September 29 2022, Kimpton Fitzroy London
Friday 30 September 2022, JW Marriott Grosvenor
21 November 2022, Hilton London Metropole
Airplus International's UK managing director Yael Klein talks about the prospects for 2013 and the corporate card specialist's plans for the year
CONTROL IS THE KEY word for 2013, according to Yael Klein – whether it’s using virtual cards or changing the way businesses use their data. She says control is the reason why 2012 saw more people embrace the virtual card. “They have been around for a while – we launched our virtual card solution six or seven years ago,” she says. “But now people are understanding more about what you can do with the product.”
Klein, who’s been with Airplus for more than 12 years and its UK managing director for the last six, thinks the growth of virtual cards will continue during 2012. “It’s a way of controlling costs again. For a long time we had a UK market that issued plastic to everyone. Everyone travelled around paying on plastic, and then you looked at the data and tried to control spend. With the new cards you can set the budget and what merchants it can be used with – it gives the corporate options to control spend even more. We’ve seen this with the government.”
“I think in this day and age when people want to save money and are looking for more control, we’ll see more use of these cards. It’s a trend going back to lodge cards, effectively – though no one will say it like that because ‘lodge’ sounds like an old-fashioned beast. It’s lodge with more technology attached to it.”
HIGH MARKET SHARELaunched on the Universal Air Travel Plan (UATP) platform, Airplus was born in 1989 as a subsidiary of Lufthansa. “They wanted a solution that linked Lufthansa’s net rate programme to corporate payments,” says Klein. “It was great for Airplus as a start-up, because the only way you could get net rates with Lufthansa was with an Airplus card. In a very short time frame we had a very high market share.” Once Airplus became independent from Lufthansa those net rates were rapidly opened up to the whole card market, and Airplus needed new directions to grow, moving into other sectors and starting to go global at theend of the 1990s.
Klein herself went global at an early age. She was born in Germany but grew up in Kenya, before returning to study tourism and business in Heidelberg. After graduating, her career took her to various destinations, including a stint in Singapore. She’s been based in London for the last seven years.
Klein says that, internationally, Airplus’s main competitors today are American Express and Citibank. “Only three providers are truly global,” she says. “But on a local level I wouldn’t have enough fingers to list them – and the UK is one of the most competitive markets we operate in.”
However, she says she welcomes the competition. “We’ve seen quite a few new kids on the block, especially in the virtual card arena. They can be fast, flexible outlets and they keep us on our toes.
“I think this is a good thing, not when people come in and try and buy market share – which rocks the market and ruins it for a while – but as competitive new ideas which get you thinking. That’s always good. Some of these entrants will stay in the market and some will leave – that’s just the normal process.”
So how does Airplus stand its ground amid fierce competition? “We can differentiate because travel payment is all we do – it’s the only thing we have to do and have to do well. If we don’t, we’re out of a job. Every morning more than 1,000 people get out of bed and think about nothing but travel payment and how we can improve it.”
She says the competitive environment helps drive innovation at Airplus, and cites the launch, at the end of last year, of a car rental account that enables more efficiencies for customers, including VAT-able document invoices – which save resources on reclaiming VAT – and more powerful data. “You can go into your management information system and see who’s not refuelling their hire cars. I do that quite a lot, I’m afraid – I’m always running late and don’t have time to refuel. It’s expensive on a large scale. Now you’ll be able to catch and address the culprits – like myself.”
SMART SOLUTIONSLikewise, the roll-out of the new Airplus smartphone app offers benefits to corporates and their travellers, but Klein doesn’t think it will completely replace plastic any time soon. “The app is great if you’ve lost your card abroad, and we can issue a card number instantly to your phone. It will also be a great help for those who only travel a few times a year. But I don’t think the world is ready to get rid of all its plastic and have everyone checking out with an iPhone. Technology has to advance, and so do people.”
The Airplus MD says travel buyers’ requirements from their data are changing. “Originally they wanted the data for negotiating rates, but this doesn’t seem to be so much at the forefront of their minds at the moment. The last few years have been pretty tough, and it’s been more about how can we save and track compliance, and save process costs by making that process slicker.
“It’s also been more about security and tracking, knowing where someone is in case of a crisis. Of course, some people are still negotiating, but many are spot buying instead.”
OPTIMISING PROCESSESShe adds: “Very often customers come to us with an issue and they won’t know whether they need a card – it will be about achieving certain end goals.
“Cards are just a means to help them do that, part of a payment system that helps them optimise processes. So, for example, nobody has to type in whatever they spend – you have automatic reconciliation from the purchase order to the actual flight or product, a no-touch work stream that goes straight into the general ledgers. And on the other side it gives them the data to keep them updated on whether they’re on-track with budgets or policies.”
Encouragingly for those in the travel industry, Klein says businesses are thinking differently in this latest chapter of the recession. “It’s interesting: the first time round, people simply stopped travelling – the corporates stopped dead. But they’ve learned from this that it’s not helpful for their business, and instead, to optimise their data to save money and travel more effectively.”