Brex takes a swipe at Concur with an expansion into travel

In yet another example of how competitive the spend management space has become, Brex announced today that it has expanded into travel.

Besides seeking to snag market share from incumbents such as Concur, Brex is also taking on startups such as Navan (formerly called TripActions) -- which actually started its business focused on travel expense management before broadening its offering -- and also Ramp, which itself expanded into travel last year with a tool that gives employees the ability to book with third parties.

In an interview with TechCrunch, co-CEO and co-founder Henrique Dubugras said that users of Brex Empower will now be able to book travel inside the Brex mobile app and manage the process. The new feature also works with all the budget and policies functions of Empower. 

Brex had been building the product for over a year and was in private beta for several months before making it available to the public this week. Despite the various players in the space, Dubugras said that Concur and Navan are the main competitors to Brex Travel.

Part of the aim of the new offering is to apply to travel expenses the budgeting capabilities that Empower has, Dubugras said.

“Sometimes companies have the perception that the best way to reduce travel costs is to get people to get cheaper flights or cheaper hotels and make two stops on the way to two places,” he said. “We believe that the best way to actually manage it is by actually helping some trips not happen at all.”

For example, finance teams are able to see information -- such as the fact that a company has a $100,000 T&E budget -- and spend across corporate cards in real time, and can then decide which trips should take priority, Dubugras said.

The new travel feature also provides receipts automatically so that an employee doesn't have to say, check out of a hotel and then upload the receipt. It also does things like let an employee know if something is out of policy and would need extra approval. And if a company requests it, employees can only see flight and hotel options that are in policy.

Image Credits: Brex

Brex opted not to accept commissions from airlines or hotels that would not provide less expensive flights or hotels as alternatives, Dubugras said.

“Some companies get paid to not show those because they know corporate buyers are less price sensitive,” he added. “But we think that just reduces trust in the system. And because travel is not our core business, we decided not to take that money and basically have completely unbiased inventory and show all the flights, and all the hotels available.”

Brex generates revenue on the new offering by charging a per-trip fee, which, depending on the travel volume, can vary by company.

Another feature designed to simplify travel booking is giving employees the ability to book flights to another country and within a country at the same time. Typically, the two bookings are required to be done separately. The app also aims to make it easier to help employees who work in different countries to travel domestically and pay for travel in different currencies, he added.

Notably, in building out its new Travel offering, Brex partnered with a company called Spotnana and is essentially white-labeling its “travel-as-a-service” software, which provides back-end infrastructure that integrates with global airlines and hotels. 

“I think of it as kind of like the ‘Stripe for travel,’ ” Dubugras said. 

Brex says it integrated Spotnana’s travel-related capabilities with its mobile app, card and spend management capabilities to support travel policies, traveler profiles and workflows for booking and reporting. The company says it did build “a lot of customization” on top of Spotnana -- such as traveler's trip details, in an effort “to make expenses easy and seamless.” Also, Spotnana's inventory search API is what helps Brex provide a trip budget estimate to users.  

From a technology perspective, the company says it chose Spotnana due to its microservices-based architecture, open APIs, “comprehensive” travel content, extensible data infrastructure and expansive library of white-labeled UI component.

Brex announced its spend management product, Empower, in April of 2022. Today, Brex says companies in more than 120 countries, such as DoorDash, Coinbase, Indeed, Superhuman, SeatGeek, Built Technologies and Scale AI, are users of the product. Travel customers on Empower include GoGuardian, Miso Robotics, FMX, Satellite Healthcare and more. 

The company said it also has begun migrating all card customers to Empower.

Startups are clamoring to help take some of the pain out of managing travel expenses. In February, Navan (formerly TripActions) claimed to be the first travel company to integrate OpenAI and ChatGPT APIs across its infrastructure and product set. The company says it is currently using the generative AI technology to write, test, and fix code with the aim of increasing its operational efficiency and reducing overhead. At the time, a spokesperson said that program admins will be able to ask Navan's virtual assistant Ava for reporting across the travel and spend programs, whether that is via text, graph, PDF, etc. She added: "We also use AI to do everything from the elimination of expense reporting to automate itemization — and in the case of hotel folios, we instantly fetch it from the hotel after a stay, categorize line items, compare that against company policy, and submit for the user, so there’s no need for them [to] move pennies around in order to balance out a folio — a process that’s pretty painful in my experience.”

Last year when Ramp unveiled its own travel product, CEO and co-founder Eric Glyman told TechCrunch that it would be offered to all existing customers and any new ones at no additional cost. Ramp said it planned to use AI-assisted software to “completely” automate companies’ expense reporting, doing things like automatically collecting receipts and categorizing all travel-related expenses. The company said its offering also flags out-of-policy purchases and allows employees to book travel with whatever service they want to.

Thirty-old Concur too has a travel-specific offering that has features such as Concur Request, which allows businesses to create "a customizable pre-spend control document to identify anticipated expenses."

Reporter's note: One of the quotes in the article was amended post-publication to more accurately convey what Dubugras articulated.

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