Businesses spend a lot of time and money processing and approving their employees’ expenses – so much so that US provider Concur Technologies has built a $300 million business around an application that optimises the process.
Despite offering such a quotidian service, Concur has kept pace with the technological curve. The web-based nature of its application allows staff to enter and approve expenses remotely, and a smartphone version now lets them do it at the bus stop or on a train.
Behind the scenes, the service integrates a wide array of information sources, including credit card payments, airline and hotel booking systems and even photographs of paper receipts in order to minimise the finance department’s administrative workload.
Nevertheless, technology’s onward march is relentless, and in January 2011 Concur acquired Tripit, a company whose own innovative approach to travel admin might otherwise have caused it some competitive problems in the future.
Launched in 2007, Tripit is a deceptively simple application that allows users to compile itineraries.
All the user has to do is forward the booking confirmation emails they receive from airlines or other travel providers to Tripit’s email address; this automatically updates their itinerary, which they can access online or through a smartphone application.
The service, which boasts around two million users, works by analysing the contents of each email to identify meaningful components, such as the departure time or the destination. It also uses microformats, a way of marking up the meaning of an item of data, so that the information can be integrated with other systems, such as an online calendar.
Tripit, in other words, is a pioneering example of semantic web technology helping to simplify an everyday task.
According to Concur co-founder and global marketing director Mike Hilton, Tripit’s technology will allow the company to bring what he describes as “unmanaged” business travel into the expense management process.
“Managed travel is when you do everything through the company’s travel agent, whereas unmanaged travel is when you pay for a train ticket or a hotel room on your personal credit card,” he explains. “With Tripit, you don’t really have to make that distinction any more, because it allows you to collect all kinds of booking information in one spot.”
Concur is now working on the integration of the two companies’ technology. “Our strategy is to combine Tripit’s ability to take itineraries and trips from anywhere with Concur’s ability to make sure all your bookings and expense claims are reconciled,” he explains.
Hilton describes Tripit as “a truly disruptive technology”. “For the past 50 years, business travel has been very centrally controlled and managed, by travel agencies and big reservation systems that you have to go through to do anything,” he says. “But the Internet has changed everything, and more than anyone, Tripit has embraced the fact that the traveller can now control their own itinerary. We saw in them a glimpse of how travel is going to be managed in the future.”
Of course, as an established system for controlling the way businesses manage their travel, was not Concur itself in danger of disruption at Tripit’s hands? “Certainly potentially,” Hilton concedes.