Interview with Julie Avenel, VP of Strategic Transformation

At American Express Global Business Travel (Amex GBT), developing the technology and processes to enable New Distribution Capability (NDC) has been a significant project – involving 100+ hires and an investment of $10M USD in the past year alone. Though we’ve been investing in and expanding our marketplace for many years, last year we saw significant acceleration of NDC content integration as airlines progressed their NDC offerings. We’ve been building, testing, launching pilots, and learning. We’ve been training our staff both through online and offline servicing. Now, as we start enabling NDC content more broadly, we’re reflecting on our journey so far.

We sat down with Julie Avenel, Vice President of Strategic Transformation at Amex GBT, to find out more. Julie was appointed to work on the NDC project in early 2023, bringing rich and diverse strategy, client, and supplier experience to the table.

Q: When you’re tasked with steering a major transformation project like NDC, where do you begin?

You have to start with setting a clear objective. In the case of Amex GBT, our objective is to always offer clients access to the leading travel marketplace, and NDC is a growing part of that.

Next is building the critical path and identifying the necessary steps: securing funding, recruiting the right engineers, testing, and so on. A project like NDC also requires the ability to pivot quickly, should a partner come in and introduce a change. So, we’ve structured our team into two parts: one to provide focus and direction in a constantly evolving environment, and the other for making things happen (strategy and execution).

It’s critical to always have the three Ps in place: pace, for moving at a speed the company and partner ecosystems can manage; priorities, for continuous clarity on the scope; and partnership, teaming across functions, constant communication, empathy, and co-creation.

When it comes to NDC, it’s not just a technical play. And we are no strangers to integrating content – our recent acquisitions of Egencia and Ovation Travel Group are proof of that. Listening to and consulting with clients, partners, and the industry is crucial, as well as having clear steps to achieving our long-term goals.

Q: What key milestones or achievements have you hit with NDC so far – and what have you been most proud of?

In corporate travel, the true measure of success isn’t just connecting to new content – it’s our ability to book and service it. We ended 2023 with over 2,500 clients booking NDC content through our proprietary platforms. That’s a major achievement. We’re shooting for an end state where all of our clients can seamlessly access NDC content within the broader marketplace and we can service it fully.

We’ve been collaborating closely with multiple airlines, helping figure out which features we need to co-develop to enhance the NDC experience. As a significant portion of our transactions are touched and modified, we’ve also helped GDS partners improve the look of their apps and interfaces where relevant.

Q: Your team has made huge progress – but what challenges have you encountered along the way?

Perception within the corporate travel environment can be a challenge. NDC is a hot topic in the industry press, but many conversations revolve around baseless claims. We won’t just implement a couple of direct connects in one country and then issue a press release declaring NDC victory. That would be irresponsible. We serve more than 20,000 customers across more than 80 countries – and we need to solve for them at global scale.

We’re also constantly balancing the need to move faster with the challenge of tech development. We have to navigate stakeholders at each airline, channel partner, and technology partner. If something changes in the wider ecosystem, we have to address it.

Q: What processes have you implemented to stay up-to-date with everything happening around NDC in the industry?

Alongside industry news, airlines and online booking tools (OBTs) all have their own announcements and initiatives. We strive to bring clarity; charting which airlines are doing what and when. Education is also key; our commitment to client servicing means we’re dispelling myths and making sure the approach makes sense for them.

Internally, we’ve developed different tools and dashboards. Our NDC Industry Newsfeed tracks related news to keep our stakeholders informed. Our Business Intelligence (BI) dashboard keeps track of which clients are booking NDC content, and our Business Priorities board provides transparency to all team members about which airline we are evaluating, testing, and developing.

NDC isn’t just a technology project; it’s an enterprise transformation. We are assessing every possible change and identifying gaps in communications or expectations.

Q: Why do you think Amex GBT has been able to establish itself as the leading TMC on NDC?

Our dedicated transformation office puts us in a unique position of neutrality about what’s right for the whole company, rather than serving the commercial priorities of individual business units. We can challenge in any direction and support in every direction, helping the entire company move forward and provide clients with what they are asking for.

Also, we’re not solely focused on NDC through one tool – our end goal is to offer choice, which is why we are working both in our own proprietary environments (Amex GBT Neo™ and Amex GBT Egencia booking platforms) as well as where clients have chosen third-party tech.

Q: What skills do you need within a transformation team to effectively manage change programs like NDC?

It’s imperative to have strong collaboration, agility, and alignment across teams – and the ability to speak to many different audiences and share what’s relevant to them.

This means having a helicopter view of the project and the ability to deep-dive into the details.  Sometimes you’re delivering a high-level talk track to senior management; sometimes, you’re sitting down with a travel counselor to address specific issues.

Q: What are the hallmarks of successful transformation?

The first hallmark is just that simple – you’ve achieved a positive outcome aligned with the transformation’s objectives.

The second is that you’ve kept the customer top of mind throughout the process, making sure the changes benefit them without creating negative outcomes.

And finally, from a transformation leader perspective, there’s one clear indicator that you’ve succeeded – when people no longer require your involvement! The change is embedded and the organization is self-sufficient, allowing you to move on to the next challenge and initiative.

To learn more about Amex GBT’s travel transformation journey to enable NDC content globally, click here. Explore our dedicated NDC page for more articles on corporate travel transformation at Amex GBT.