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Soaring higher to streamline business travel while keeping costs down to Earth

As only the second woman honored, Mary Bastrentaz joins an elite club of 25 pioneers who have spurred major change in the travel industry.

How does it feel to be the second woman to receive this award from the Business Travel News Group?
It’s an honor but I wish I hadn’t been only the second. Out of 25 honorees over the years, there have been only two women. I hope BTN will continue to find modern women—women who are driving change and innovation in today’s world, and who have made significant contributions. There are many deserving women out there.

As Managing Director of Global Travel and Events for Accenture, tell us about the scope of your group’s work.
We serve the needs of over 100,000 travelers, and our company spends more than $1.2 billion annually. With employees in 120 countries, our scope is truly global.

You have worked in the travel industry for 40 years, from leadership roles to running your own travel school to train corporate travel consultants. What kind of changes have you observed?
Looking back, I see four distinct decades of change or disruption within the travel industry. The first decade starting in 1975 was all about deregulation, which disrupted the structure of the industry. When I started, there were three different types of airfares. Now there are thousands and they change every day. There were many more airlines and hotel chains, and deregulation led to bankruptcies and consolidation. While it caused chaos for a while, it also gave us many new opportunities.

The next decade was automation, and technology was the disruptor, with major advances in travel management. Airlines were able to provide advance boarding passes, e-ticketing was launched, and reservation systems were becoming more automated. Before joining Accenture, I helped implement one of the first self-booking technologies, which used downloaded software with updates using big floppy discs. Does anyone remember those?

The next decade, starting around 1995, I would call the innovation decade, and the disruptor was the Internet. At Accenture we pioneered direct-connect technology with six major airlines, including automated refunds and exchanges, for travel reservations. We were even playing with voice-recognition software for travel. Accenture was among the first companies—if not the first—to get online adoption up to 85 percent. Self-enablement was an important component of our travel program.

In the past decade, globalization was a major trend, and the disruptor was about being borderless. Amazon, Facebook, Google and Twitter have made us global citizens. Due to the automation and innovation that came before, we have been able to standardize and industrialize travel processes on a global scale. Suppliers have been making global alliances and consolidating. The world has become smaller.

I see the next decade about digitalization, with “connections” becoming the disruptor. What we are seeing with smart phones, wearables and tokenization is just the beginning. New service models using technology and global platforms are now connecting people in a myriad of new ways. I can’t wait to see what comes next.

How would you describe yourself?
I’m a pioneer, an explorer, a teacher and an innovator. Accenture has been a great fit for me in the way I love to work, and the people I enjoy working with.

What is the most frustrating part of your work?
The complexity. I like to create things that are simple and elegant, but there are many pieces to weave together in a travel program.

Do you foresee any trends that might resolve the fragmentation?
As I mentioned before, a major trend under way in travel is around digitalization. This will change the way we travel. Today, there is a lack of integration of travel components. Travelers end up visiting different sites or using multiple apps to create a better experience for themselves.

In the future, my ground transportation will connect with my air carrier which, in turn, will connect with my hotel, and maybe where I’d like to eat. It’s beginning to happen, with travel technology innovators and apps, but there’s still a long way to go to provide seamless service. I would love to see a Flipboard-like travel itinerary that customizes all my trip needs, including destination information.

The attacks in Paris drew attention to safety and security issues. How does your team deal with such issues?
Global Watch on our portal is used for communications. Whenever there’s an event, we work closely with Global Asset Protection, and with Human Resources and other internal teams as well. We have processes in place and a system to track our people.

There are all sorts of events in addition to terrorist attacks—severe weather such as recent floods in Chennai, or, back in 2010, volcanic ash clouds shut down airports across Europe.

One of the reasons we insist all reservations be booked within the managed program is so we can see where our people are. Should there be an event, flight disruptions, or a weather-related situation, we can pull up reservations and locate our people who are traveling.

Accenture spends more than $1.2 billion on global travel each year. How do you keep costs under control?
There are three ways to reduce cost. One, we can negotiate better deals with suppliers, but that’s hard in today’s environment. Two, we can change policy, which we’ve done to drive better compliance. At Accenture, the My Travel Summary page provides our people with greater transparency into individual travel spend and compliance with our policies.

Three, we can change the way we work, and that is to travel less. Accenture has invested in collaborative technologies that enable us to conduct business with less travel. We’re much more comfortable and productive doing things virtually.

Many companies’ travel budgets are on the rise, probably because they don’t have the technology we do, or haven’t made the policy or structural changes. Accenture is at the forefront.

Has it been hard to control air-travel costs?
Due to industry consolidation, ancillary fees and fuel prices dropping, the airlines are enjoying record profits compared to recent years. Average ticket prices for consumers have dropped, primarily because of the large fall in oil prices in the past year.

In competitive markets, ticket prices are relatively low. I was going to New York City last week from Chicago, and I could fly for under $200. Low-cost airlines are helping keep prices down. In smaller markets with carriers enjoying a monopoly, prices are going to be high.

Are hotel costs going up?
Demand is high, and due to a shortage of new hotels being built and increased business travel, average revPAR (revenue per available room) is the highest it’s been in a number of years. We’ve seen price increases, and we are trying to minimize them in our annual hotel negotiations. We have set rate caps in our top 120 cities, and by country as well, to provide guidelines of payment ranges.

How will the proposed Starwood/Marriott merger affect the industry?
Both companies are great hotel companies—hotels we use a lot, and are also clients of Accenture. It will be interesting to see what happens. This combination would represent the largest acquisition of my lifetime in travel.

Does Accenture use Airbnb?
Our travelers seem willing to use it for personal rather than for business purposes. We are piloting with a couple of client teams but Accenture hasn’t taken a position. It is definitely a viable alternative in extremely tight markets, such as San Francisco and Silicon Valley.

What advice do you have for young people launching their careers?
In today’s environment, three things are needed. First of all, because change is constant, you need to be adaptive. You have to embrace change and love it. You have to NOT like being bored.

Secondly, you need to persevere. With any career, it’s a long-distance race, and you have to be in it for the long term.

Thirdly, and most important of all, you need courage—the courage to create, innovate, originate and, when things aren’t working, to renovate and start all over again.

What is the most satisfying aspect of your work?
It’s the constant change. I consider myself a bit of a pioneer. It’s been great to be able to innovate, to challenge things, to do things in new ways, and then to bring the industry and suppliers along with Accenture. We are constantly coming up with new ideas, and those innovations are why I’ve been recognized for my career.

I couldn’t have done this without a high-performing team of people or without strong executive sponsorship. Our travelers also continue to provide us with great feedback that help us in driving continuous improvement.