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Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Next Generation Lodge

Lodge or ghost card programs have been synonymous with corporate T and E settlement for over 30 years. With the IATA number serving as a unique identifier for ease of reconciliation, the lodge cards are especially well established and embedded in the settlement of scheduled airline tickets.

However it is a product that has also been static for many years, with limitations that inhibit its use across the full spectrum of corporate travel.

Heavily dependent on exterior data flows, the transportation of files is a process that is highly susceptible to error. It is difficult to standardise file deliveries across geographies as different organisations have different file creation capabilities and processes.

Lodge cards inherently lack rigid controls on manually collating disparate sources of information to produce a reconciled view. Therefore the industry standard matching rates hover around approximately 95-98% accuracy. You may think that this sounds a satisfactory matching rate. However, the outstanding 2-5% of unmatched data is highly costly and inefficient for the corporate. Consequently banks don’t value it and therefore don’t search for innovative resolutions.

Corporate travel settlement is changing. Using a virtual card, with its PAN serving as a unique reference number, guarantees 100% matching rates to eradicate the cost and time lost to the unmatched data that we mentioned earlier. With nearly real time data flows, virtual card data is managed within the booking process in the GDS, and can be processed in monthly or periodic batch processes.

Not reliant on the creation and transmission of exterior data, the systematic reconciliation means human intervention is not required, eradicating the risk of human error involved with lodge cards.

However the virtual card’s most valuable attribute is its applications across all areas of travel spend. Not just air, but also hotels, rail, car hire and all other areas of online spend.

·         Commercial benefit:

o    Applies lodge card controls across areas of incremental spend

o    Enables significant increase in billings without additional operational costs

·         Enhanced security:

o    Order and authorisation data captured prior to secure payment is deployed

o    Creates a secure PCI-DSS compliant Passenger Financial Record (PFR) for each transaction

·         Increased controls:

o    Control of variables such as amount, validity and merchant category

o    Enhances workflow and enables real time refunds and amendments

·         Flexibility:

o    Single process applicable to multiple content sources, not just IATA air

o    Allows secure deployment of CVV2 number

·         Reconciliation:

o    Unique PFR applied to each transaction

o    Need for manual/additional reconciliation process eliminated


Friday, 23 November 2012

Why Single Use Accounts are revolutionising Accounts Payable

For businesses seeking to reduce costs and improve operational efficiencies (i.e. all businesses), one of the simplest routes is to move away from cheques and cash towards electronic payments. Progressive organisations attracted by additional rebates have sought to further extend their electronic payments program by using Lodge (ghost) cards and PCards.  For these businesses there is now another tool in the box – Single Use Accounts (SUAs), otherwise known as Virtual Card Accounts.
Single Use Accounts are the latest advancements in payables technology; they enable organisations to migrate traditional Travel and B2B payments, even those to strategic suppliers, onto virtual cards. Using SUAs, organisations get closer to the promised land of accounts payable departments operating as revenue generators, as opposed to cost centres.
While PCards and Lodge cards have driven benefits, they have not been without their challenges. First and foremost is consistency and acceptance, or rather lack thereof. Getting all suppliers to participate in a PCard program or feed aggregated data back to a lodge card has proven difficult. Some suppliers embrace the program. Some don’t. Furthermore, anxieties surrounding spend controls and reconciliation accuracy have resulted in these initiatives not delivering the widespread adoption that all parties had been promised.
Conferma’s SUA solutions have overcome the challenges that have proven intractable for Lodge cards and PCard programs.
Acceptance.  This is one of the real strengths for SUA programmes; essentially there is no change in acceptance processes for suppliers.  For the supplier the SUA is just a credit card number like any other. They treat it as a card holder not present transaction – business as usual! Not to mention ideal for online procurement.
Control. SUA technology allows you to apply controls to the virtual card, including a fixed credit limit, merchant category code restrictions and even the payment card validity dates. In stark contrast to physical Lodge or PCards, SUAs provide complete control over how, where, when and in what quantities your employees are using company expenditure in line with corporate policy.
Flexibility. Despite offering control, SUAs can also provide flexibility through approval processes. SUA numbers are generated ‘on the fly’ and can therefore be tailor made to the required purchase. For example, if an employee wishes to purchase a product that is over their credit limit, yet is deemed to be of benefit to the company, they can request approval from a line manager to exceed their spend limit. The virtual card then captures the reason for approval (or rejection), providing accounts departments with complete visibility of the surplus spend.
Security. Lodge cards and PCards are susceptible to fraudulent transactions through loss or theft, by virtue of their physicality. SUAs, whose unique PANs are applicable to one time only transactions, are virtually (pun not intended) impervious to fraud or employee misuse.
Reconciliation. The Conferma SUA process will not generate the virtual card until the procurement data, in the form of a booking or purchase reference, has been received and quality controlled; therefore reconciliation is entirely automated upfront, as opposed to post transaction like Lodge cards.
Card-holder not present. Controls. Security. Time and cost efficiency. Data accuracy. These are just some of the reasons why paying suppliers with Single Use Accounts is revolutionising the accounts payable process.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

60 years of payment evolution

Last month, as a British nation we gathered along the banks of the Thames, at Buckingham Palace or even in our own streets to celebrate the 60 year reign of Her Majesty The Queen. Revelling in Union Jack bunting, the Pageant and Gary Barlow, the furthest thought from our minds was probably how we were spending our money at our respective events. Chip and PINs. ‘Wave-and-Pay’ debit cards. Contactless, smart phone payments. As we paid tribute to the Queen, we also subconsciously saluted the latest developments in payment technology.  However it is the image of Queen Elizabeth herself on traditional bank notes that reminds us of how much payment mechanisms have evolved since her accession to the throne.
Since the Queen became the first monarch to feature on British banknotes in 1960, payments worldwide have changed beyond recognition. Banknotes featuring the wording “I promise to pay the bearer the sum of the note on demand” are still in circulation of course. However, whereas one once sent cash or a cheque in the post for someone’s birthday, a parent will now send money to a child at university using online banking or even a smart phone app, such as Barclays Pingit.
Visa, in collaboration with Samsung, both official London 2012 partners, have pioneered PoS contactless mobile payments, with the launch of payWave. To buy a round of beers at an Olympic venue, users simply hold their phone in front of a contactless reader at the point of purchase. As an added layer of security, transactions over £15 require a passcode.
Merely checking your balance or recent transactions used to involve a trip to the bank to print off a receipt. Now it’s attainable at the touch of a button.
1966 is synonymous with a unique sporting success in this country. However it also marked a first of a different kind – the credit card. By 2008, 30.8 million people in the UK were credit card holders and used them to make 1.9 billion purchases that year. It is amazing to think that the first debit card was introduced as recently as 1987, the year in which construction of the Channel Tunnel began.
In today’s Britain, that payments are contactless, instant and effortless is a given. That’s nothing new or innovative any more. So where are the new trends and evolutions coming from?
In the same way that banks have made payment mechanisms touch-free, the next evolution involves transforming methods from the physical to the virtual domain. Virtual card technology enables closed-loop payments, which in turn offer greater security and control for corporates.
At Conferma, we implement single use virtual cards into procurement processes. Single use payment systems are, by their very nature, scalable and customisable, allowing multiple cards to be used and multiple transactions to be processed. Conferma’s unique accounts ensure that, no matter how great the volume of transactions, the process of reconciling transactions with the procurement order is accurate and efficient.
With the advent of smart phones, tablets and now virtual card technology, as payment technology and innovation accelerates we will only have to wait 60 months for cardless payments, rather than another 60 years.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Payment security. We do the hard work so you don't have to.

It may be a cheesy advertising slogan for a kitchen detergent, however the sentiment remains exactly the same at Conferma. We take payment security extremely seriously so that our partners and customers worry less. But what exactly does ‘payment security’ entail?

PCI and DSS. POS and SSC. PANs and PINs. The PCI, or Payment Card Industry, is filled with acronyms and abbreviations.
The Payment Card Industry is also filled with several DSS, or Data Security Standards, with which all serious participants in the financial service sector must comply. Being PCI Level 1 compliant involves satisfying several stringent system and network security requirements, continuous monitoring and a rigorous security policy.
All sensitive payment card details are encrypted and secured by Conferma to eliminate the handling, processing and storage of credit card data for customers. Essentially, PCI compliance ensures that all Conferma transactions are inherently secure and ensures peace of mind for all our partners and customers.
This week’s news that millions of LinkedIn passwords had been compromised merely serves as a reminder of the importance of security, vigilance and good practice.
Payment security has always been greatly prized and standard practice here at Conferma. It is inherent in everything we do – security training is conducted for all staff and all hardware is encrypted. The highest level of payment security commercially available merely serves as official recognition of our continuous commitment to security for all our virtual payment solutions.
PCI accreditation is also representative of the ROI in terms of the significant time and finance devoted to the project, the single biggest project undertaken at Conferma. OMG, as you might say in an SMS… 

Monday, 19 March 2012

10 reasons why you should embrace new payment technologies

In the previous blog we explored the renaissance of centralised travel settlement. February was dominated by a spate of new payment solutions for the business travel industry. This can only mean one thing: greater emphasis is being placed on more efficient payment mechanisms.

Virtual cards. Single use accounts. One-time-only transactions. Call them what you like, at Conferma, we firmly believe that virtual card technology and electronic invoicing represent the future of business travel settlement. Not only as a billback solution for the hotel industry, but also as a wider payment mechanism for corporate travel. We look at ten reasons why you should embrace virtual card technology.
1.     Volume and Scale: Customisable and scalable, virtual card accounts are capable of handling greater volumes of transactions on a global scale, managing a broad, disaggregated supplier base.

2.     Security: Single use accounts are transaction-specific, virtually (no pun intended) eliminating the fraud risk associated with issuing physical plastic.

3.     Apply controls: Virtual card technology enables corporates to apply controls on accounts such as credit limit, date range and merchant category, ensuring compliance with corporate travel management policies.

4.     Improved supplier relations: Virtual cards guarantee payments, removing credit exposure for suppliers, especially hotels, who typically have to wait 30-60 days to receive payment. Significantly quicker payments also improve TMC-supplier relationships.

5.     Convenience: Single use accounts involve minimal or no change to existing workflows, ensuring ease of adoption by suppliers and their front line staff.

6.     Automated reconciliation: The automated reconciliation process matches transactional data with booking data, providing corporates with a comprehensive view of expenditure.

7.     Efficiency: Electronic invoicing is estimated to be three times more efficient than the billback process, allowing TMCs to redeploy personnel to other areas of the business.

8.     Low cost: Automated processes are not only ecological (reduced paper burden) and less labour-intensive, but also drive greater volumes of bookings at significantly lower operating costs.

9.     Rich data: Virtual cards allow you to append any kind and any amount of data to the financial transactions that they settle, providing you with real value in terms of the reports that you receive on travel expense.

10.  Mobile Solutions: Single use accounts lend themselves perfectly to today’s technological advancements. Armed with just a mobile device and a virtual account number, TMCs and corporate customers alike can book, pay for and settle transactions on the move.

Friday, 3 February 2012

The Renaissance of Centralised Travel Settlement

You are sending an employee on business travel. You want to monitor closely where, how and in what quantities they are spending company money.

Does your company issue employees with individual corporate cards? Or maybe your TMC manages the payments for you. You may even reimburse your employees after they have paid for travel expense themselves. All methods have their pros and cons. None offer a stand-out solution.

Since the advent of individual travel card programs, central travel (lodge) accounts appeared to have become more and more redundant. Corporates entrusted employees with corporate travel cards, armed with enhanced spend controls, greater visibility of spend and a reduced administrative paper burden.
However, there are numerous impracticalities of issuing plastic. Say, for instance, you have temporary contract workers. Or permanent staff who travel infrequently. Essentially every piece of plastic you issue is opening your company up to greater administration costs and risk.

Yet, the consequences of not using a card product render them almost indispensable. Monitoring ancillary spend becomes a nightmare, whilst the paper trail involved in billback is highly susceptible to human error and dramatically reduces efficiency when it comes to the administration and invoicing process.
At Conferma, we believe in the development of single use accounts incorporating state of the art virtual card technology. Our Conferma Settlement Platform (CSP) creates a virtual card at the time of booking, which is automatically communicated to the travel supplier to guarantee a reservation.

An increasingly unstable market has seen certain TMCs experience cash flow problems in recent weeks, subsequently putting a strain on relationships with suppliers. Central virtual card accounts ensure faster payments to remove any credit exposure and enhance supplier relations for TMCs.
Working with our international network of major banking and distribution partners, Conferma provides access to a truly global and centralised settlement platform that slots seamlessly into a TMC’s existing infrastructure, to deliver a highly efficient and cost-effective solution not only for international TMCs but also for corporates abroad who manage travel in-house.

So much for the death of centralised travel settlements.  

Monday, 23 January 2012

Conferma releases results of Customer Survey

Conferma has published the results of its recent customer survey.
The survey was distributed via email to all travel agents on Conferma’s emergency contact list. The survey was completed by our database of frontline staff in the corporate hotel booking world.

Following the previous customer survey conducted in March 2011, Conferma set out to gauge customer perception with the performance of the Support service and the online booking tool, Hotel Booker.

Customer perception of Conferma Support was extremely positive, with satisfaction ratings exceeding 95% for availability, resolutions and knowledge. This compared favourably with results from the previous survey, with the number of negative responses reduced in each category. In the remaining category, 94% of respondents indicated that the response time of Support either met or exceeded expectations. Indeed, Support was widely praised, with several positive comments, such as: “Always available when help is needed” and “Always have a quick reply.”
As ever, the aim of a customer survey is to identify any areas for improvement. Negative responses for availability could be attributed to customers contacting Conferma outside of office hours. Conferma is currently dedicated to providing a support service to handle and enquiries from Monday to Friday 8.30am – 6.00pm, excluding public holidays. Service Management are currently investigating the possibility of extending Support’s hours of availability.
Some comments suggested that the communication of resolutions could be improved. Service Management is contemplating implementing a more sophisticated method of recording all internal communications to ensure that communication between Support and Development is monitored regularly and thoroughly.
Finally, some respondents indicated that they had never contacted Conferma Support or were unaware of the email address. Contact details are prominently displayed on www.conferma.com and are present on all promotional literature. However, to raise further awareness, Conferma is currently making a concerted effort to disseminate contact details for Support as widely as possible. Conferma Support can be contacted by email at support@conferma.com or by telephone on +44 (0)844 815 3601.

The results of the survey also reflected extremely favourably upon Hotel Booker. The layout, user-experience and responsiveness were widely lauded, achieving 100% satisfaction ratings, whilst customer satisfaction with the ease of use and reliability exceeded 96%. Praise for Hotel Booker’s layout and user experience was particularly welcome, as it justified the measures taken by the Development Team to improve the booking tool’s performance over the previous 12 months. Positive comments included: “I think Hotel Booker is an excellent tool, very easy to use and straightforward.”

The 100% satisfaction rating for responsiveness was also particularly pleasing as Development has invested significant time and resources implementing the latest .net technology and introduced considerable performance enhancing software, ensuring the infrastructure supporting the v4.3 solution is the best available in the industry. Investment in innovation and the latest technology reflect Conferma’s commitment to provide leading solutions for our technology. This superb feedback unequivocally indicates that this investment was completely justified.
With regard to respondents’ suggested improvements, nearly half of all suggestions called for more search criteria in Hotel Booker. Conferma is looking into incorporating searches according to hotel facilities, landmarks and GDS reference codes into future releases of Hotel Booker. However, these data issues would require significant development and would therefore not be available until the latter half of 2012 at the very earliest.

Other suggestions pertained to group bookings, payment restrictions and improving Agency Admin functionality. Conferma aims to introduce some of these changes for the next release of Hotel Booker (v4.4) in mid-February.

The final question of the survey concerned alternative Self-Booking Tools and returned extremely positive feedback for Conferma, with 30% of respondents revealing that they use Hotel Booker exclusively.

Conferma’s next Customer Satisfaction Survey is scheduled for June 2012. Watch this space for further development!

Thursday, 19 January 2012

2012: A big year for UK hotels

On behalf of everyone at Conferma, I would like to begin this blog entry by wishing all our customers and partners a very happy, healthy and prosperous New Year.

As Conferma’s booking volumes increase around the world, 2012 will present particular issues, challenges and opportunities for the T&E sector in the UK. With the advent of London 2012 and Her Majesty’s Diamond Jubilee, London is preparing to welcome athletes, visitors, media, sponsors and dignitaries from across the globe. Therefore, as global focus centres not only on the capital, but also other British cities and regions, 2012 will have considerable implications for the T&E sector.

Given the significance, interest and prestige surrounding London 2012 and the Jubilee celebrations, the temptation for TMCs will be to centre their focus on the capital. However with events for both landmark occasions being staged in venues across the country, TMCs will also need to reinforce their coverage in alternate locations. Olympic event hosts outside the capital include Windsor, Weymouth, Portland, Broxbourne, Benfleet, Wembley, Glasgow, Cardiff, Manchester and Newcastle. Moreover, flagship annual events on the British calendar, including the Edinburgh Festival, the British Grand Prix, the Open Championship and the World Travel Market will ensure that the T&E sector cannot afford to take its eye off business as usual amidst the furore of the Games and the Jubilee.

Furthermore, the anticipated influx of international officials and tourists will inevitably result in increased hotel prices. Indeed, rates currently stand at 30% higher than average for June and July. TMCs will be required to demonstrate the capability to process more and larger transactions than ever before. Large visitor numbers and the mayhem that will inevitably ensue, particularly in London, also mean that the importance of forward bookings and planning ahead cannot be overemphasised. This ability to manage large volumes of bookings and transactions will provide agencies the opportunity to demonstrate their value to large corporate companies and become the TMC of choice. Indeed, hoteliers are likely to give priority availability to TMCs with lucrative corporate clients with the highest levels of expenditure, ancillary spend and bookings for meeting space.

This is where TMCs can rely on Conferma’s platform of payment solutions to streamline their business operations. The Conferma Settlement Platform (CSP) offers TMCs an automated solution for the settlement and reconciliation of travel expense that removes manual intervention, reduces processing costs and is PCI-DSS compliant.

Despite high demand for hotel accommodation, hoteliers must guard against hiking their prices too much, so as to avoid the scenarios experienced in Athens (2004) and Vancouver (2010), when extortionate prices deterred visitors and resulted in late availability and unsold rooms. Hotels must also be mindful not to neglect service levels for their all year round business, whilst increasing expenditure to satisfy their increase in new international guests. London hotels in particular still need to cater for demand for annual events such as Royal Ascot, Wimbledon, The Proms, Henley and the Farnborough Airshow, as well as the Paralympic Games in September.

With regard to forward planning, TMCs must strike a fine balance when advising their clients. Advocating early bookings secures availability but at high rates with prohibitive booking conditions. On the other hand, later bookings leave clients vulnerable to a lack of availability, but payment does not have to be made months in advance of the Games. Alternatively, any business-critical staff may need to be accommodated outside of London, for example in Saint Albans, Watford and Reading, due to the impracticalities of commuting or being based in London during the Games.

As hotel availability becomes increasingly sparse, TMCs and corporates alike will have to look harder than usual to locate accommodation throughout the UK during the Games. This search could be made easier by Conferma’s online Self Booking Tool. Hotel Booker offers an inventory of more than 150,000 properties, including direct connections to budget hotel chains Travelodge and Premier Inn, who have both increased their presence in the capital ahead of the Olympics.

Moreover, as prices increase, merely locating accommodation will, in most cases, not suffice. Thanks to Rate Analyser, Conferma’s intelligent hotel price comparison tool, TMCs will be able to offer clients the best value rates available. Rate Analyser also provides TMCs with rate trend data for all hotel bookings and notifies users of any favourable rate changes, allowing time to rebook if appropriate. This could become an increasingly attractive proposition if prices drop to reflect last minute availability in the build-up to London 2012.

2012 holds many challenges in store for the T&E sector. Yet many opportunities also lie in prospect. I would like to conclude this blog by expressing Conferma’s commitment to overcoming these challenges and seizing these opportunities in collaboration with our existing partners, whilst expanding our portfolio to work with new partners.