Amex Global Business Travel pools data lake to bolster ‘duty of care’

Business travel is seldom an unalloyed pleasure. Nor is it a trivial cost for corporate organisations. New American Express Global Travel (Amex GBT) president Philippe Chérèque, formerly the firm’s chief commercial and technology officer, says some customers are close to spending $ 1bn on travel each year.

Chérèque, who was American Express Global Travel’s CIO as well as its commercial head before becoming president, joined the firm two years ago. He has been putting $ 1bn into modernising the firm’s IT – in the direction of cloud computing, and capitalising on analytics.

“Traditionally, travel management companies have been satisfying the chief procurement officer rather than the business traveller,” he says.

Chérèque speaks of the need for more proactive care: “If there is fog at Heathrow, we call the passenger to say, ‘We have booked you on the Eurostar and you can fly from Paris.’

“The traveller is the key. If your engineer is stuck in the middle of India, that costs more to the company than saving 10% on the cost of the ticket.”

Chérèque says Amex GBT’s corporate customers are placing increasing importance on duty of care in the light of terrorist incidents and other misfortunes. When Brussels Airport was bombed in March 2016, Amex GBT could tell where travellers were because it had their Amex card data.

The company built an application that automatically sends an SMS text message to travellers when an incident happens: those who respond immediately show as green, then travellers not responding go orange then red. For example, it could immediately tell that there was one passenger on board the EgyptAir flight that crashed in May 2016.

The company is a joint venture between Amex and a private equity group headed by investment firm Certares. It has a treasure chest of $ 1bn in cash to put into IT, and has taken a comprehensively cloud approach.

“In the past two years, we have migrated not only from the data warehouse of Amex, but moved away from its HR system, its finance system and so on,” says Chérèque.

It is using Workday for HR, NetSuite for finance, and Coupa for procurement.

Data lake and visualisation

Christophe Tcheng, vice-president of core products and platform architecture, joined Chérèque from travel company Amadeus, which is the business alma mater for both men. Tcheng was head of research and development services at Amadeus, while Chérèque was executive vice-president. He was at the company for nearly 25 years.

Tcheng designed Amex GBT’s data architecture. He confirms it has 300 data people, with a small group of “around four” hardcore data scientists and developers.

Of choosing Hortonworks as the Hadoop distribution to build a data lake, which has been operative from 2016, he says: “It was a conscious choice to go for open source; it’s very robust and efficient. It’s not rocket science, but the trick is to make it work.

“In the past two years, we have migrated not only from the data warehouse of Amex, but moved away from its HR system, its finance system and so on” Philippe Chérèque, Amex GBT

“The idea emerged at the back end of 2014. We had an enterprise data warehouse, from Microstrategy. It was good technology, but it is technology from the 1990s. The industry is moving to Hadoop plus visualisation layers”.

For the latter, Amex GBT partnered with cloud business information (BI) and analytics company Birst to build a product called Premier Insight for corporate clients. This launched in November 2015, and Chérèque says dozens of corporations are using it.

Tcheng says on choosing Birst: “It is cloud enabled, and also because of its roadmap – with embedded BI, vision and investment. We didn’t want to choose the best platform for today if, in two years’ time, it is behind the pack.”

Amex can provide analytics into customers’ spend levels and so indicate where additional costs are being incurred, or where there are opportunities to make use of better buying power to improve efficiency of spend. It has card data from MasterCard and Citibank, among others, through application programming interfaces (APIs), as well as the Amex card data.

The analytics relies on having all the data sources together in one place, and then being able to visualise it for people to use through a browser. Birst provides the analytics platform and the data visualisation. 

Chérèque gives such examples as its customers being able to easily see where employees are not compliant – and so not using negotiated deals with hotel chains – and calibrating their airline spend.

“With the airlines it can be a cliff system – if you buy 100% [of the negotiated deal] you get a bonus back, if you spend 99% you get nothing. And if you spend more than 100% you could spend that money elsewhere. Airlines have had better statistics than the corporations, but now [the latter] have the information in advance – getting the data afterwards is no use.”

Chérèque also points to the sector possibilities in the firm’s use of a data lake with analytics. “We take care of most of the travel meeting and events for the pharmaceutical industry. We organise 40,000 meetings per year for them. With Birst, we can provide information about what is the average spend per trip in the industry. Someone in the pharmaceutical industry is not very interested in being benchmarked against Cisco or IBM.”

For individual travellers, Amex GBT is using the data lake to develop personalisation. “We know what kind of restaurants you like to go to, so when you make the booking we can make recommendations. Also we draw on people who have the same behaviour as you, who are in your cohort – which kind of restaurants, which kinds of hotel they go to.

“The booking is the tip of the iceberg. There are a lot of things happening below,” he concludes.……..    ……………… ……. ………

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