Before joining CWT (formerly Carlson Wagonlit Travel) in 2016, Kurt Ekert knew the company – as a client. “I had high regard for its management and very strong market position,” he tells The CEO Magazine. But above all, “the values of its people and its sole shareholder, Carlson Companies”, is what attracted him to the President and CEO role.
Despite estimating the current market size of business travel to be worth around US$1.6 trillion, Kurt saw plenty of potential for growth. “We needed to become a true technology-enabled business and to find new revenue streams,” he says.
Hotel distribution represented the biggest opportunity for both revenue growth and differentiation for the company. “There was also a clear opportunity to move from a service to user experience orientation,” he continues, meaning that, regardless of channel, software and technology would sit beside every transaction, and particularly the offline channel. “This meant providing our terrific travel counselors around the world with a more sophisticated and modern toolkit.”
To achieve this, a new digital transformation strategy labeled ‘CWT 3.0’, was implemented. “From a regionally-centric organization, we reorganized to become a global functional structure in order to better leverage our scale and to enable platform investments,” he says.
Within this structure, a ‘discrete operating division’, under the brand name RoomIt by CWT™, was established, “to catalyze the most compelling hotel program offering in corporate travel”, Kurt continues.
Since the strategy was launched, CWT has reported an increase in total transaction volume to US$25 billion. For outsiders, the most obvious change occurred in February this year when the company was officially renamed CWT.
“The rebranding enables us to still pay homage to our great past,” Kurt explains. “But the new CWT brand evokes a more progressive, digital stance. This is in line with our strategy, our emerging culture and certainly our aspirations as a company.” The reception so far has been overwhelmingly positive.
“All of our key stakeholders – our clients, partners, employees, our shareholders and trade media – are excited to see us take steps on the path to becoming the world’s leading digital travel management company.”
For Kurt, there is “zero question” that technology innovation, and how it is delivered, will define the company’s success in the years to come. “We have about 1,500 people in our product and technology organization today, with a heavy emphasis on engineering and data science.”
The significant investment the company is undertaking in this field is already producing tangible results for its clients, such as “compelling traveler-facing capabilities; the intelligent use of data for personalization; the creation of the leading hotel distribution offering in corporate travel; and messaging powered by AI and robotics”, he explains.
It is, however, only the beginning. “You will see CWT embrace technology from other sectors in the years ahead as we continue on our digital journey, including consumer ecommerce,” he reveals.
For a business that can trace its roots back to the rail sleepers of the late 19th century, investments in technology and people are two of the measures that the company – and its sole shareholder – is putting in place to ensure it continues to lead the industry for the next 150 years and beyond.
“We have a clear plan and we focus significant attention on delivering against our clients’ expectations today, while also keeping our eyes on the horizon,” Kurt says. “Of course, we look at metrics such as return on equity and return on investment capital, but any of these outcomes are driven by key indicators such as employee engagement, client NPS, new product adoption and new sales performance,” he continues, naming just a few of the methods used to measure business success.
“We have a clear plan and we focus significant attention on delivering against our clients’ expectations today, while also keeping our eyes on the horizon.”
“Ultimately, however, long-term success comes down to creating a culture of innovation, empowerment and performance that our employees want to be a part of, and then consistently delivering differentiated value to our clients and supply partners,” Kurt says.
CWT’s people, he says, set it apart from its competitors. “Possessed with talent, knowledge and great passion, they’re the best in the industry,” he enthuses. “And we couple our services with leading technology and unique products that enable us to compete globally in virtually all sectors.”
If there is one constant for Kurt – who began his career in the travel industry in 1996 after four years as an active-duty officer in the US Army – it’s change. “It’s the operative word,” he laughs.
“When I started my journey, global internet penetration was relatively nascent, but growing. Smartphones were futuristic and the sharing economy didn’t even exist yet,” he reflects. “Today we are seeing the pace of innovation accelerate, and prospectively, the slope of the innovation curve will only continue to steepen.”
Yet, some metrics stay the same, no matter the rate of technological change. “The key for CWT is to consistently deliver unique value to our key stakeholders: our supplier partners, clients and travelers,” he explains.
“So, this requirement for success is actually the same as it was when I first started in the industry, it’s just that the world is more complex and faster than it was back then.”
For a self-confessed “road warrior” who gets to “eat a steady diet of our service and technology almost every week of the year”, what he enjoys most about the role is the opportunity to work with a terrific group of people.
“It is incredibly fun setting ambitious goals that are impactful to so many individuals and companies, and then pursuing these ambitions as a team,” he says. “In fact, my job – leading this business – is very simple. It is to unleash the great talent of my 18,000 colleagues around the world,” he concludes.
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