Top 10 tips for travel buyers

21 February 2018

There’s no such thing as a quick win in travel management, said Scott Davies, CEO of the Institute of Travel Management.

Speaking at the Business Travel Show in London today, Davies said the difficulty with travel is there’s a lot of jargon, processes and commercial models. But what it boils down to is simple: “Business travel is about putting the company's people in the best place to do business.” 

Here are his top 10 tips for travel buyers:

1. Know your business

Travel is probably one of the most emotive categories a buyer can work in, said Davies. “The way you ask people to travel is going to impact on the culture and the way you do business together, so everything you do must be in tune with that,” he said. “If you take [your stakeholder’s] objectives in mind, you’ll have their support through the process, and you are going to need it.” 

Most importantly you need to understand your stakeholders. Depending on your business, said Davies, you biggest travellers might be the sales department, it could be internal travel or it could even be third parties. Other key stakeholders includes your HR department and your organisation’s big budget holders – usually your CFO but also your CEO. “If you want to get an audience with your CEO, bring his favourite supplier and you’ll probably find he’ll be more than happy to meet,” said Davies.

The good news is that there has been an explosion of travel data available to buyers to help them understand their businesses. “When we say know your business, understand your culture and objectives and the data that sits behind that.”

2. Know your supplier landscape

You’re going to need a TMC, said Davies, and there are plenty to choose from – at least 50 big names in the UK alone. But, “don’t make the mistake of thinking they’re all the same, they’re absolutely not.”

Things to look for when picking a TMC include whether they operate locally or globally, what do they offer by way of online booking and management, and how flexible are they with their travel configuration. Some TMCs also offer specialist services, so if you are a charity or a public sector organisation for example, pick a partner that specialises in working with your type of organisation.

3. Have a travel policy and update it regularly

“We try to stay away from the word ‘rules’,” said Davies. Of course a policy will have rules, “but really a travel policy is a standard that supports what you’re trying to achieve as a business”. Policies need to be rigid enough to keep travellers “within the lanes” but enough flexibility that they have choice.

Davies said travel is probably the most emotive category in procurement and you’ll be amazed at the number of stakeholders that want to be involved. “When you announce to the business that you are revising or introducing a business travel policy, get ready for the deluge of people that would like a say, because everybody would like a say.” Policies also need to be refreshed regularly, whenever your business changes or the business environment changes.

Most importantly don’t rush. “If you move ahead without the support of your stakeholders, you’ll have problems later.”

4. Have a risk mitigation policy

Consider how your travel policy can improve your traveller’s safety. This means both large risks – including the threat of terrorism – to more day-to-day issues of personal security. “The reality and probability is that you are something like 1,000 times more likely to be a victim of petty crime than you are of terrorism on any business trip,” said Davies.

Questions you need to ask include what areas will or won’t you allow your travellers to fly to and will you allow them to use a ride-sharing service on their own after 10pm? Do you require them to take any training sessions before travelling? You should ask your partners and suppliers for help. Not only can many TMCs now help you know where your people are, they can often give specialist advice over security issues.”

5. Negotiate and build relationships with your suppliers

Davies recommends travel managers keep as few key partners as possible without compromising the reach of their organisation. When engaging with suppliers try to think ahead, said Davies. “Talk to suppliers about where your travel is going rather than where it’s been.”

Buyers should also think of their TMCs as an extension of their own team and seek to partner with experts. If you don’t have risk management expertise, for example, “there are experts in the field who can help you”.

6. Manage your contracts

Make sure you have the conversation about terms and conditions early on in any dealings with potential travel suppliers, said Davies. “Make time for that process and put it upfront so it doesn’t become a block at the end.” 

Think about implementation and project management when bringing on a new travel platform, and allow 12 weeks to roll out a new programme or TMC. That’s because you need time to get stakeholders on board.

Make sure you have a service level agreement and KPIs to track progress – like with key suppliers Davies recommends keeping as few KPIs as you can get away with while still measuring all the important metrics. “How will you know, and describe to people in your business and elsewhere, that your programme will be successful?” he said.

7. Get a handle on payments

“The way you procure travel, the way you use travel, dictates the way you’re going to have to pay for it,” said Davies. Real-time payments allow businesses not only to keep a track of their spend more accurately, but can also help with the travel approval process. In some companies approval needs to be given in advance before money is spent, and in others approval comes after the fact in the form of expenses claims. “Travel approval is critical and needs to sit nicely in the culture of your business,” said Davies. 

Different people within the same organisation might need to pay for their flights, hotels or food bills in different ways – a sales executive meeting their top client will have different needs to someone attending a conference, for example.

Your payment provider can also give you access to “incredibly rich data about your spend as well,” said Davies, including off-policy spend, so consider how your partners can help you get visibility.

8. Consider the total trip cost

It's easy to focus on the big ticket items – the train to the airport, the flights, the hotels – but don’t forget all that other spend. Taxis, station parking, food and drinks and other add hoc spend.  “Do pay attention to this, especially on your high density routes,” said Davies. If travellers are always going to your second office in Madrid, for example, “you will want to understand in quite a lot of detail what the end-to-end cost of that journey is”. The best way to do this is by talking to your travellers.

9. Communicate with your stakeholders

Davies recommends sending out a quarterly bulletin to all stakeholders, to keep them constantly aware of even the smallest of changes. Use any existing tools your business has, engage with your internal communications team if your business has one, host a travel fair with your suppliers and “use that emotive element to travel to get that airtime”. Some firms have gone as far as creating a brand around their travel policy. 

“People only tend to talk about travel when something’s gone wrong,” said Davies, so take advantage of all opportunities. “If you have a service recovery issue with a senior stakeholder, make a point of going along and seeing them. Take any opportunity you can to communicate up and down your business.”

10. Network

It’s essential to work with other travel managers and benchmark yourself against others, said Davies. The only way to really know if your programme is successful is to “ask other travel managers what their experiences of their successes are”.

There is no room for egos in travel buying, said Davies, who added the category is probably the only one area that is above inter-business competition. “I’ve known oil companies that are in competition in business, but when it comes to travel managers, they’re more than happy to share benchmarks and discuss how they achieved success with their own travel programmes.”

For new buyers, while it can feel complex and daunting, “the reality is there are so many people that are in exactly the same position as you, and there are even more people who used to be in the same position as you, who will be only too happy to help,” said Davies.

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