantastic thing to offer when a card member is about to travel,” says Cattell. “It has all the top new restaurants plus a hidden gem.”

“We can get really creative, we live in the cities,” says Shoemaker. “Often we’re using what we have personally from past careers – we’re out there, we’re in New York, going to restaurants, meeting people.”

“People come to us because we can make the impossible sometimes possible,” says Wakim. As an example, Wakim related a story about a family that had wanted to have dinner in a nice restaurant with a view of the Eiffel Tower. Since no restaurants with that view would accept a 12 person booking, Wakim booked a suite with an Eiffel Tower view in a hotel with a famous gastronomic restaurant — bringing the gourmet food to the guests.  

“It’s not just dining, it’s all sectors of the market,” says Mariotti. “For example, Art Basel is one of the best art events in the world, and it’s invitation only. Because of the relationships I’ve developed in Miami, I have passes that I’m saving for my card members when they request to come in December.”

“In Mexico, I go to card members’ houses for lunch to plan their vacations face to face,” says Pena. “It’s more personal. I plan each detail with the destination manager, I ask them what do you recommend, what’s surprising. Then they see that now they have these exclusive benefits.”

“One of the key differences is, because these people are American Express employees, we can share a lot of information about the card members,” says Bennett. “There are privacy concerns where you can’t share with the DMCs to the same extent. There’s a lot of sensitivity about that, and in our company we’re all trained on that.”

Additionally, destination managers can seek out lesser-known events that could be the buzzworthy thing clients are asking for tomorrow. “Art Basel isn’t unknown anymore, but these people know several other things that are next,” says Bennett. “We want them to go find the next thing that nobody knows about.”

Gold Personalized Travel Service Pilot Program

Another way American Express is integrating its business is using travel agencies in its Representative Network to serve its Gold Card members. Under the Gold Personalized Travel Service Pilot, which launched in January 2015, when an American Express Gold Card member calls the customer service line on the back of their Gold Card, they will be directed to an agency in the Representative Network based on their zip code. 

“The travel business has been trying to be all things to all people,” says Dixon. “To narrow our focus on serving the card member base was a smart strategy for us. These folks call in and 80 percent have decided that they’re going to buy something – it’s about clarifying.”

“They’re the customers that you want calling,” agrees Bauer. “They spend more, and they keep coming back. They’re not booking on an OTA, because they want a richer service.”

Sending card members to a Representative Network agency meant taking strong steps to ensure a seamless brand experience, says Bennett. “We held them to the same ‘recommend to a friend’ standards as we have internally,” says Bennett. “They have to know the benefits as well as one of our employees.”

“It’s a rigorous compliance program to make sure we are AmEx to the customer,” says Dixon. 

The new program offers American Express Gold Card members a means of calling American Express, something they could not do in the past, says Bennett. Even among American Express card holders as a whole, Gold Card members are uniquely suited for Representative Network agencies. 

“Our Gold Card Member base is the biggest base American Express has,” says Bennett. “A year and a half ago we added a slew of benefits that are very traveler-centric. In many cases it’s Millennials who will move up the card chain, but in many cases they won’t.”

The supplier tradeshow at the American Express Travel Forum
The supplier tradeshow at the American Express Travel Forum

Knowledge Management System

In terms of tools, one of the biggest pieces of American Express’ integration plan is a new Knowledge Management System slated to roll out sometime in the next year.

“When I would go to meet everyone in a given market, I saw that everyone has their Excel spreadsheet with their recommendations on where to go,” says Bennett. “They already have an enormous amount of data and they’re all capturing it on their own, in various forms.”

Pulling that disparate data into one system will allow both internal American Express agents and agents in Representative Network agencies to access a wealth of insider information on destinations around the world. Creating the system, however, will mean making choices on what to share and what to keep exclusive. 

“If everything’s available to everyone then it’s not special,” says Bennett. “It’s about what we make available for broad consumption and what we keep for our super premium customers.”

For example, for a customer traveling to India, the system could have information on how to do the Taj Mahal. “You can find that on Google, but it won’t have the insights from my team,” says Bennett. For more exclusive information, the system will have curation specialists with deep expertise in a particular destination. 

“For dining it’s more challenging because it changes so fast,” says Bennett. “I have a lot of card members, and in a given night, I can tell you how many of them want to get into Per Se. So you need to make these decisions, knowing that if you can’t get into Per Se, here’s five other really cool options. My challenge to [my team] is to tell me what you can’t find online.”

What’s Next

As American Express moves forward, one of its biggest challenges will be managing its new technology integrations, says Bennett. 

“It’s hard to do it,” says Bennett. “Not only do we have to integrate our own AmEx systems, but when you think about the travel industry, there’s not very well integrated systems. We have to integrate with them, too.”

Launching soon will be a new feature that will list all of the available Fine Hotels and Resorts benefits available to American Express cardholders when a cardholder receives an itinerary from American Express. 

“The next step is also, when a customer checks into a hotel, we’re going to send a profile about her with whatever we can share within the bounds of privacy,” says Bennett. “We’re integrating so that the hotel has something they can pull up and see.” 

Additionally, American Express will be working to integrate all of its available benefits to share with the Representative Network. 

“I think as an industry we have a long way to go to bring some of this stuff together,” says Bennett.