New HRS Payments Growth Chief Knackstedt Sees Opportunity In Recovery

Cecilia Nysing

HRS Payment Solution’s Kurt Knackstedt talks: 

  • The strategy behind HRS’s fast-growing payment offerings
  • Payments’ potential to reshape corporate T&E post-Covid
  • Leveraging his full range of industry experience in the new role

When corporate travel industry veteran Kurt Knackstedt recently took over as chief growth officer for HRS’s Payment Solutions business unit, it became the latest step in his long and varied career in corporate travel. Most recently, Knackstedt spent more than six years leading Troovo, the Australian-based virtual payments startup he co-founded in 2015 and which was named The BTN Group’s Innovator of the Year in 2018. Knackstedt previously led the travel and expense management program for global mining group Rio Tinto and also has served as president of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives as well as holding leadership positions at American Express Global Business Travel and Travelport.

Knackstedt now brings that breadth of experience to his new role with HRS, where he’s charged with leading the corporate lodging service provider’s rapidly growing payments services—an area of heavy focus for the company since acquiring virtual payment startup Conichi in 2019 to serve as the foundation of the HRS Invisible Pay platform. 

Knackstedt spoke with BTN payments and technology editor Adam Perrotta about his plans for building out HRS’s payments offerings as the return of corporate travel accelerates.  

BTN: As you take on the responsibility for growing HRS’s payment solutions, what are your top initial priorities in that role?

Kurt Knackstedt: My first priority is to listen—to customers, to the market, to my new colleagues and to our partners. I want to hear how they’ve recalibrated during the pandemic and what their plans are to emerge, what challenges we are collaborating on to solve, and what opportunities are out there for us to go after together. 

Following that, my goal will be to help crystallize and deploy a clear message around the power of payments and how HRS can help transform the role of payments within the corporate program. The components of travel and payment tech have all been assembled nicely within the HRS Invisible Pay travel fintech ecosystem, and I’m excited to help increase awareness of the multiple cascading benefits of our capabilities with customers around the world. 

BTN: As corporate travel resumes post-Covid, what will be the biggest challenges for buyers when it comes to hotel payments, and how do you plan to help your clients overcome those hurdles?

Knackstedt: It’s not just about payments for hotels but payments, full stop. For too long, we’ve focused energy on trying to catch the horse from the barn, rather than teaching the horse to just not run outside when the doors are open. What I mean by this is that we need to change the role of payments within the ecosystem to not just be a facilitator of settlement between buyers and suppliers, but rather a powerful tool to drive compliance, performance and satisfaction from the very first moment a traveler considers planning their journey. 

So, coming out of Covid, we have a phenomenal opportunity to reshape the way travel buyers think about the role of payments within their program. It gives travel managers the ability to open up a meaningful and long-term strategic dialogue with finance, risk, compliance, security and HR within their organization to demonstrate how a smarter, completely secure and transparent payment program can free up companies from spending too much time on the wrong things. If the industry just comes out of Covid-19 with the idea that “we just need to find a way to manage our program back to pre-pandemic levels and use the same techniques we did before,” then we’ll have lost a great chance to retool for the better. 

We know that many programs have indeed rethought their programs and priorities during this unprecedented down time. But when it comes to payment, it can’t just be a focus on, “How do I get a fax to the hotel that they won’t throw away?” Instead, let’s shoot for something more transformative, like, “How do I get all parties in the chain to embrace payment as a way to remodel the way we do things?”

BTN: For the past six years, you led Troovo, a startup that you co-founded, which was focused largely on providing automated virtual card issuing solutions. To what extent do you plan to grow that capability within the context of HRS’ payments offerings? 

Knackstedt: Troovo pioneered and delivered on the concept that virtual payments are far and away the best opportunity for companies to centralize, digitize, fully secure and globally scale payments both technically and commercially. The same principles we used to guide the strategy at Troovo are just as relevant at HRS Payment Solutions: payment should be easy to use, incredibly efficient, able to truly change the game on how business and travel processes are done and have global applicability. Invisible Pay already achieves a number of these goals, and that’s part of why I’m so excited to take on this role. The key elements of a truly end-to-end payment program are all there, and it’s now time to fully bring it to market.

BTN: Beyond virtual cards, what other payment capabilities are you looking to develop further in your role with HRS?

Knackstedt: I am indeed enthused about the potential for broader use of current and future payment automation. That said, as I get started … I’m most excited for the nearer-term fulfillment of scenarios where companies can leverage HRS Payment Solutions to cover the entire spectrum of their lodging program, and that includes transient, meetings and groups, extended stay and the growing segment of long-stay, which is already showing itself to be a popular choice for travelers as they get back on the road. 

One impact of Covid is the trend of booking longer stays due to revised duty-of-care and safety protocols. Employees getting clearance to travel are increasingly being asked to fit in more meetings, client and prospect visits, et cetera, into each trip. We’re also seeing vertical markets like energy, logistics, construction and healthcare drive more project-driven travel and those long-stay scenarios are burdensome for travelers to put on personal, or even corporate cards, with so many nights accumulating. Companies with centralized payment solutions like Invisible Pay can handle these situations and gain transparency into the totality of their lodging spend, while also simplifying the payment and expense process for the traveler and the hotel.

We need to change the role of payments within the ecosystem to not just be a facilitator of settlement between buyers and suppliers, but rather a powerful tool to drive compliance, performance and satisfaction.”

BTN: What do you look forward to most about moving from a startup to a more established company like HRS? And what will you miss most about leading a startup? 

Knackstedt: What’s great about this opportunity with HRS is that we’re only just getting started ourselves. Invisible Pay is not even yet two years old—and to be frank, given Covid-19, we’ve missed out on a year with the market being basically closed down. The Payment Solutions team has a strong entrepreneurial mindset, and the momentum from our refining activities over the past 18 months is only growing. Given we also finished the acquisition of Itelya in April, we are very much in scale-up mode now so there are a lot of parallels between my previous time at Troovo and today at HRS—so I don’t really feel like I’m missing anything at all. Even more importantly, we have the full support of [HRS CEO] Tobias Ragge and the HRS executive board to power ahead on payments, with resources to invest and a far bigger team than I’ve ever had before. I’m definitely excited about what lies ahead.

BTN: You also have a lot of experience in roles on both the supplier and buyer side of corporate travel, as well as leading an industry association. Does that variety of perspectives help you better understand the needs of clients and other stakeholders in the ecosystem?

Knackstedt: Absolutely. I’m incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity not only to sit on both sides of the table, so to speak, but also to be able to see the complete picture and view of the entire industry through the association. My time with ACTE was absolutely invaluable to be able to ensure I never lose sight of what’s important to everyone involved in our ecosystem. 

Especially now as we hopefully turn a corner on this pandemic, it’s more important than ever to ensure that the solutions we introduce and implement are as comprehensive and robust as possible, so we can recover as fully and quickly as possible. Doing that from just one perspective over another won’t get anyone anywhere fast, and that’s how I will look to help lead our efforts at HRS—seeking long-term, viable and scalable solutions for everyone we work with. 

The potential to dramatically impact business travel is on our doorstep; the automation and expertise are driving scenarios that were maybe pipedreams a few years ago. I feel like I’ve arrived at the nexus of so much positive change, and I’m fired up to begin my next chapter.

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