April 23, 2021 at 09:02AM

The global pandemic shut business travel down a little over a year ago as workers relocated to their home offices and physical interactions between colleagues more or less rolled up the sidewalk for most of 2020.

According to a business travel trade association, business travel reached a $1.4 trillion peak in 2019, and it took a pandemic-driven 51.5 percent hit in 2020. That’s 10 times worse than business travel losses that followed 9/11 or the Great Recession in 2008. And it was a disruption that left a lingering question: Would business travel ever really recover, or would the working world adopt a new “grounded” normal?

With vaccines now rolling out, the early answer is rolling in. As TripActions Liquid General Manager Michael Sindicich said in a conversation with Karen Webster and Visa Senior Vice President and Global Head of FinTech Terry Angelos, business travel appears to be coming back. TripActions, a cloud-based travel and expense (T&E) software platform, has been watching the figures climb since the start of the year. Business travel, according to its figures, jumped 17 percent last week, 15 percent the week before, and has been averaging 13 percent growth since the first week of January.

Sindicich said that as businesses have adapted to a new normal over the past year, the need for streamlined digital solutions that put the employee at the center for expense management has become more apparent. Their efforts were advanced this week with the announcement that TripActions will extend its partnership with Visa in an arrangement that will combine Visa’s core solutions and value-added services with the TripActions platform to optimize spend management for TripActions’ enterprise customers from retail, mobility, technology and other categories.

The partnership is not entirely new since TripActions Liquid, the platform’s virtual card program, was basically created via a partnership with Visa and Stripe. The newly deepened partnership, Sindicich explained, will make it easier to issue all their cards within the Visa network and offer their enterprise clients’ employees a sense of empowerment as well as a unique experience of controlling their spend management within their own company.

As Sindicich said, the traditional expense management process was inefficient for the employee as well as the company for all of the reasons anyone who has ever filled out an expense management form knows well. Reconciliation is a hassle for the employee and the employer, and asking for permission before monies are spent becomes an administrative hassle. And, once the money has been spent, expense management policies become more about “ask for forgiveness” since the permission to spend is granted well after the fact.

“We actually generate a new virtual card for every new travel booking,” Sindicich said. “And therefore, it eliminates expense management. It eliminates fraud because that card only stays open for the duration of the trip, and it can only be used at that merchant. And it completely, automatically reconciles in real time for those travel payments.”

The virtual TripActions Liquid process also opens up opportunities for the new type of traveler produced by the pandemic. For example, the sales team for an enterprise may have been traveling on a limited basis during the pandemic and is anxious to rekindle in-person connections when travel becomes safer. But what about the marketing vice president who has found travel isn’t as important as it once was since Zoom calls get the job done? Or the business that has given up office space but wants quarterly meetings with the team — most of whom never traveled at all for work? These new “casual” travelers can be issued a digital card that can also be provisioned to their mobile wallet for use at contactless terminals at their travel destinations.

The platform has been extended now to use for miscellaneous purposes like Zoom licenses, Slack licenses or digital advertising on Facebook. As Sindicich said, TripActions can be the conduit for giving marketing a budget for subscriptions, single-use expenditure or other business-related spend.

“What we did at TripActions is we really doubled down on resourcing and product and building an end-to-end expense management platform,” Sindicich said. “So, we’re extending the usage of this card and the ability to control policies on the card for anything, whether that’s work-from-home furniture, DoorDash or a gym stipend and benefits.”

Reimagining T&E

For Visa’s part, Angelos said, TripAdvisor delivers embedded FinTech functionality beyond the buzzwords.

“I think the big mega trend is to think about all of the software that runs a corporation or a business,” Angelos said. “When you can integrate digital payments into that software, everything runs much more smoothly. It doesn’t have to be cards, it could be other types of payments, but certainly cards are incredibly powerful ways to manage and control that spend.”

“This is an example of vertically addressing a business problem, in this case travel primarily, and then other types of corporate expenses,” Angelos added. “Because TripActions owns the booking, knows who you are and is integrated with the various software systems that run the business, that enables companies to remove the expenses and reconciliation steps for businesses. That’s what I think embedded FinTech is all about. When you enable that, you just get a much better experience. I think a lot of folks miss travel, but nobody misses doing expenses, right?”

Putting Employees At Center Of Business Spend Management …

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