KDS CEO Forbes Wows PhoCusWright Judges With 'Neo' Demo

KDS CEO Dean Forbes was the man of the hour__for five minutes, anyway__at the PhoCusWright Travel Innovation Summit here last week. The summit's appointed critics were speechless for several seconds after Forbes finished his presentation on Neo, the door-to-door travel booking and expense management tool KDS released in January.

"I don't know what to say," Technology Crossover Ventures partner and Travel Innovation Summit critic Erik Blachford eventually managed.

"Holy cow. I didn't write 'holy cow.' I wrote another word," added fellow critic and BCD Travel director of emerging technologies Miriam Moscovici. "I've been hearing about it for a long time. I think it's awesome. I love it. I don't even know what to say. Congratulations."

Forbes seemed just as surprised by the critics' ardor and, quickly realizing he wouldn't need the allotted 60-second rebuttal time, simply thanked the judges and walked off stage while the clock was still ticking and the audience roared in applause. Twitter was littered with such comments as "very impressive product," "brilliant," and "really good."

As Forbes left the stage and made his way across the tradeshow the floor to an interview with The Beat, several people stopped to congratulate him on his presentation. "I've never seen anything like that before, where the critics only had positive things to say," one attendee told Forbes.

France-based KDS finished as the runner-up for the People's Choice Award and a finalist for both the "Established" and "B2B categories."

So, why all the buzz?

Disrupting Business Travel

Neo promises to "disrupt" not only online business travel bookings but also expense management, Forbes said during his presentation. "The online booking tools today impose upon the corporate traveler the traditional e-commerce shopping experience," he explained. "At KDS, we're not sure that's what the corporate business traveler really needs, because they have prescribed needs and a prescribed time to be there."

As Blachford noted, consumers usually will jump out of the purchasing process to compare deals before booking, "but a corporate traveler won't do that. He'll go all the way through and adjust a little."

With Neo, business travelers enter their departure location and desired destination. Within seconds, the system provides four door-to-door options__recommended, least expensive, fastest and greenest. Users also can alter flight times, accommodation or transportation by clicking on that component and Neo recalibrates the search accordingly. With traditional booking tools, travelers typically book accommodation, air and then transportation separately. "For the longest time I've been wanting to get away from that linear experience," Moscovici said during her critique.

Unlike other tools that only filter available travel options based on a company's policy, Neo "begins to think and decide which options will enable the traveler to make the business meeting on time and lines options up against individual travelers and preferences to come up with a bookable itinerary," Forbes explained to the audience. In 92 percent of "hundreds of thousands of cases" logged within Neo, travelers accepted one of the four proposed itineraries with no more than a one-click adjustment.

Neo's user interface as of this month is compatible across desktop and mobile devices that have a voice-activated booking functionality. "There are still some parts of it that look like an agent__the rules and maps__which is hard to get around, but I think it's beautiful," Moscovici said.

Replicating Social's Cool-Factor

Forbes told The Beat that developing enterprise systems targeted to travelers is a "less-than-attractive proposition" for two reasons. The first is that many of the companies that invest in creating corporate travel tools have primary businesses not directly related to travel and expense management. "GDSs have online booking tools, but their real business is GDS. Concur has an online booking tool, but its real business is expense management," Forbes said. "No one wants to spend $10 million to $20 million on the user experience."

The second factor, according to Forbes, is the "social revolution," which has created tools that are "cool, easy and [that] we like."

"My vision is to bring that level of coolness and ease of use to a category of software that has suffered over the years," Forbes added. "Neo is the first step."

Forbes believes that if tools are easy to use, travelers will be more inclined to use them and book within policy. In October, he told The Beat of plans to scale down investment in Maverick and Flex T&E, KDS' open-booking management products.

"Open booking says that young people want to go to 100 different sites and piece together a business trip on their own," Forbes said. "Nobody in their right mind wants to do that, but the only reason they do that is that the content is crap and/or the user experience is crap. The principle of open booking is anti-Neo."

The Next Step

Forbes told The Beat that Neo now has 11 active clients including Orange, Vodafone and PricewaterhouseCoopers. "Some of them are huge companies, so we have over 300,000 profiles in Neo right now with over $200 million in travel spend across those 11 clients," Forbes said. The company has 600 clients.

KDS has some multinational clients in North America, and plans to further expand its reach during the first quarter of 2014 by opening a new office in the United States. Forbes said the location of that office has not been determined, though the company is considering New York or Minneapolis, the latter also the headquarters city for KDS partner Carlson Wagonlit Travel.

KDS also plans at the end of January to launch Neo Expense. Forbes declined to give further details, but said the new tool would allow clients to manage expenses beyond door-to-door travel purchases__such as meals. It also would target organizations that don't use KDS travel management tools. Neo Expense will be "pure expense management that's even more intuitive and even easier to use than what we just showed with Neo travelers," Forbes claimed. "With Neo Expense we're trying to do a lot of the work for the user and make that user experience the kind of thing that will make the person like doing expenses."

With such products, KDS envisions creating "norms" in an industry that Forbes described as increasingly fragmented. "We're kind of neutral, and one of the trends we can change is to get people to speak together in a common language so we have [norms] to the structure of corporate card data and let things flow between us a little easier," he explained.