As former Senior Treasury Analyst at Box, managing business travel for the company occupies a small corner of Rachel Ersted’s primary responsibilities. Most of the time, that is.
“It depends on the day,” Ersted said. “There are some days or even weeks where I do nothing with travel, and then there are other days where 60 percent of my day is travel. It’s really hard to gauge. Ideally, travel takes 10 to 15 percent of my day. I try not to have it take up too much of my time, because it’s not my primary job, but at the same time it’s a big initiative for the company so I do the best I can.”
With Box’s Treasurer as the executive sponsor of the company’s travel initiatives, Ersted manages global travel across all Box offices, including the company’s Redwood City, CA, headquarters; primary locations in Austin, New York, San Francisco, and Tokyo; and satellite offices Box is currently building out in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Netherlands, and Sweden. The company’s travel expenses, expense management tool, expense reporting, and credit card programs fall under Shared Services.
Box developed its first travel and entertainment policy in summer 2011, but there was minimal focus on adherence and travel costs. “The biggest issue was nobody knew where to find the policy,” Ersted said. “It wasn’t as much that the content was poor as the enforcement was nonexistent or ineffective.” Airbnb was added to the corporate travel policy in November 2015 as an informal option, with a handful of employees booking stays through their personal Airbnb accounts.
When the company moved into its new headquarters in Redwood City a month later, Treasury took over managing travel as a component of driving a company-wide initiative to establish a positive free cash flow by the end of fiscal 2017. Travel was a natural fit, Ersted said, as, “Banking savings is one of our main roles.”
A team was organized to revise and refresh Box’s corporate travel policy and ensure compliance (please see the related article, ‘Refreshing the company travel policy’). The updated policy, launched in April 2016, included an official partnership with Airbnb for Work.
The following is a lightly edited interview with Ersted.
When you officially launched Airbnb for Work in 2016, did you set a benchmark for reducing travel expenses?
We didn’t. At that point, and even now, we struggle with reporting and metrics and figuring out savings, though it was much more of an issue when we took over travel than it is now. We put a lot of work into that area. The expectation at a high level was that the ADR [average daily rate] for Airbnb was going to be significantly lower, but the quality and satisfaction compared to a hotel would be the same, if not better.
How was the process of setting up the company dashboard for Airbnb for Work, registering as the travel manager, enrolling business travelers, and so on?
It was very simple, not technical at all. It did not require any assistance from our Enterprise Systems team, it was something that myself and my manager could very easily handle on our own. Airbnb took on most of the legwork in setting up the dashboard and making sure all of our preferences were correct, and setting up calls on a regular basis to ensure we were ready to go.
When it came to the rollout to Boxers [Box employees], Airbnb also handled all of that. They gave us collateral that we could use to communicate the rollout, and they didn’t pressure us to launch in a specific way. They were very accommodating with how we tend to communicate with our Boxers, which is great.
How did you drive adoption when you launched the platform?
When we first rolled out Airbnb in April 2016, we did a promotion where Box travelers were entered to win a gift card if they signed up by a certain date. I received collateral from Airbnb explaining how to link your Box email address to the business account, and informational one-pagers on the platform. This was really helpful for explaining the service to Boxers. In the fall I included Airbnb in our first annual travel newsletter to all Box travelers. We didn’t offer any incentive there, but we saw an increase in adoption. Any time we blast out information on our Airbnb partnership, I see an increase in the number of signups.
A month after the rollout you had 30 verified users on the platform, but by the middle of 2017 you had more than 300 business travelers signed up. How did that happen?
We advertised the relationship more heavily and have done a few promotions with Airbnb which have really increased engagement. People just love engaging promotions. One of my favorite parts of working with Airbnb is they’re very generous with how they help companies drive adoption.
In the middle of last year, we had a lull in people signing up, so I sent out a travel-wide email to about 900 people; anyone who signed up before a specific date was entered to win an Airbnb gift card. We saw adoption go up—and the employee who won the gift card was able to use it for his honeymoon in Italy, so that was fantastic. Airbnb is really great at partnering with companies, and making sure that the implementation is tailored to the needs of that company. It makes adoption fun and simple.
Do you have guidelines around how Box travelers can use Airbnb for Work?
Not too many. We do request that people book through the portal because part of Box’s duty of care is knowing where people are in the case of an emergency. It also makes it easier for their receipts to feed through Concur so we know that number is going to be accurate. Other than that we’ve left it pretty open and trust our employees to make the right decisions.
We assume that given how competitive the rates are on Airbnb they are going to be choosing a listing that can accommodate all of their needs and make them very comfortable. So there are not too many limitations right now. If we were to hear any sort of feedback on certain types of listings we would consider it, but right now we leave it pretty open.
So you allow travelers to stay in hosted properties rather than full-space homes or apartments?
Yes. We leave it up to them.
What’s your average length of stay on Airbnb?
The average is about five nights.
Have Boxers used Airbnb for longer stays also?
One Box employee moved to our London office from Redwood City, and while she was looking for an apartment she stayed in an Airbnb in London for a month. Another person on the Professional Services team has a client in New York with a huge implementation, and he is staying in an Airbnb in New York City for three months to complete that.
I also see a lot of people using it when they go to London and Austin. People going to those offices will typically stay up to a week and it’s just more comfortable and more affordable to stay in an Airbnb than staying in a hotel, and they feel like they are more part of the local office culture and part of the city culture as well. Any time there is a long-term stay I see Airbnb use.
Does Box use Airbnb for relocations?
That’s something that has been requested and we are still working on. There is definitely a use case for that and we hope to do that in the future.
Are you measuring the success of using Airbnb for Work in any way?
Not particularly. When we received the 2016 end-of-year review from Airbnb, we were very excited to see that we recognized significant savings. This provided further motivation to advertise Airbnb as an option for travelers because we were seeing the success it was bringing to our overall travel savings goal.
That being said, we don’t have any specific metrics for savings with Airbnb. As long as we continue to drive savings through the platform and drive traveler satisfaction, this makes us happy for now. We are a pretty simple travel program, just starting to form new areas of efficiencies for savings, so if it can hit those two levels—satisfaction and savings—then we are pretty happy.
A lot of companies are focusing more on traveler satisfaction. How important is that at Box?
It’s incredibly important. We’ve done a few things to drive Boxer satisfaction. After about a year of handling travel under my belt, in fall 2016 I launched a survey to the 900 travelers from that year with a variety of questions on satisfaction, asking things like, what do you think of our preferred hotels, our partnerships, our travel agency, our booking tool. It covered a lot of ground and I read through every single individual response. It took a long time but it was incredibly insightful and it’s what ultimately drove us to do a formal RFP for a new travel agency which I think is going to result in great satisfaction gains across the board.
Rachel, what’s top of mind for you about the direction of business travel at Box?
The travel space is being disrupted right now because travelers are demanding more user-friendly technology and a more mobile-driven travel experience in their enterprise or business environment. A lot of consumer tech companies are moving into that space, like Airbnb, Uber, Lyft. I’m seeing new companies pop up that are focusing on smarter, more efficient travel, offering ways to help travelers enjoy traveling for their company more, and ways to incentivize travelers to save money. So I’m thinking about how we can bring our travel program into the future and be at the forefront of these advances.
Is your team driving that future focus or are employees leading it, or a little of both?
Boxers are demanding it by already doing it, so it’s forcing my team to adapt to their practices and to bring in the technology to put their consumer travel practices into an enterprise environment. We are about to sign a contract with a very mobile-driven travel agency. The technological advancements were a huge reason we selected them. Their mobile UI was stunning, and their ability to integrate with apps like Uber and Lyft, theweather.com, and Slack makes the entire travel experience so much easier and user-friendly.
Many travel companies have gotten away with not innovating, and not moving toward a mobile-first world where so many consumer-facing applications are now. It’s holding a lot of these companies and travelers back. I want to keep our program up to date so we have a very efficient and enjoyable program, which in turn will keep all of our travelers happy.