Travel management professionals generally agree on the merits of enriched e-folio data streams from hotels to credit card companies to expense reporting systems, but expanded deployment begs for standardization. While customized solutions may work for the very largest accounts, other buyers are pressing payment and lodging companies for common systems. Some hotel officials, meanwhile, blame a lack of demand.
According to panelists and delegates speaking here this week during the National Business Travel Association's annual conference, advantages of e-folio include higher traveler compliance to preferred hotel programs via an easier expense reporting process that pre-populates many items; administrative cost savings by going paperless; and more complete data on every aspect of hotel costs for tracking, auditing and negotiating the next deal with hotel suppliers.
The first company to push hotel suppliers for e-folio data in the late 1990s, IBM now saves $120 per folio--with higher savings achieved through productivity enhancements in the expense reporting process--according to Sean Logan, the company's global sourcing manager in charge of the hotel center.
Deloitte has identified $1 million in administrative costs that can be eliminated through a completely paperless expense reporting process, which is to be enabled by e-folio feeds starting in January, said Brian Nichols, the company's manager of hotel and ground transportation. "We are going to prominently bias to hotels that participate, at the point of sale, both within the online booking tool as well as through the travel agency," he explained. "It is a compelling proposition for hotels, and we hope and anticipate that people will gravitate towards those hotels."
Hilton Hotels Corp. now is sending 100,000 e-folios each day to more than 150 accounts, according to managing director of business travel sales Maureen Mackey. All Hilton properties in North America are equipped to send such data through to credit card companies, she said.
However, pockets of success and progress at the larger chains and among their largest clients have not sparked wider deployment. "One of the reasons why it was so complex was that it was customized solutions for a few companies," said IBM's Logan. "If it is going to move mainstream, it has got to become simple and easy to use. Only demand from the industry will drive that. There was skepticism when we started in 1998, and then in 2003, and now in 2007 about whether this is something that is going to take off. We won't know if it is a passing trend or if it is here to stay until some point in the future."
The ultimate outcome largely is dependent on reconciling the varying capabilities among hotel company, credit card company and expense reporting systems to handle, send and receive data feeds with detailed e-folio information. Without commonality, such systems appear to be workable only for the largest buyers who can insist their suppliers adapt solutions to meet their companies' specific needs.
Despite InterContinental Hotels Group's e-folio efforts with MasterCard, IHG global sales systems manager David Haskins was not optimistic about industry adoption. "It will never work for everyone if we have a porridge of separate supplier systems," he said.
"It's easier to put a man on the moon than to do everything you are doing, for most companies," said Turner Broadcasting vice president Robert McGurk. "Not many of us have the clout with hotels that IBM or Deloitte has to make them do this. This is something that is now really hard. If really hard is all there is, do we want to do this at all? Why doesn't somebody try to provide a plug and play solution?"
And even where systems between suppliers have been linked, the number of participating hotel properties is "probably a little light based on the work we have done," said Doug Kyle, vice president of global commercial products MasterCard.
Though some have previously suggested that the number of properties sending e-folio data is above 10,000, session moderator Maria Chevalier, Advito vice president of global business intelligence, cited American Express and MasterCard data indicating the number is around 8,500--representing such companies as Choice Hotels International, Carlson Hotels Worldwide, Hilton, Marriott International and Omni Hotels.
Kyle acknowledged the challenge in getting all the various hotel companies and franchisees on the same page with specific standards, saying, "We realized we'd already be dead and gone before we figure that out." Instead, MasterCard works with TRX to aggregate e-folio data and properly format it before sending it to corporate clients.
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