CIO interview: Kevin O’Connor, Carlson Wagonlit Travel

As the new CIO at Carlson Wagonlit Travel, Kevin O’Connor is looking to bring in a new approach to the company’s IT strategy

As the new chief information officer (CIO) at Carlson Wagonlit Travel (CWT) – the world’s largest business travel management company – Kevin O’Connor is looking to bring in a new approach to the company’s IT strategy to support continued growth.

CWT operates in over 150 countries and employs about 20,000 people worldwide. The group has $27.6bn in annual sales and, as of 2007, surpassed its main rival, American Express, in the segment for business travel management.

“While CWT is the market leader, I am not interested in companies that say, 'We are the market leaders, we must be doing something right, leave us alone'," O’Connor told Computer Weekly. "I am in a place where we are actually the market leaders, but want to become even more successful and actually change the industry."

Changing the IT organisation

The IT team led by O’Connor, in post for just five weeks, has 800 staff spread across the globe. The technology set-up includes about a dozen datacentres worldwide and a global MPLS network, with HP, Cisco and Juniper as the three main technology suppliers. The company has not yet ventured into any sort of major IT outsourcing.

The software portfolio is largely centered on industry-specific global distribution systems (GDS) Sabre, Galileo and Amadeus, while the rest – a myriad of niche applications, such as a system that captures frequent flyer client information – are developed in-house.

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According to the CIO, he has not found what many of his peers refer to as a “pile of spaghetti” and the IT underpinning the company is in good shape, but needs to become more of a global organisation rather than the current federated model, and to be based on the pillars of high availability, connectivity and security.

“My mission is to provide a degree of uniformity and consistency for our agents and people internally. We need a uniform experience which is efficient and works in a variety of countries,” says O’Connor.

“The services we offer in terms of integrating with clients are global, but some [technology] stuff is really regional. In a developing country, the infrastructure might not be so good – but in any case, we still have to provide a global, top-class level of service.”

Deliverables for 2013

The aim is to standardise how things are done in technology at CWT and bring best practices together from the various technology hubs the company has worldwide, but the real area of focus is using IT to provide a better service to customers.

“In all the countries we operate in, the environment around us is very different – railway operators, hotels, airlines - but the clients we deal with are the big multinationals and they want a seamless travel experience,” says O’Connor.

He says that among the innovations that customers can expect to see in 2013, mobile tools are high up on the list.

A demonstration of CWT’s intention was the acquisition of mobile travel assistant specialist WorldMate in October for a price speculated to be around $20m. WorldMate's specialism is mobile apps for iOS, Android, BlackBerry and Windows Phone that allow travellers to plan trips, book hotels and car rentals, and organise itineraries.

Data analytics

In the same vein, O’Connor anticipates the IT staff at CWT will be looking to provide more information-based tools to clients, so more advanced data analytics is also set to be one of the key areas of focus in 2013.

“Travellers expect to have all the information they need in any sort of device, but there is also an expectation to have all the data consolidated in one place – car, hotel, flight – so we will be looking at ways to provide more ways to give them that information,” the CIO says.

While it is still early days and O’Connor is currently analysing what he has in terms of IT worldwide before making any decisions, he plans to use his background in high-availability, high-connectivity businesses – such as gambling firm Paddy Power and his most recent job, at NYSE Technologies – and his passion for home automation to provide innovative ways to help his employer do business better.

“Supplying the technology for that sort of environment is not easy in a world where people are used to the Expedia experience. Doing that on a global scale is quite challenging, but it is also really good fun,” he says.

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