Navan’s Yuval Refua Reveals How They Brought AI To Travel Industry Software

Navan’s Yuval Refua Reveals How They Brought AI To Travel Industry Software

Interview by Anja Paspalj
Published: April 24, 2023
designrush

Who Is Yuval Refua

Yuval Refua has over 15 years of experience managing and scaling product organizations and developing products that excite users. Yuval joined Navan in 2019 to launch and direct the Navan Expense and Payment products. Prior to Navan, he ran digital payments at American Express, was the SVP of product at NAM, CPO at Syp and Aris Genuine Solutions, and held several product leadership roles at Thomson Reuters and Noise. Yuval earned his MBA from Columbia Business School.

The implementation of artificial intelligence has become a defining factor for companies that are ready to adjust to changes taking place across all industries. According to research, 83% of companies consider using AI in their strategy to be a high priority.  

Navan has become the first to integrate generative AI in the travel and expense space. However, a recent rebrand from TripActions to its freshly revealed name Navan and its implementation of AI in the travel industry has not taken the company’s attention away from its main priority – the people.  

Branding itself as “Business Software Designed for People,” Navan can adapt to new technology and trends in stride while putting the user experience of both employees and customers at the center of its brand philosophy.  

In an interview with Spotlight, Yuval Refua, VP of Product at Navan, discusses the company’s first automated virtual assistant, the process of rebranding and how Navan gets the biggest client partnerships. 

Spotlight: Navan is the first travel company to integrate generative AI, congratulations! What made you decide to leverage the OpenAI and ChatGPT APIs? What aspect of your service do you recognize generative AI making the biggest difference in? 

Yuval Refua: Since its inception in 2015, Navan has leveraged AI to optimize efficiencies for both internal uses and for customers. From personalized search results that recognize a user’s travel preferences to automated itemization that instantly categorizes line items on complex receipts, AI is an integral component of Navan’s DNA. 

Fast forward to November 2022, when ChatGPT was released. Since AI was already integrated into Navan’s platform, we were ready to hit the ground running and be the first to market for this next phase of NLP innovation. 

In early February, we launched one of Navan’s most revolutionary innovations yet: Ava, Navan’s automated virtual assistant, which uses generative AI to deliver the best experience for travelers. This launch made Navan the very first travel company to integrate the technology across its infrastructure and product feature set. 

But Ava isn’t just for travelers anymore. Now, the chatbot is also admin-facing, acting as a data analyst and insights guru for finance teams and travel program managers, who can ask Ava everything from travel spend trends, to opportunities for savings, to granular carbon emissions details.  

Since integrating generative AI, our users are saving both time and money through the elimination of menial tasks and offering opportunities for savings, such as increasing flight booking lead time or booking hotels via corporate negotiated rates.  

What role do you see AI and machine learning playing in the future of corporate travel and expense management? How is your company staying ahead of these trends? 

Legacy players in the travel and expense (T&E) space have historically built products that focused on enterprise needs while ignoring the needs of the people actually tasked with using them. At Navan, we understand the importance of keeping up with the latest technologies and trends while keeping people at the center of our design.  

With this mindset, we have pioneered the use of AI in T&E to personalize search results, eliminate expense reports, and broadly improve customer experience in the travel industry. Our chatbot, Ava, is on track to solve 90% of customer support outreach by 2024. Another Navan bot automatically retrieves, itemizes, and submits hotel folios so that Navan travelers never have to check out of a hotel again.  

These are just two examples of how Navan is staying ahead of the curve. Our mission at Navan is to make travel and expense easy through relentless innovation and the team constantly looks for opportunities for automation and personalization to create the best experience for our users.   

Since the launch of Navan as TripActions in 2015, you have developed what you refer to as a new category of business software, “Business Software Designed for People.” What inspired you to kickstart Navan and how would you describe the characteristics of this kind of business software?  

The first generation of software was hard software physically located on servers; the second generation was essentially just first-generation software copied and pasted into the cloud. 

Both generations were designed to further the company's interests and neglected the user. And because it wasn't designed for them, and often made their lives harder, employees didn't use them. This is especially true for business travel because the contrast between what employees used as consumers versus the tools provided by their company are lightyears apart. 

Navan saw an opportunity and took it, reimaging how software is designed entirely to focus on the user. We are leading the charge in the third generation of business software and introducing a new category: Business Software Designed for People. 

When users have a magical experience with a product, they actually use it. That means increased, real-time visibility and control for the company, which leads to time and cost savings. Navan’s AI-powered software is designed to exceed user expectations and enhance human connections, resulting in smoother and more efficient business operations. This has been our goal from the beginning. Software companies that fail to adapt to this mindset will become obsolete and be quickly replaced by companies that balance the needs of both the enterprise and its employees.  

Navan used to go by TripActions; why did you decide to rebrand and what does this change signify for the company?  

TripActions started in 2015 with a simple goal: to make travel and expense easy. Since then, the brand’s vision has expanded beyond travel to address the intertwined pain points of expense reporting, spend management, corporate cards, group travel, VIP travel, meetings and events, and personal travel.   

Our new name, Navan, is a combination of the words “navigate” and “avant” (as in forward or innovative); it is the art of navigating the world of travel with ease and grace.   

With the rebranding to Navan, we continue to challenge the market to build software that improves the lives of people fundamentally, while saving companies time and money. We believe that software should be designed to help businesses become more efficient while meeting the needs of the people who actually use it. 

Navan has some impressive clients, like Heineken, Zoom and Pinterest. Can you share how you managed to secure these partnerships as a young company?  

The T&E industry has historically been run by legacy players offering antiquated solutions. From there, it is a domino effect: users have a bad experience using a legacy platform, deterring them from using it in the future, which leads to low adoption rates. As a result, finance teams lose visibility, which opens the gates for a whole range of issues, from poor duty of care to blown budgets. 

In contrast, Navan’s software is designed for the people using it, boosting platform adoption rates to 94% adoption rate and compliance rates to 96% — saving finance teams time and money while also providing a seamless experience for employees.  

This differentiator, designing people-centric software, is how Navan has managed to secure impressive enterprise clients from the beginning, and why it is quickly taking over the T&E market. 

Many of your clients have achieved great results since switching to Navan. Premier Talent Partners have achieved 11% cost savings and Datto has saved 17% on hotel bookings. How do you ensure that companies are able to decrease spending through travel and expense management?  

For most companies, regardless of the size, the most common T&E obstacles revolve around compiling, processing, and reconciling expenses. All of these issues cost employees and employers time and money. 

Travel and related expenses represent one of the biggest line items on a company’s budget, so finance leaders need a tool that empowers them to see and make changes to their program in real-time — rather than waiting weeks or months until they’ve chased down their employees to submit expense reports to understand their spend.  

Navan’s savings tools, like dynamic travel policy, real-time reporting with benchmark data, traveler incentive programs, Navan Expense's built-in spend controls, and Auto-Itemization empower companies to function at their highest level without letting costs run rampant.  

When companies invest in a T&E management tool, they are saving both time and money in several ways: 

  • Savings on travel: 15% travel program savings and 30% savings on hotel spend
  • Minimizing out-of-policy spend: With custom, built-in spend controls, Navan customers see an 86% reduction in out-of-policy spend
  • Increased visibility = less chaos: +90% Navan platform adoption versus a 50% industry average
  • Travelers save time: Navan boasts a six-minute booking average as compared to the industry average of one hour (83% of business travelers spend more than an hour booking business trips) 

How does Navan approach the expectations of small businesses as opposed to enterprises, seeing as you offer resources for both?  

Regardless of size, every business should have processes in place for managing its T&E program to drive compliance, duty of care, and cost savings. Navan is designed to scale alongside a company, offering more robust tools as business needs change.  

Small businesses: 

  • As small businesses and startups grow, it’s not just travel expenses that become increasingly complex. Companies can reduce spend and save countless hours when cards, spend management, and travel are part of a single platform
  • Money can be tight for a growing business. Having a T&E policy in place can generate enormous savings in both time and money. As small businesses grow, a policy that grows with them can give budding companies an advantage over the competition

Enterprises: 

  • Large businesses and enterprises have bigger budgets and bigger challenges that often necessitate a T&E management solution with robust capabilities. Some of the most prevalent challenges that impact large businesses’ T&E management include security risks, lack of reporting, poor data visibility, human error, expense fraud, and more
  • Companies with many traveling employees must strike a delicate balance between cost savings and employee satisfaction. Automating travel and expense management is the answer

As the travel industry continues to evolve and change rapidly, how does Navan stay ahead of the curve and continue to meet the needs of its users based on modern standards and expectations?   

The success and impact of any modern business hinge on its ability to adapt to new technologies while obsessing about the needs of its users. This is especially true for the travel sector. Companies that fail to do so will become obsolete, while those that embrace change will thrive and differentiate themselves in any market condition. Vendors that put users at the center by leveraging machine learning, AI, and mobile will find themselves in the same category as Navan — Business Software Designed for People.  

Finally, how do you see the future of tech-led innovation in the travel sector?   

The future of tech-led innovation in the travel sector is simple: people-centricity should be the driving force behind software development and design. Looking ahead, companies that focus on building software for the people using it and are agile when it comes to integrating modern innovations, such as generative AI, will win. 

Follow Navan on LinkedIn and read more interviews with successful businesses here

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