Are Virtual Cards The Future Of B2B Travel Payments?

When Sabre and Visa announced a new partnership in April to pair Visa virtual commercial cards with the Sabre Virtual Payments gateway, the goals were fairly big: create a virtual B2B travel payments solution that was faster, more secure and more transparent for buyers and suppliers.

That is a tall order in the global travel market — an $8 trillion (with a “t”) industry that spans the entire surface of the planet.

But, Sabre Global Head of Product Becky French told PYMNTS in a recent Masterclass discussion, it was also a challenge that Sabre and Visa were uniquely well-situated to take on. The focus for Sabre, she noted, is providing virtual payments solutions in the form of multibank, multicard, credit and prepaid accounts that allow customers to select the best payment option to ensure the most favorable payment terms.

Enhancing that platform with the Visa global network in the digital B2B payment markets represented an obvious opportunity to add reach and scale to its virtual payment offering. And now, about eight months into implementation, she said, the firm has been pleased to see that partnership not only deliver on original expectations, but also exceed them.

“It has been more than we expected [for our customers] in terms of streamlined cash flow, better financial management practices,” she said. “The partnership brings two powerful brands together in their respective industry to create a really unique set of solutions.”

Solutions, she noted, that the global travel market needs, and needs at scale — so it can run smoother while also running safer for all parties involved.

Securely Streamlining Payments 

Among the great benefits that virtual cards bring to travel payments, French said, is that the way they are configured has an inherent fraud-reducing effect. That is because there is a one-to-one relationship for each of the transactions and the payments associated with them. And those cards, she noted, are highly customizable in terms of controls — dates, spending caps, merchant categories are all easily added in as rules on the cards.

“Those parameters are used to make sure it is highly controlled what the card can and can’t be used for — and we even let our customers define the flexibility to enforce those controls,” French said.

Moreover, she said, that increased visibility into the transaction process, and the control to customize it, means that virtual payment customers are getting much cleaner and more actionable data, and a greatly improved management processes. Travel, she said, can be a rather variable process — changed flights, updated plans, returns and re-bookings are all pretty standard parts of the experience. All of that, she pointed out, is greatly enhanced with access to the full range of transaction details and data so that when reconciliation is happening later on down the chain, it can happen more efficiently and smoothly, saving time and reducing reconciliation costs.

Expanding The Virtual Payments Playing Field 

Travel is a complicated vertical. By its nature, it involves a lot of cross-border transactions which, in the world of payments, can often be something of a production between FX costs, regulatory issuers, transaction fees and a host of other complexities making the international flow of funds something of a confusing issue even for the highly experienced.

Sabre, French said, is well placed to take on those various factors because it has a large network of local issuers on its virtual card platform and because it has joined up with Visa to further scale its capacity in B2B.

And the plan for 2020, she said, is very much like the plan for 2019 — to keep growing out that virtual payments gateway to make it more accessible, more flexible and more customizable for users. Because she noted, for all that’s been accomplished so far, there is a lot that needs to be done in terms of making travel payments safer, more efficient and more transparent — and the firm is looking forward to getting started on more improvements.

“On our virtual payments gateway we have more than 40 issuer partners, and when customers come to our platform we make it easy for them to work with one of them or bring their own along,” she said. “We want to build on that kind of flexibility next year as well as expand our preferred issuers’ list, broaden global coverage and hopefully bring more access to our Visa payment offerings.”