Tech transformation take off - how business travel giant CWT navigates the COVID-19 pandemic

Mark Chillingworth Profile picture for user Mark Chillingworth May 10, 2021 Audio mode
Rachel O’Brien, Chief Technology Transformation Officer, describes how the transformation plans changed and benefited CWT as the pandemic clouded global business travel

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(Image by Jan Vašek from Pixabay )

We have had to make it clear that the extent of the change was very large and not just a single event.

Rachel O'Brien is Chief Technology Transformation Officer at travel management company CWT; as a person charged with delivering technology transformations, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic was a transformation of the scale that few could have predicted. But, as O'Brien reveals, CWT had embarked on a major transformation journey which not only enabled the business to cope with the impact of the pandemic but has also set the business up for the journey out of the global lockdowns.

Over half of respondents to a major study by business advisory group Accenture state they have no plans for business travel and intend to halve the amount of travel they will take. In London alone, air passenger arrivals fell by 98.3% as travellers avoided visiting the nation with the highest COVID-19 death toll in Europe. The Global Business Travel Association reports that 79% of its members cancelled the majority of their business travel plans during the height of the pandemic.

O'Brien saw the impact of borders closing and business travellers desperately trying to get home in early 2020. As one of those digital nomads, she was working in Israel as the pandemic accelerated. O'Brien explains:

I was in Tel Aviv as they were closing the border, and at that time, I saw what CWT does, and within 24 hours, I was heading back home.

Safely back in the UK and not in the CWT offices in Canary Wharf, O'Brien had to work on what she describes as one of the fastest business pivots she has been involved in. She adds:

We had to communicate, communicate and communicate across all the teams so that everyone knew what was required of them in those initial days.

The first step was to make sure that all the central resources were available as a distributed enterprise and to make sure all those resources were aligned and working well together as CWT repatriated the workforces of customers. O'Brien says:

We kept the CWT service completely operational. The first priority was to protect our people and make sure our client's people were safe, and then returned home. So there were evacuations for clients, and in parallel, we had to make sure our employees, many of whom were travelling, were safe. Priority number one was to keep going until we were sure everyone was safe.

CWT employs  around 13,000 staff across the world, and within two weeks, the entire organisation switched to home working. O'Brien adds:

A lot of people stepped out of their day jobs and jumped into new roles. We have a really good agile ethos.

O'Brien says the CWT culture responded to the pandemic and met the differing needs of the multitude of geographies the business operates in. That culture would double in importance as the world began to realise the pandemic was not going to be just a matter of weeks.  On a technology front, this meant O'Brien and her team really analysed and focused on the effectiveness of the technologies in place. She explains:

Critical partnerships were reviewed, and within four to six weeks, we developed a plan. Our business unit was already in the process of changing procedures, the pandemic accelerated our plans for legacy migration.

O'Brien adds that the pandemic provided leverage to ramp up enterprise cloud computing adoption and to move areas of the organization off its legacy estate.

Beyond Covid-19

We never stopped planning, as there was always a level of business travel that had to continue and we were also scenario planning, so for example in May 2020 we put in place revamped reporting and traveller facing capabilities which focused on data consolidation with live  reporting for travellers. This was to ensure travelers have accurate information surrounding country regulations and requirements. On the back of that we  hosted customer webinars to help them navigate these capabilities with ease. We continue to advance and iterate these as the landscape changes almost on a daily basis.

CWT had a data-centric approach to its business since 2016, when then Chief Product and Technology Officer Andrew Jordan began building up the data expertise of the business and which CTO John Pelant who took over the helm in 2019, has evolved and maximized throughout this pandemic.

O'Brien says that the data focus will only increase in importance as the business navigates new approaches to travel management in a post-Covid economy. She adds that data from multiple sources and third parties such as the European Centre for Disease Control (ECDC) and their own data poured into a centralized data lake daily to provide CWT teams with a better understanding of the travel environment; which is then delivered to the traveller. This in turn allows risk reporting for travel buyers around future bookings as well as traveler tracking.

Travellers will, however, find the experience more complicated in the near future as vaccine passports, rapid testing, and a multitude of standards have to be dealt with. O'Brien says:

Travel management companies will benefit their customers and travellers by reducing frustration.

These global events regularly provide a reset for travel management companies and their tour operator brethren in the holiday industry; the same trends were seen following the collapse of Thomas Cook and the 911 attacks on New York in previous decades. Following both events, customers remained or increased loyalty to tour operators and travel management companies as they sought security. She adds:

We will have to be adaptable and flexible, and we will have to prepare for every scenario. Agility is the ability to deliver quickly, and we have some fantastic structures in place.

And as a global travel management provider, CWT will continue to think globally and continue to invest in technology. O'Brien says:

Business continuity planning means we have to think globally and we have to look at the entire technology stack as the way we work is going to change.

She adds that data, analytics, cloud and Software-as-a-Service will remain key investments for CWT in the foreseeable future. O'Brien and CWT also need to factor in the complex supply chain that travel exists within, which require the global Global Distribution System (GDS) and travel management companies to integrate and interoperate to the benefit of the traveller. She adds:

Not coming from the travel business, when I looked at the supply chain, I was surprised by how they all fit together and partner.

From the Wagonlit

CWT rebranded into its current guise in early 2019, having traded as Carlson Wagonlit since the early 1990s, but the business, now headquartered in Minneapolis, USA, can trace its history back to Belgium in the 1870s, a time when the Wagon-Lit sleeper carriage was created by CWT founder Georges Nagelmackers, a major innovation in long-distance travel. Since the 1990s, the business has grown its travel management, meetings and events management, and travel consulting businesses.

Technology has been the vehicle for major disruption to the travel industry, enabling the launch of budget airlines, home rental bookings over hotels and more recently, driver, scooter or bicycle rental by the hour. As a result, the last decade has seen technology at the forefront of strategic change at CWT with the development of innovation teams back in 2014, before such things became a buzzword on the lips of every consultant. In 2017 CWT launched RoomIt, a hotel room distribution platform that helps match corporations and their traveling employees with the right accommodation for these needs. Enterprise and mobile platforms have also been launched to benefit travellers. The mobile platform has over a million users, the business claims.  

O'Brien joined CWT in July 2018 from the gaming firm Ladbrokes Coral and said the people-centric culture of CWT was a strong drawcard. Reporting to EVP CTO John Pelant, she is responsible for bringing the technology strategy together and its delivery oversight via the investment portfolio and operational efficiency of its ways of working across the technology estate.

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