Business Travel Show Europe Kick Off, 23 February,
Global Travel Risk Summit Europe, May 2023,
3rd Annual Sustainable Business Travel Summit
With a silk handkerchief in the pocket of a smart blue blazer, an expensive watch on his wrist and sculpted good looks, you could easily imagine Kaveh Atrak hosting a cocktail party off the shore of Monte Carlo.
Yet Atrak, vice president and general manager for American Express Business Travel in the United Kingdom, the Nordic countries and central Europe, is down-to-earth and genial, and is the driving force behind American Express' growth this side of the Atlantic.
Atrak is a career Amex man, working for the company for more than 25 years and with a variety of senior positions under his belt.
The UK and Ireland beat was added to his responsibilities early in 2010, taking over from former UK head Paul Hargreaves, who has moved over to look after foreign exchange and a number of new payment ventures. Atrak's career progression reflects what is going on with American Express as a whole.
"I was managing the business in Germany and was then asked to go to Sweden and started looking after the Nordic markets. At the beginning of the year I added UK and Ireland," he says. "American Express is very global and the accent is increasingly on global solutions. Not every market is the same but, since a large part of our business is cross-border, then I think we are more capable of fulfilling our customers' needs."
Before joining American Express in 1984, Atrak had a successful career with the Ford Motor Company and has a Master's degree from Aston University's Business School.
Atrak came to the UK at a difficult time, with the economy on the skids and business travel in the doldrums. Yet Atrak says that a rebound, if not a recovery, is underway.
"This year, we are really showing some recovery in Europe. While the UK is not enjoying the best economic environment, it is enjoying the largest growth. There are a lot of global corporations headquartered in the UK and they are getting traction faster than elsewhere in Europe. In the second quarter, we saw volumes of travel growing by 20 per cent year-on-year.
"The Anglo-Saxon economies are growing the fastest. After the UK, Germany is growing very well, followed by Scandinavia and then France. We are seeing double digit growth overall and we are cautiously optimistic."
Despite that, Amex is not getting excessively excited over this return to business as usual. "This growth is off a very low base and we are not becoming euphoric, but companies are relaxing their travel policies and travelling more."
The company is noticing increased business at the sharp-end of the plane, but he sounds a note of caution. "In some markets, we are seeing some easing of policy and Business Class picking up. There have been some positive trends on Premium classes in the last couple of months but that could easily reverse itself."
The pick-up in demand means that buyers will be looking carefully at what happens to fares. "Airlines took a lot of capacity out of the market because of the fall in demand," he says. "In Asia, prices have already been increasing because of demand but in Europe as a whole, air fares are flat. In the UK, average ticket prices are increasing but that is not necessarily so in other markets. We expect to see air fares in Europe start to go up in Q4 2010/Q1 2011."
Hotel prices are edging up, too, says Atrak, although it varies by market. "What is certain is that hotel negotiations are getting tougher," he says. "Some of the incremental benefits given by hoteliers last year, such as including breakfast and wifi in the rate will disappear. Hoteliers will now want to start charging again for those. Some of the negotiations will be on rate but some of them will start to be on the availability, as occupancy in key cities increases."
As far market share, Atrak takes the usual cagey American Express line in terms of competitors. "We are growing, although I can't speak for my competitors. We are experiencing double digit growth in terms of booking volumes, but the market is growing, too.
"There are a small number of large customers who change hands and we have not experienced any enormous changes. Unlike some of our competitors, we invested heavily during 2009 in solutions targeted at customers, and this paid off. There has been a lot of focus on traveller security and other traveller-centric technology."
Atrak is keen to say that the company's renewed focus on small and medium enterprises (SMEs) has paid off. "We have been looking after the mid-market for 95 years but we have been investing a lot more recently, particularly the launch of aXcent, which offers the global backing of American Express but with a local tie-in. We have dedicated servicing units for our mid-market customers where they are handled over the phone by a dedicated unit and not a call centre. We can offer these clients exclusive access to negotiated fares that they would not normally be able to achieve. It has proven a tremendous success and our pipeline is very strong."
You can tell clearly that Atrak believes that traveller technology is going to be key to Amex's future. "We think there is an evolution going on from travel transaction-centric to traveller-centric, and it is internet technology that has enabled this.
"We are offering companies a single point of entry into travel management. Travellers can have access to alerts, information on their itinerary, e-invoices and corporate card statements."
Atrak argues that to take advantage, Amex has to focus not on individual devices, such as the iPhone and the BlackBerry, but cover the whole market. "We have to do every device and be technology-agnostic so that it works with any mobile. We have two solutions - one that works using simple SMS text messages, and the other uses the web. It works regardless of whether you book on- or off-line and regardless of which GDS you use."
The company also says it is the market leader in terms of online adoption. "Online has really taken off in the last couple of years. In the UK, nearly 40 per cent of our air bookings are now handled online. That compares with more than 60 per cent in the US, 30 per cent in Germany, France and the Nordics and an average 25 per cent in Europe as a whole.
"There are two main reasons [for this growth] - travel management is becoming more au fait with online; but also, since last year, mandating its use has become more prevalent. Historically, lots of markets have not been mandate-oriented, but the economic environment last year helped to change this. "
Even with this increased focus on technology, Atrak's slick demeanour shows that American Express still believes in clients and the personal touch.