New broom

CWT – formerly Carlson Wagonlit Travel – is an established international travel management company brand, but according to the CEO of its South African office, Louis van Zyl, it has largely been flying ‘under the radar’ in this market for a couple of years. He’s hoping to change that, and this formed part of his discussion with editor Dylan Rogers, over coffee in Johannesburg.

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CWT is present in over 150 countries and is one of the big international TMC players, but Van Zyl wants to see the group taking a closer look at South Africa and Africa as a whole, where he believes huge opportunity exists.

He cites Total’s recent gas discovery off the coast of Mossel Bay as an example, with CWT fortuitously holding that travel account.

“We’ve put together a solution that is extremely exciting and deals with all the typical headaches that companies and major multinationals that have a wide African footprint have to deal with,” says Van Zyl. “Things like access to foreign currency, content, ability to have local invoicing, withholding tax etc.”

CWT, globally, offers a strong technology solution, but Van Zyl is cautious about the South African operation going too hard at this space, whilst at the same time making sure it offers its customers the best tech available.

“I’m a little reluctant to go completely to the technology development side, because that would require a lot of resources, and that’s not our business,” he says. “We’re not a technology company, but we believe that we do need to be able to develop a certain level of technology that is purely concentrated on how we can get our customers to interact with the leading-edge technology there.”

According to Van Zyl, the challenge is in finding that mix between trying to have the most leading-edge technology and factoring in the human element of service.

“Technology is definitely the conduit, but it needs to supplement how we service our customers,” he says.

At the same time, Van Zyl admits that there are some customers who want the most leading-edge technology, and that CWT SA needs to be adaptable to service them on the level they require.

Currently, the biggest issue in the TMC space, for Van Zyl, is IATA’s New Distribution Capability (NDC) program, which is the “development and market adoption of a new, XML-based data transmission standard, which seeks to enhance the capability of communications between airlines and travel agents.”

Basically, it’s in the tech space, once again, and it focuses on how airlines display their content (the actual product) to travel agents.

IATA has been pushing NDC for years, but only more recently has there been a surge in uptake, with the likes of Lufthansa, BA, and Air France-KLM moving away from the traditional, legacy GDS model and opting to sell their product direct to the consumer. This has driven a more direct approach to the selling of airline content and the rest of the industry has had to move with this change.

According to Van Zyl, some reluctantly.

“For the TMCs and for the trade, they obviously have their processes and their way of dealing with customers and I think they would, if they had the option, like to continue as long as possible, because it works for them and it doesn’t mean disruption and change,” he says.

He also has some thoughts on the evolution of the NDC offering, which has been through a few iterations.

“I believe that it’s hit the bottom of the curve, and it’s now on the rise again, in terms of reliability,” says Van Zyl. “They’ve seen the shortcomings, they’ve noticed where they have to fix it, and I think that technology’s going to become stronger and more reliable going forward.”

So, what does this mean for the TMC?

Probably more investment in new technology, but, according to Van Zyl, the other potential spin-off of NDC is the opportunity it presents for new content aggregators to enter the market.

What doesn’t change is the overall role of the travel management company, regardless of the tech involved, and Van Zyl doesn’t want CWT SA to lose sight of this.

“The role of the TMC is to be able to find the most efficient and cost-efficient way to service their customers, and I think the opportunities are there – it’s an exciting time.”