Egencia Goes Hunting for Talent to Boost Tech Initiatives



Egencia’s Mark Hollyhead talks:

  • How the travel industry stands to win in the “war for talent”
  • Egencia’s strategy post-acquisition
  • The TMC’s role in making business traveler comfort

Freshly following the completion of its acquisition by American Express Global Business Travel, Egencia last week announced plans to hire about 100 new full-time, tech-focused employees across the United States, Europe and India as part of a “major recruitment drive.” Egencia president Mark Hollyhead spoke with BTN executive editor Michael B. Baker during the Global Business Travel Association’s 2021 Convention in Orlando about what sort of talent Egencia is hoping to find, what the company expects to build and how the integration into Amex GBT is progressing.

BTN: What do you hope to accomplish with your recruitment drive?

Mark Hollyhead: As the recovery comes through, the competency we’re building becomes a much more intelligent future for us. When we say 100 jobs, it’s because this isn’t a traditional approach to a recovery. We think the platform we build and the approach Egencia is taking can be much richer by increasing our product expertise, our engineering expertise and investing in data sciences.

When we all went into the pandemic, we said, first off, that we commit to look after our colleagues and look after our customers, the incumbent base. Although the users went down to zero, the business-to-business relationship remained the same. It just became a new set of circumstances we needed to deal with. For us, with nearly 10,000 customers, we’re in that place where, how do you continue to manage to new requirements and new day-to-day activities through your travel management team and your travel consultants? We also made a conscious choice to invest now, because if you believe there is a future for travel—which in the early days of the pandemic was difficult to see—our future was going to be in making sure the platform is robust as possible, which starts from the data foundations to the talent we have coming in, the code they’re writing and exploiting machine learning and AI. What we have to do is learn more and more about what it learns to manage a client relationship and manage the day-to-day interaction and new use cases, like I’m calling you to query a flight or how long can you hold a credit, which is new data to us. The new data rolled through a platform that became intelligence that then led us to the idea that we need to keep investing in product and engineering and, most laterally, because we’ve got aggregate data which is meaningful and statistically relevant, you can put a data science on a piece of work and get strong results quickly that can change the business.

BTN: What are some specifics you have been looking to solve?

Hollyhead: On the b-to-b side, early on [in the pandemic], imagine you have 9,000 customers, and all of our account managers are trying to be as courteous as possible, but they’re blind to all of the issues, and travel managers to a high level were blind to their own companies, because travel wasn’t happening, but that didn’t mean things didn’t need to change. We started using artificial intelligence to look at who is looking in the portal, who is changing profiles and who is looking at policy settings, and then we link that with aggregate data in the marketplace to start informing travel managers that the car industry seems to be speeding up its recovery faster than the retail sector. If you’re in one of those sectors, that’s intelligence you should be [using to educate] your own organization. So, we turn this idea of an artificial intelligence copilot for an account manager to help them point their work where they’re going to get best interest from a client, who should have an interest, because their appetite for travel is going up. That’s now become institutional. With per diems on hotel, we’re just using the information of what is the rate of the day or the week, and then you’re filtering it back to machine learning to say you shouldn’t be paying any more, real-time, for this location, so you are being informed in real time instead of looking at a static search. We continue to put the flywheel of energy into product and engineering data science. 

We find a lot of people from outside are more useful to bring a different perspective, and then you complement them with the subject matter expertise in the areas of distribution or the madness of travel.”

BTN: Are you looking largely for those with travel industry experience, or are you casting a wider net?

Hollyhead: We’re about 70 percent recruiting outside the travel industry. Travel [industry experience] is important for some pieces of work, but it’s the opposite for others, because you want a fresh approach. Travel as a domain is an interesting problem. What you’re looking for is people who have dealt with multi-faceted issues that are based on simple data principles that need to be turned into simple user experiences. We find a lot of people from outside are more useful to bring a different perspective, and then you complement them with the subject matter expertise in the areas of distribution or the madness of travel. There is a massive war on talent, and the one thing is important in travel, although you’re competing with Facebook and Google for the greatest talent, is that the problem we’re trying to solve at the moment in bringing travel back is a really interesting one for engineers and data scientists. With our own people, they’re the best advert for wanting to be part of this recovery as they reinvent solutions for corporate travel.

BTN: How is the integration going now that the acquisition has closed?

Hollyhead: It’s two weeks in, and of course, this has been going on for a while. During the diligence phase we were partnering under the regulations we had to follow pre-close, but we knew a lot about each other in order to get to the point where you close. We’ve been doing a lot of work to make sure the salesforces line up, that your marketing messages and the sustainability messaging jive. If we want to be in a position where we have a two-sided marketplace, offering unrivaled choice and content with the Ovation brand, the Egencia brand and the GBT brand together in the marketplace, you don’t want to confuse the customer, so we have to be clear about where we play. My personal view is that the TMC industry, even if it returns to 50 percent of what it was before, is a near-on hundreds of billions of dollars marketplace, and if you combine Ovation with its high-touch, Egencia with its approach to software-as-a-service platform and GBT with its heritage of safety and trust and service, the idea that you’ve got those three offering being presented to clients, the customers will make the choice as long as we don’t confuse the customer. We’re good for a while, so most of the we’re doing is on the plan we had pre-close, making sure this is seamless for our colleagues and continuous for customers and partners. Last week, we had our customer advisory board together as a symbol, and [Amex GBT CEO Paul Abbott] and I did an open Q&A, and it finished early. They were coming in with conspiracies of, “What are you going to do to us,” and in fact, we’re not going to do anything. We’re going to carry on doing what we’re doing at Egencia, and if you value Egencia, GBT is investing in the future of what Egencia’s been doing and taking that forward. There’s not this major upheaval or announcement coming. We’re running Egencia, because it makes sense, and that’s what the investment was all about.

BTN: What’s the top priority you are seeing from clients at the moment? Is it still safety and security?

Hollyhead: The common theme always is, if you’re going to encourage people back to travel, there’s got to be the security of feeling good about it. We’ll term it under duty of care, but I think it’s more than that. It’s people feeling comfortable about the entire idea of going on a trip, so how do you help people pre-trip, how do you look after them through it and how does the company feel good about this asset I’m sending on the road? I don’t think that’s changed dramatically, but I think the point of emphasis of how I got data that I trust, that isn’t in multiple places, and that’s why it’s good to invest in the platform. If you want to know who is in Rome tonight, there is no difference between the Egencia booking platform and the reporting platform. We’re being pushed a lot by clients, when we do come back, the CFO is going to be asking questions, and the additional one is sustainability. Everyone wants to return to travel responsibility, so how do we contribute to that? We’ve been investing heavily in the past 12 months here, in things like the comparison of rail to air inthe shopping path and, of course, being a part of GBT and their approach to green and their partnership to Shell. The maturity of the approach to pursuing [sustainable aviation fuel], rather than talking initiatives actually having a purposeful approach. Travel is not the problem. The problem is emissions, so how do we make sure those two things jive?

BTN: What long-term effects do you think the pandemic will have on the way TMCs do business?

Hollyhead: There are so many changes to understand about how people are behaving and want to do things. We are creatures of habit and follow others—we’re sheeplike—and the fact that first-world nations have gotten back to normal relatively with things like concerts and theatres and things we like to do in our own time is a sign that we’ll follow pretty quickly. For now, I’m going, has my behavior changed? I think so. You check yourself at certain things. I’m looking at photographs with my daughter receiving a certificate for sport with a mask on. In 20 years’ time, will that still be on? For travel, I’m a believer in a force for good and that we want to do something, and even during the period where insecurity should have reigned for all of us and we should have all been locked up, the mere glimmer of an idea that you could go away for a weekend and spend an inordinate amount of money in a Vrbo or Airbnb property, people were doing it, because we like to get out of our own environment and experience different experiences and different cultures. It’s living proof that we’re restless, and business travel is an example of being restless and finding new frontiers and developing business. The underlying thing that changes is that in business travel, the corporation has a responsibility to return to travel sustainably and it has a responsibility to make sure that you know where the people are in any event. We’ve had these signals before—the Iceland ash cloud—and every single time we have one of these incidents, we talk about it, and the pandemic has confirmed it. When you have thousands of people on the road, the idea that a company doesn’t quite know how to get in touch with them is not going to be acceptable going forward. What do you do with that information other than, “You’re OK, do you need anything?” We’ve never been in that world, but the impetus will be more on the company to make sure the employee is comfortable, where previously, the employee didn’t really care in general. The employee has a natural insecurity that needs to be indulged by the company. I think there are new markets. The speed at which some of the recovery at organizations has happened has been remarkable. We look at some of the technology that’s been developed during this period to solve for new problems, and I think it’s just another frontier in a global economy that will drive demand and interest in people traveling.

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