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Learning Magazine

Volume 1.2 Fall 1997

The World is Listening: The Role of Travel Communication

Transcript of Speech Delivered at the Ninth Conference of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives, 29 April 1997, by Marvin Gottlieb, PhD.


Welcome to the world of Travel Communication. We're excited to have Dr. Marvin Gottlieb here.

I wanted to tell you a little about Dr. Gottlieb, although I know a lot of you know him quite well. Marvin Gottlieb is Associate Professor of Communication at the City University of New York, and President of The Communication Project, a Greenwich, Connecticut-based management consulting firm.

Dr. Gottlieb has more than 15 years of travel-industry experience as a consultant for Thomas Cook Travel, American Express, the Super-Regional Group, Worldwide Travel Management, Marriott, Amtrak, and ASTA. He has developed several innovative electronic distance-learning strategies, and currently designs and manages the content of the world's largest distance-learning network for The Prudential.

Dr. Gottlieb has written four books on communications and managing in the workplace. Welcome.

Dr. Gottlieb:

[1] Thank you. I will try to put on this microphone. Let me sort of rattle at you while I demonstrate that I am not as technologically proficient as... [laughter] would hope. Actually, only a few years ago I described myself as a technological primitive... [laughter] ...and more as a move of self-defense.

[2] Another thing, just in the way of starting, is that I noticed when I got here yesterday and looked through the program that almost everybody else had a panel. So, in keeping with that, I plan to change character several times during the process of doing this... [laughter] So I wanted to announce that in advance, so that you wouldn't feel that I had gone schizoid on you, you know -- voice changes, or whatever.

[3] In preparation for this I took a broad shot at what I thought might be of interest and of need to you, but you are really the best judge of what that's going to be ultimately useful, so -- uncharacteristic of me normally, I'm going to try to leave some time at the end to interact and let you raise some questions and issues that perhaps you think I might be able to help with, that I didn't touch on in the presentation.

[4] The three things that I do plan to touch on involve the communication of travel policy, some communication tips in general about that, and then some issues about why that's important, which I call the challenges and costs of non-compliance -- for those of you who have travel policies in place that people seem to find ways to ignore. And then, at the end, I'm going to go through what I consider reasonable, doable electronic solutions to the problem.

[5] As a way of beginning, as some of you who know me know, I always like to start with a story. And like all stories, my story today begins, "Once upon a time." And once upon a time, in a far-off kingdom, everything was going pretty good. Right? The king was being benevolent. The crops were growing very well. The prince was, y'know, doin' prince things. The princess wasn't acting out... In short, it was pretty dull. So the king said, "Let's do something to shake up things up a little bit." And he said, "I know. Let's have a festival."

[6] And so he sent out to all corners of the kingdom and invited all the knights of the kingdom to come and participate in a two-week festival, with the focus of that festival being an archery contest.

[7] And for two weeks, the archers shot their arrows, and shot their arrows. And at the end of two weeks, one archer rose above the crowd as the finest archer in all the land. And the king said, "This is wonderful, except everybody wasn't here to see it." So he decided to call his... you know, his corporate travel department, and said, "Listen, we gotta... we gotta send this guy out on tour." Right? So, sure enough, off goes the knight across the kingdom to demonstrate his prowess and thereby allowing the people of the kingdom to get involved with this wonderful thing that came out of the festival.

[8] One day, the knight is approaching -- on horseback, in those days -- a village, and on the edge of this village is a barn. And on the side of that barn are a hundred tiny circles. And in the geometric center of every one of those circles is an arrow! Well, the knight went berserk. He said, "My God! Surely whoever shot those arrows is truly the finest archer in the land! I must meet that man!"

[9] And as it happens in these stories, at that particular moment a proverbial peasant was walking by. And he said, "Sirrah!" (as they spoke in those days). "Where is this man? I must meet this knight who shot these arrows." And the peasant said, "No, sir knight, sir knight... relax. That's Herbie who shoots those arrows. You... you don't understand..." "Sir Herbie? I must meet Sir Herbie." And he says, "No, no... knight... sir knight. You don't understand. You see, Herbie shoots the arrows first, and then draws the circles." [laughter]

[10] When I consider some of the things that we're talking about... some of the issues elsewhere on the conference program, and things like that, I often wonder if we don't get involved in shooting the arrows first, and not stopping and asking ourselves, in these cases, what is it that we really need to get the job done? And that's hopefully what I can spend a little bit of time defining for you -- and drawing some circles around some areas that might make some sense to either pick up or leave alone, as the case may be.

[11] Usually, when you hear the word 'listening,' it suggests something done with the ears... something auditory. However, when it comes to effective communication, listening is obviously more than hearing. We all know that. It's an active process that involves the eyes, other senses as well as the ears... and in today's complex society, it is either enhanced or interfered with by an endless variety of input sources and other kinds of attention-grabbing issues out there in the world.

[12] When we talk about travel communications, the phrase suggests a wide range of options. Travelers communicating with agents; agencies communicating with travel managers; agencies, travel managers, and travelers communicating with vendors of travel services -- and any other permutation that you might come up with in that sense.

[13] And each, in and of itself, is an important communication avenue, and each has its own area of concern. And our focus today, or where I'm going to try and place the focus, is on how an organization can most effectively communicate key policies and procedures to travelers and travel arrangers.

[14] Well, why is this important? Why do we bother with travel policies to begin with? What is the cost of non-compliance, or partial compliance?

[15] I set myself the task of trying to do some basic research along these lines, and I involved an agency that I've worked with for some years, Travel, Inc., out of Atlanta, who's been doing some tracking on the savings that one can get out of putting a travel policy in place. And they took one major account. In 1995 this particular company, which was a $3 million plus in travel, did not have a policy. After the implementation of a policy, the savings added up to about 27 percent.

[16] So we can see -- and I think again, I'm just probably beating the horse that's proverbially already lying on the ground. But you know when you put a policy in place, you're probably going to save some money. But that's not the primary issue that I'm focussing on today. I'm sure all of you currently use some system of tracking and monitoring travel expenses. And I'm also aware that, like fingerprints and earlobes, each of your organizations has different concerns... different parameters that make what happens a little bit different and unique.

[17] So, the next question that comes up is, where else are we losing money? And that is, it seems to me, in the area of non-compliance. And so I wanted to do a bit more research. By the way, you have my sympathy, if you're trying to do any really hard-core research in this area, to get your arms around some of these costs. I mean I'm a professional researcher, and I gotta tell you -- there's plenty of numbers out there, but when you try to really nail down what these costs are -- what these numbers really mean, it's like trying to herd cats or get puppies under a blanket. [laughter] So, what I'm offering to you today really is not science, and I don't mean to position it that way. I'm trying to give you some reasonable benchmarks, to look at and see how you can measure what it is you're doing against at least some numbers.

[18] But, positioning this question of what is the cost of non-compliance, I asked FareAudit, which is a company that I work with. We collected some data on costs associated with non-compliance. FareAudit is an independent third-party travel audit service that monitors and reports on travel agency efficiency, travel policy effectiveness, and employee travel expense management.

[19] Now, according to FareAudit, they claim that as much as ten to fifteen percent of total travel dollars can be attributed to travelers refusing the lowest fare. And I wanted to test that. So we took the two-month period from February 1, 1997 to March 31, 1997, and merged the records of five companies which had what we considered by various criteria to have fairly sophisticated travel policies. And, as the graph shows, it's almost seven percent that we find as being the exception rate. That is, people who operated outside of the policy. During just that two-month period.

[20] And as it breaks down a little bit further, you can see what some of the issues are. There are a variety of reasons why people refuse the lower fares. Anyway, I guess the main point of this is that -- I think we can agree -- that there are potentially substantial gains to be made in cost control if policies are followed and enforced. I don't know -- if you're managing a two-dollar-and-fifty-cent travel budget, seven percent is not going to be a whole lot. I mean, you're going to go out and buy all this sophisticated hardware and all -- it's going to cost you twenty percent to chase the six percent to retrieve three percent of that. You know, so at some point you gotta figure, is this trip worth it? All right? In terms of trying to capture that or not.

[21] If you're talking about a multi-million dollar travel budget, and you're talking six percent to seven percent in air alone, and another couple of points in car and hotel, now we're talking bucks. At which point, it does become cost-responsible and cost-effective to try and chase those numbers.

[22] The first problem, of course, if we're going talk about dealing with travel policies, is how are they communicated? You know... how do people get these policies? And the limited number of options for doing that -- many of which -- I think some, certainly -- that have been presented quite effectively in earlier sessions, in terms of the use of newsletters and all that kind of stuff. I mean there's a lot of print things you can do: memoranda, booklets, personnel manuals... And then there is the electronic option. And for the time we have today, I'm going to focus on that electronic option primarily, since it fits in with the theme of the conference, and also, I think, holds the most promise for satisfying travel communication needs in the future.

[23] There are several important elements in any communication process. And among these elements that need to be considered is, who is the audience? Who are you trying to talk to out there? Who are you trying to get the message to? What is the message that you're trying to get across? We'll talk a little bit about the policies themselves. What's the channel? That is, through what means or mode do you get that information out to people? What is the environment? In this case I mean, where is that target audience when this material is coming at them, or when they need to interact with it. Are they sitting quietly in their office thumbing through the company policy manual, or have they just arrived at O'Hare to find that their flight has been canceled? You know -- policy issues tend to change, depending on the environment that one meets them in.

[24] And how do we get and manage feedback? Which from my perspective -- particularly as an educator -- is probably the key factor. I mean, how do we know any of this is working? Right? You have to measure it, somehow.

[25] I don't just operate in travel. I do a lot of work in financial services, and as you know with Prudential. Well, the whole thing with Prudential grew out of the fact that, four or five years ago, a couple of agents in Florida sold a couple of retirement policies... a couple of insurance policies as retirement vehicles, and it's cost the company two billion dollars. So, all of a sudden, it's not just enough to throw the material out there and hope that everybody gets it. Now, everybody has to certify that, at some point in their career, they knew the difference. Because otherwise there's a liability associated with that.

[26] Now, I'm not suggesting that you end up with the same kinds of liabilities, but more and more, as organizations are moving along this path, this need for measurement and compliance continues to increase. You have to know whether or not the message is getting across.

[27] Again, with some variation, you all probably share a similar audience. In some cases they are the actual travelers in the organization. In other cases they are the travel arrangers within the organization, and/or your travel agencies that facilitate the process. It's easy to point the finger at the audience for the problems of non-compliance. But a couple of things need to be kept in mind.

[28] First, for your travelers. Travel is a necessary, not always welcome part of the job. It's not the job. Right? Now, I don't know how things have changed. It's been a couple of years since I spoke at NBTA and interacted directly with a lot of travel managers. But at that time -- and a couple of people that I've spoken to over lunch yesterday, say it's still the case. I would wager that many of you still, as your sole function, do not have to manage the travel arrangements or budget for your organization. At least the three people I talked to at lunch yesterday had additional responsibilities over and above travel.

[29] Well, these travelers have additional responsibilities over and above adhering to your policy. And, again, I know that sometimes we think it's the most important thing to us, but it's not to them. And we might assume that nearly all good corporate citizens of today are concerned about saving the company money, but the fact is when it comes to traveling, the focus is still on how do I get there with the least amount of hassle, in the most comfortable manner.

[30] Now, we also have to remember that the reasons for non-compliance are not always bad... capricious, or self-centered. Sometimes available flights do not get the traveler to the meeting on time, and the preferred hotel is located ten miles across the city from where the person needs to be.

[31] And also... and I think this is a place where we can, again, have some impact... among your travelers, chances are there are several who either never knew the policy, might have known the policy at one time in their career, and now it's become fuzzy or something has changed, or have just joined the company, and have not yet even been exposed to the policy.

[32] And compound that with the fact that some travel policies tend to change over time, we begin to see the level of difficulty involved in gaining a high degree of compliance.

[33] And what is the message itself? The travel policy itself? Several policies I've looked at over time are constructed in language that might be familiar to travel professionals or lawyers, but could leave the lay person much in the dark about what was actually required or expected. It's estimated that 80 percent... if you have a big company travel budget, and a lot of travelers... that 80 percent of all the trips taken by members of any organization are routine. That means they're flown between the same city pairs on a regular basis. And it would seem to me that this should allow for a reasonably simple policy statement, as well as fairly effective monitoring strategies.

[34] The other thing is that it's interesting what happens when you look at how policies themselves tend to have an inverse relationship with savings. That is... we just took the one-hour window scenario, which seems to be very common in travel policies. You know, an hour before -- an hour after. If you roll that out an additional hour, and make it two hours -- in a two-hour window you get almost double the potential for flights that would save you money in that same situation.

[35] Now again, there may be some very good reasons why a person can't take a two-hour window, but some part of those savings are actually available to you.

[36] Another point that we found around that... I wanted some additional ammunition... was that we took one large customer (we being, me and FareAudit)... we took 5000 records, recent records from one company, and ran them through Sabre Bargain-Finder. And found that, for the same period... for the time of ticketing... there were 2000 flights that had lower fares, out of the 5000 records we looked at. So there were 40% of the flights that were available out there that had lower fares.

[37] When we applied the policy, with all its ins and outs and exceptions and... you know, little tweaks and twists here... the available flights under policy that could have been... say, came down to the five, six percent that we were looking at. So that, in constructing these policies, there are potential savings being lost.

[38] Now, it's not the focus here, about how you go about writing travel policies, but it is something to look into... when you go from 40% to 5% after you employ the policy.

[39] The channel is the means by which the audience receives the message... in this case, the travel policy. And much of this conference has been devoted to various types of channels relating to the communication of travel information. And we are, as I said, we're going to focus here on the electronic channel, since we will inevitably continue to become increasingly dependent on this channel for receiving and sending our messages. And as far as the environment is concerned, we need to point to the fact that every communication activity takes place in a definite place or context. The external conditions of the room and the setting can create a feeling or a mood that will shape or impact the meaning of the communication. That's what I was talking about... depending on where this person receives the communication.

[40] It's the nature of policies of any kind to be document-centered. And the communication of these policies tends to lose sight of the people involved in the process. It's the people who need to be influenced and trained, and that has to be done within a motivated climate. What counts in the final analysis is not what people are told, but what they accept and what they adhere to... and the greatest potential for success will come from what I call a people-centered approach to travel policy communication.

[41] The audience that receives the message, whether it's a travel policy or anything else, decodes that message by interpreting and assigning meaning to what is communicated... their knowledge, experience, ideas, feelings, image about themselves, how important it is to them at that given moment -- the company and the world at large -- will affect the meaning that they assign to that communication.

[42] The only way we can truly know whether or not our audience is receiving the message as we intended it is through feedback. The response could be positive, negative, indifferent... but if you have feedback it helps you, the communicator, to realize that the message is getting across. If the policies are being understood by the audience -- and, frequently, how your audience feels about those policies.

[43] And by having access to this kind of feedback, you are then in a position to adapt your message, and it's this on-going process of exchange, feedback, exchange, is what makes communication a process.

[44] If you are considering some form of electronic delivery, there are only a few ways you can do that. You can put the material on diskette -- by the way, it's not such a bad option -- have your audience, your end-users actually load it onto their hard drive and have it available to them. You can use CD-ROM, assuming that you have the equipment, and you can send policy changes through e-mail, and I've heard from some people that they're doing that. In some of the sessions that I deal with, I ask people "How many e-mail messages do you get a day?" And in a lot of cases somebody will say, "A hundred." Now, if you've got a change on your travel policy, and it's message number 96... Hmm. That's gonna stick, right? Sure, that's gone, that's [whistle]... that's nowhere.

[45] Or you can use the Internet. Right? Everybody out here on the Internet? Let's see, let's have a show of hands. Everybody here? Good... all that good bandwidth going down... Or an intranet, if your company has a setup that can provide access to travel policies.

[46] Let's just take a look at the Internet solution, first. I got out my surfboard and started surfing the Net some weeks back when I was preparing this, and I went through the various search engines and looked for Travel, Travel Policy, Travel... you know, whatever. And came up with one, and it's a real honey. If you've seen it, then forgive me. If you haven't seen it, this Web site is a travel policy person's dream.

[47] It's put out by the University of Wisconsin. It's free and out there for everybody to plug into. I pulled off just some of the pages. Also, at the end of this, I'll give you some handouts with some of the slides and a deck which will have this Web address if you actually want to pull it up. It's an education in and of itself. That's sort of an unfortunate way to put it... being the University of Wisconsin, you would hope it would be some sort of education. But this is the first page. Click here for University of Wisconsin Travel Information site.

[48] And, now, this is only the first page of the Table of Contents! There are several pages of the Table of Contents. You've got Travel Regulations, you've got the Big Ten, obviously; this is a Big Ten school, and has apparently some negotiated rates. They've got government discounts in some places, corporate rates, hotel directory sales, foreign per diem rates...

[49] This little button here, this currency exchange is wonderful. It hooks into another site, that is not maintained by the University of Wisconsin. But you can put in any country, and the amount that you spent while you were there -- if you're doing an expense report -- and then click on the country you want to convert it to, and it automatically converts it. It's updated daily, and now for foreign travel I use it all the time. It's one of those things that really works. If you're sitting on the Net it actually saves you time instead of adding two hours to the process.

[50] We'll have a little bit of a look behind some of these buttons in a minute, but I wanted to show you in terms of what's available on this site. You get publications, of course... downloading... expense... probably expense sheets to fill out if you're going to do that... feedback! Love it! You know. I don't know if I want to be Gary Prisbe, but you know, if you had a terrible time on your trip you click on old Gary and tell him what you think of him. I wonder how many compliments he gets through there?

[51] But at least there is an opportunity for feedback here. There are other things... special discounts, hotels and travel on the Net, City Net, map quests -- you can get maps printed out for various cities. And then it hooks you into TravelWeb, which enables you, for a lot of hotels, to actually make reservations at hotels on line -- and we know it's probably only a minute and a button click away from also being able to make air reservations and stuff like that. Wonderful stuff! And this is out there...

[52] Now. If you click on... behind the one that says Travel Policy, you get another first page. Which enables you to go to an alternative page if your browser doesn't read it. But what that leads to... bear with me... another Table of Contents. Which has absolutely everything in it you would ever want to know about a travel policy. General Policy... Definitions... Air Travel... Train Travel... Bus Travel... Taxis... Each one of these things is a chapter or a section that has a policy statement of some kind behind it. You move through that, and you get behind one of those... this just continues on some of the various kinds of things.

[53] All of these things have stuff behind them. But I clicked on Cost Comparison... there we go... and they come up with some examples. Comparisons of costs involved between flying and driving, giving you various kinds of options, telling you which cost is allowed, what'll be paid, what won't be paid... It's... I mean, it's an anal-retentive's dream... [laughter] I mean it's a control-type thing, and you know, you throw back somebody's expense report, and they say, "Huh?" And you say, "Check Button 6, man." You know? "You didn't get it." [laughter]

[54] So, this has more comparisons. But it goes on and on and on.

[55] What's wrong with this? Interact with me here.

[56] How many of you have 40 graduate students? And a huge university computer with all the bandwidth in the world. And, you know, a person who runs IS, who just gets a salary like everybody else, and doesn't have to work within the same kind of budgetary constraints as your information management people. All right? Yeah, sure. I mean, if you want to put something like what you just saw on an intranet. You can move that in, and then you can have your click over to your reservation deal, or whatever. And it can be done. But then we're talking about a lot of resources to manage and to handle that kind of thing.

[57] Which probably brings me to the reason why I was asked to talk to you to begin with, which has to do with an easier solution.

[58] I'm not selling it to you; I'm just showing it to you. I don't believe in selling in this environment. And anyway, I don't have anything in my hand packaged in a box to sell you, anyhow.

[59] But about four years ago, when I was involved in one of the... my company was one of the companies involved in re-engineering the way Prudential did training. And Prudential has... at that time had a $66-million technology budget. They had all the computers in the world; they had the people to run it. They decided that... They could have done any number of things themselves in-house. They went through all the costs, the financials, whatever... decided that the issue needed to be outsourced... and that they did not want to run this kind of thing on their own networks because...

[60] I mean, here you are... It's Friday afternoon. You've got all your stuff on the LAN, right? And you're going to making reservations. It's Friday afternoon. All your sales people, your tech reps and everybody, they're getting on line to make those reservations... and in Accounting, spread sheets are crashing like rain. There are a lot of limitations to being able to do this stuff in-house, that I think needs to be looked at.

[61] Also, Prudential wanted... they didn't want to limit themselves only to being able to provide information electronically, because... I don't know about you, but most people, by and large, still find it very tiring to receive printed content from a screen. You feel better-off actually reading a book -- if you've got a book -- rather than trying to read it off the screen.

[62] So, as part of this process, we developed something called Computer Managed Instruction and Certification, or CMI. And what CMI does is just that. It manages the instruction and certification, reinforces learning, assesses competency. It certifies whether people have the knowledge that they need to have. And it can also be used to survey them on other issues, and get additional feedback like Gary Prisbe on the Wisconsin site.

[63] One of the nice things, and the reason why Prudential has, I think, adopted it so whole-heartedly, is that the instruction can be individualized; it's at the learner's convenience and pace. One of the things that doesn't come through here as well as it probably should is that the difference with CMI is that you only are on-line when you are downloading a program that you need to study or uploading the results. You don't have to be on-line to use it. You hook in, you get the material. It's housed in your own computer or laptop. If you want to study or read or take a test you can do it on an airplane or anywhere. The next time you get to a place where you can hook in your modem, you upload it and all of that data is captured and massaged and reported in any way that you want to at that particular point.

[64] So... Given those features and parameters, what I did a couple of weeks ago... I got a hold of my technical guy... and I said, "OK... Would you... I'm two weeks out from this thing. Make me something." I did that for a couple of reasons. First of all, because I wanted to be able to show you something, but secondly, to indicate how easy it is to actually put something like this together. Of course we've built the engines to do that. But what I did was, I mocked up a little travel policy thing, and an information-gathering option, and a little quiz -- and these are the screens... and actually, as of the middle of last week, I have a running Alpha version of this program. And it only took a couple of weeks to pull it together.

[65] I call it TravelMax. Probably somebody else already has that name. I'm not selling it under that name. I'm not selling it under any name, so don't sue me. What happens, if you pull up the screen. It welcomes you to TravelMax Widget Corporate Traveler Information System. And it gives you some options here. It's going to present the policy, to provide you with an efficient way to interact with your travel arranger, and it's going to survey your individual travel needs and preferences. And then it's going to give you a quiz to see what you have actually acquired from that particular thing.

[66] Now, you might say, "Well why would somebody willingly take a test?"

[67] One thing that we came up with, aside from just being able to force people to do it -- as they can in some environments -- is, we give them awards for doing this. Now, it becomes like a game. You take the Widget Travel Quiz, and you get points. And either through your travel agent or your company, you have an opportunity to earn additional travel benefits or something else. It becomes a game.

[68] Because what happens is, with the quiz, if each time they pull it up they get a different test each time.

[69] If they click behind the personal survey, there's additional information. They can fill in, like they would on paper. You punch it in. The next time you upload it, you can arrange it so it can go directly to the travel agency, and hooks right into their data base or into your data base as the case may be.

[70] And then the... the quiz. Right? Which introduces you to the quiz... talks about how you can do it, and what you have to do to make it work, and clicking on the buttons, and all that kind of stuff. And then you get... I'm just showing you these quickly... A question... which happens to be a Roman numeral Question, an either-or-or-both. So you select one.

[71] But when I get the wrong answer, I get what we call an instant feedback screen. If you get the question wrong, you get an instant feedback screen. So I decide -- I'm not going to read the policy, but I'm going to take the quiz. All right? So, every time I get it wrong, I'm exposed to the policy anyway.

[72] So, the point is, if you get them to even try the quiz once, they're going to get several elements of the policy already put before them. And the more times they do it, the more questions they're going to come up with. If they get them right, fine. If they don't, then they get the remediation which puts it in front of them anyway.

[73] You could bundle something like that together with an expense-reporting scenario, or some kind of electronic front-end reservation system, or something like that. One nice thing about this particular design is that, once it's in there, and you've got a button for TravelMax, that you can use it for other things. You can survey them on all kinds of stuff. It just requires another button to put in. Once the engine is installed, they can run a lot of other training or surveying or other kinds of information.

[74] Obviously, to end this... If you're going to get some long-term results out of this, you have to have a mechanism for follow-up; an on-going monitoring as part of the program. And there's only so much that can be expected as an outcome from training or exposing people to a policy itself. And any follow-up must be supported by institutionalizing the process within the organization. Performance reviews, compensation, and other rewards need to acknowledge the importance of the behaviors derived from this training. And, you know, if they're motivated enough, one way or the other, to do that, then you can begin to recapture some of those dollars that you might be losing from non-compliance.

[75] Thank you very much.

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