Making a ConneXion Count

By Samuel Greengard  |  Posted 2008-10-30

Few industries have witnessed as radical a transformation as travel agencies and services. In little more than a decade, paper tickets have all but disappeared, bookings have migrated online and value-added services have become essential for survival.

What hasn’t changed is the way most agencies interact with customers. Phone, e-mail and newsletters serve as the backbone for these interactions.

“There’s been very little change in the tactics used to communicate with employees, clients, prospects and the media,” observes Alicia Tillman, vice president at American Express Business Travel. With $26.4 billion in global travel sales in 2007, the company is firmly entrenched as the world’s largest travel management enterprise. So when it sets out to transform the way it communicates with the travel community, the industry pays close attention.

Last year, New York-based American Express Business Travel decided to get social—as in social networking. This past October, the company unveiled a new business-to-business site, Business Travel ConneXion, which offers news, blogs, RSS feeds, wikis, discussion boards, polls, a resource library and benchmarking tools.

“We’re looking for a way to share information and keep people engaged,” Tillman says.

A lot of work went into building the site and putting all the pieces in place: Business Travel ConneXion required months of planning and programming. American Express had to find a partner that could build the required services and functionality. Then the company needed to locate industry experts willing to blog and create content. Finally, it had to test everything to ensure that the site provided useful information in an attractive package.

“It’s been a learn-as-you-go process, but we realize that we have only one chance to get this right,” Tillman says.

Making a ConneXion Count

It’s no secret that social networking has flashed onto corporate radar—and computer screens—in recent months. As the popularity of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other sites has mushroomed in the consumer space, business executives have recognized that the power of people can propel their products and services to new heights.

That message rings true for American Express Business Travel. In October 2007, Tillman and other executives began to ponder ways they could better connect to their network of travel agents, travel managers, hoteliers and others. Virtually all of them already had Facebook and LinkedIn accounts—a fact that convinced the executives that social networking had arrived.

“We wanted to create something more valuable than another static Web site,” Tillman explains. “We set out to assemble a robust community where anyone in the travel industry could exchange information and interact with anyone else in the value chain. The idea was to move beyond American Express and build an industrywide network.”

Of course, building a premier site for an entire industry is extraordinarily challenging. So Tillman worked with Charles Petrucelli, the president of American Express’ Global Services Division, and Lisa Durocher, global marketing director, to develop an initial strategy and business plan. Along the way, they had to define a content framework and build relationships and connections with others in the industry, including bloggers and content creators.

“It was an enormous job to handle the core planning tasks,” Tillman recalls. “It took the team more than 10 months to sort everything out.”

Early on, American Express decided to forgo a company-centric approach. As a result, it had to recruit subject-matter experts from all avenues of the travel industry, and take a neutral position about the content and posts on the site. Currently, about 60 percent of the material is user-generated, and about 40 percent originates from American Express and its publishing division.

It’s essential for American Express to find topics with universal appeal. For example, a featured topic of the week examines a general issue or trend affecting the industry, such as the impact the current economic slowdown is having on the way companies allocate money for travel.

Achieving widespread acceptance required devoting a good deal of time and attention to designing a premier site that would be readily accessible and usable. So American Express turned to development firm LiveWorld to construct the technology foundation.

LiveWorld developed the site using Java, Ajax and C++ code, along with a MySQL database. Built-in APIs from LiveWorld’s platform allow American Express to integrate content modules from the Business ConneXion site into other Web sites inside and outside the company. LiveWorld hosts the site on shared Unix-based Sun Solaris and Apple servers.

Peter Friedman, CEO of LiveWorld, says that social networking sites like Business ConneXion bring back the type of social relationships that were in place for hundreds of years, but were previously centered on public marketplaces and general stores. Today’s social networks rely on technology to accomplish this task on a global scale. “The reality is that people are living in an environment that’s increasingly tied into online relationships,” he explains.

A Site Takes Flight

The Business ConneXion site offers an array of tools to leverage the power of social networking. These include blogs, photo albums, galleries, community calendars, mobile alerts, a friends’ list and the ability to form subgroups. In January, the company plans to add video and other innovations.

“Many of these tools and technologies have been proved in the consumer space, and they should also be effective in influencing business decision-makers,” Tillman says.

The ultimate goal of this social networking initiative is to position American Express as a thought leader and to drive increased sales. But executives at the Business Travel division understand that the company won’t witness bottom-line benefits overnight: They consider the site a long-term initiative.

“We view this as a new channel that allows us to communicate with both our clients and our prospects,” Tillman explains. The company will use analytics to better understand the value of these relationships.

Business Travel ConneXion is the industry’s first major social networking site, but it’s almost certain to attract competitors in the months ahead. That doesn’t worry Tillman, who believes the key to success is keeping an eye on today’s rapidly changing business environment and providing real value to site visitors.

American Express will publicize the site through industry associations and networks. It also has set up a Facebook fan page with news, information and updates about the site.

Not surprisingly, American Express executives believe that the Business Travel ConneXion site will redefine the industry and help the company maintain its position as the world leader in travel management services.

“In the past, if you wanted to share information, you had to post it to a variety of sources,” Tillman says. “Now, it’s finally possible to create a single source for communicating with an industry. It’s a giant step forward.”