Onsite: AmEx Conference Serves as Platform for Tech Advancements

TUCSON, AZ-Technology was the big focus of American Express Travel's U.S. representative network conference, held here over two days at The Westin La Paloma Resort & Spa. On the first day of the conference, American Express previewed a slate of upcoming tools for members, and on the following day, a presentation on new technological advancements in the online travel marketplace by Philip Wolf, president and CEO of PhoCusWright Inc., really got agents talking.

Ellen Bettridge, vice president of AmEx's Retail Travel Network, kicked off the opening session of the conference, and was greeted by an enthusiastic round of applause as she walked on stage. Her speech highlighted new tools available for AmEx's Representative Network agencies. Beginning in mid-October, the company will begin offering podcast training, starting with a session on Gold Card Destinations benefits, followed by sales training, as well as training on the soon-to-be-enhanced AxtraWeb. "We've outgrown our current AxtraWeb," Bettridge said. "Our new version is being launched next week, which will provide access to marketing tools and preferred suppliers."

The room full of agents seemed most excited about the new capability for all agencies to directly book AmEx's Fine Hotels & Resorts program for Platinum Card Members. This service was previously only available via American Express Platinum Travel Services and American Express Travel Service offices. The enhancement will first debut in the Sabre global distribution system, followed by the other GDSs in 2008.

American Express Travel also has partnered with SwiftTrip, a software development company owned by Morris Murdock Travel, Passageways Travel and The Travel Authority, three AmEx Representative travel agencies. The tool offers an online web-based booking engine for business and leisure travel. The product has air, hotel, cruise and tour booking capability and allows for agencies to customize the portal with their brand.

Currently in beta-testing with 35 agencies, AmEx's BookingBuilder Genie can prompt agents at the point of booking to perform certain actions, including redirecting selling paths, sending e-mails and entering data into GDSs.

Bettridge's appearance at the conference was her first as the leader of the newly integrated Retail Travel Network. The merger, comprised of the U.S. Representative Travel Network agencies and the American Express-owned Travel Service offices, is meant to strengthen those channels to provide best-in-class benefits to consumers through American Express Travel.

"These travel offices are the only brick and mortar institutions that American Express has left," said Bettridge's boss, Lynne Biggar, senior vice president and general manager of AmEx's Consumer Travel Network. "It's an important part of our business." Bettridge was selected to lead the Retail Travel Network after strengthening and growing the U.S. Representative Network.

On the second day of the conference, the presentation by PhoCusWright's Wolf seemed to be an eye opener for many agents. His talk, "Travel Agencies' New Advantages in a New Marketplace," largely focused on the tools available through advances in Web 2.0, and how agents need to embrace tools like blogging and social networking, as well as travel tools like Google maps, in order to survive in this changing business.

"Users are taking charge. If consumers are collaborating in amazing ways, don't you think it would be a good thing for you guys to do the same?," Wolf asked the room full of agents. "How many of you, when you leave Tucson, will continue to collaborate with each other?"

During a break from the session, agents responded to Wolf's urging. "His talk was unsettling because it's so forward thinking," said Barbara Freeman of Summit Travel Group in Menlo Park, CA. "There is a lot to take on in our world. We tend to use some of the tools, but we have no idea how to use others, and then ones that we do know how to use, we don't always know how to use to their fullest extent. But it's not something that we can't conquer."

Don Freeman, Barbara's husband and managing partner of Summit Travel Group, said Wolf's talk cemented the need for an idea he was toying with: creating a Facebook profile for the agency.

"We have friends in Cleveland and every year they join us on a trip to the Panama Canal," Mr. Freeman explained. "Our kids found our friends' Facebook page and found out that they weren't coming before we did! We found out from an e-mail the next day. I'm absolutely creating a Facebook profile for the agency once I get home." (JM)