Travelers head to their flights at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City. The government is placing big bets on a new billion-dollar e-travel system to transform federal travel. (Spencer Platt / Getty)
The government is placing big bets on a new billion-dollar e-travel system to transform federal travel.
Travelers at civilian agencies have long complained that current systems are confusing and hard to navigate. Booking a simple trip can take hours instead of minutes, especially if travelers accidentally type in incorrect data. While system improvements have eased some burdens, customer satisfaction scores have hovered around 50 on a scale of zero to 100.
The new cloud solution by Concur Technologies Inc. of Redmond, Wash., is expected to ease online booking, provide more intuitive and user-friendly interfaces, automate expense reporting and provide a host of mobile features for employees to access while traveling.
In June, the General Services Administration awarded a 15-year, $1.4 billion contract to Concur, effectively tossing out three long-established e-travel vendors — CWT Sato Travel, Northrop Grumman Mission Systems and HP Enterprise Services — in favor of a single newcomer with zero federal-sector experience.
The new system will eventually go to all non-Defense agencies. Meanwhile, the Defense Department, which has long used a program called the Defense Travel System by Northrop Grumman, is extending that company’s contract another year.
Soon after GSA awarded the contract to Concur, however, it got sidelined: Incumbent vendor CWT Sato Travel, the government travel division of Carlson Wagonlit Travel, filed a bid protest arguing that it was unfairly shut out of the new contract. Last week, the Government Accountability Office denied CWT’s protest.
“GSA is excited to move forward, and we are ready to begin by providing federal agenc[ies] with the technical and customer service support for implementation, deployment and task orders,” Tim Burke, director of GSA’s Office of Travel and Transportation Services, said in an email.
The current travel services contracts for E2 Solutions by CWT Sato Travel, GovTrip by Northrop Grumman Mission Systems and FedTraveler by HP Enterprise Services expire in November 2013. GSA has bridge contracts with those vendors through November 2015 to help agencies that can’t move to the new system by next year.
However, agencies that delay moving to the new system may face price increases; how much is unclear.
GSA said all civilian agencies must transition to the new system, and there are no waivers or exceptions.
The government’s Federal Travel Regulation requires civilian agencies to use e-travel services through GSA. GSA had said agencies will begin deploying the second-generation E-Gov Travel Service (ETS2), awarded to Concur, in late 2012, but that has changed to 2013.
Protests of the solicitation and final award delayed rollout of ETS2 by about 14 months.
Rajeev Singh, Concur president and chief operating officer, said agencies will see incremental savings under the new system, in part from having access to a broader selection of hotels, airlines and other transportation options from which agencies can select the best prices.
Once the new system is rolled out, feds will be able to use their smartphones to do much of their travel-related business, such as:
Book air travel, hotels, cars, trains and taxis.
View trip itineraries.
Receive real-time updates on their flight status via text and email.
Check in at the airport electronically, bypassing long lines, and use an electronic boarding pass.
Take photos of paper receipts and upload them to the system.
Concur’s travel and expense management system also boasts a better display of pricing options: Options for travel arrangements will be listed in a matrix format, similar to commercial websites such as Orbitz and Travelocity. When booking, they can review green travel features such as Web-based conferencing alternatives and a calculation of each trip’s carbon footprint.
Users can also view FedRooms, which negotiates government rates at hotels, and commercially available rates to compare pricing.
All travel reservation data and alternative choices are included in employee travel authorizations for review.
“Certainly travel is now in the hand of the consumer,” said Gail Blauer, a director at Deloitte Consulting who specializes in making back office systems more efficient.
Roger Hale, president and CEO of ADTRAV Travel Management, said agencies will benefit from other economies of scale. As Concur rolls out system upgrades, those costs will be spread across multiple customers.
In its protest, CWT Sato Travel argued that Concur has never worked in the federal space and questioned why the government would award a multiyear contract of this size to a single vendor. But in the corporate world, Concur has made a name for itself.
The company has more than 18 million users across major financial and auto manufacturing companies and other industries. Each year, it processes 55 million transactions worth more than $50 billion in travel and expense spending, according to Concur.
Industry analysts and consultants familiar with the contract say they weren’t surprised by GSA’s decision to award the contract to a single vendor.
“The objectives are really around cost savings,” Blauer said. By channeling the government’s travel volume through a single vendor’s system, agencies will realize greater savings, she said.
Concur was prohibited from meeting with agencies while the protest was under review.
Agencies will have to decide when they want to roll out the new system and how and over what time frame they want to implement it.
“This process is no doubt going to be a multiyear process for getting the agencies signed up for moving toward Concur’s solution,” Singh said.
He couldn’t say when agencies would begin moving to the new system — that will be affected by the pace of deployment the government chooses for itself, the complexity of agencies’ requirements and the amount of training agencies will want.
Priorities for other information technology projects and budget constraints also are factors. Transition costs can range from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars, Singh said. Those estimates are based on costs for large commercial customers, which in some cases have more than 300,000 employees.
Besides facing the possibility of significant additional expense in transitioning to the new travel system, agencies are also under orders to cut travel spending by 30 percent next year compared with 2010 levels.
Already, Hale’s travel management company has seen a 10 percent to 40 percent decrease in travel among his federal customers. “They’re definitely taking heed,” Hale said.
GSA also has acknowledged that there may be fewer travel transactions as agencies reduce their travel.
At the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, managers have not made plans to move to the new system because there is another option year under the current contract with CWT Sato Travel, said Wail Higazi, a systems accountant at EEOC. Higazi said there were uncertainties, at first, because Concur is a new vendor, but reviews of Concur’s system have put those concerns to rest.
The government expects the enhanced features of the booking tool will save money by driving more travel transactions online, as opposed to using travel agents. Booking a trip through an agent can range from $20 to $30, while online booking can cost $5 to $9, said Arthur Salus, president of Duluth Travel, a travel management company serving the Veterans Affairs Department, U.S. Agency for International Development and others.
Salus said the current systems are underused at some agencies, which in turn costs the agencies more. He anticipates there will be fewer calls to travel agents for straightforward trips as travelers increasingly use the new system.
“That just means we have to be leaner and meaner,” Salus said about travel management companies.