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- April 28, 2016
- Ethan Laub
What’s the best way to make your corporate travel management program successful?
For global companies, the answer used to be selecting a single global travel management company (TMC), and a single online booking tool to consolidate data and streamline program management. However, these global solutions rarely perform equally well in all markets.
Running this kind of program may make it easier in some ways, but gaps in data and user adoption often keep companies from realizing all the benefits they had hoped for. Travel managers may also find they have to spend the same amount of time, or more, handling complaints and policing of programs because of usability issues.
Using new technology, expense management software providers and analytics companies can now bring together data from multiple sources. These may include data from credit cards, booking tools and travel agencies.
This opens up the possibility for companies to make end user adoption their top priority. Instead of one global travel provider, they can select the best providers in each major market and still bring together more and better data to get a more complete picture of their program. They can spend more of their time finding and executing on sourcing opportunities and improving their programs.
As technology continues to advance, this may prove to be the better, more strategic option. Let’s consider each approach.
Favoring the back office
For a long time, companies have structured their travel programs to make them easy for the administrators to use. Working with a single TMC and one booking tool means administrators don’t have to manage relationships all over the globe. They only have to learn one set of processes for each tool. And, they’ll have all their data in one place. The appeal is easy to understand.
The reality is somewhat different, starting with implementation. Even though these are global solutions, they have to be implemented separately in every market, because every market has different policies, languages and content.
Once the program is up and running, program managers soon realize that though the agency may be exceptional in some markets, they don’t have the same footprint and expertise everywhere. For example, India can be a very difficult place for a non-Indian travel agency to do business and satisfy customers if they don’t have a deep understanding of the culture and the supplier landscape.
The same thing goes for booking tools. Booking tools that are well-known and used in one market may not be the best fit for other markets around the world, even if they’re available in other markets. A typical situation is that as data starts to come in, you see that no one's using the booking tool in India, Brazil, or other markets around the world where the content, such as airfares and hotel rates, is not as strong as it is from other local sources.
Data plus a grain of salt
One of the main attractions of a consolidated program is to have global data that can be used for sourcing and negotiating and optimizing your travel program. Here again, reality is not so simple.
In many cases, big corporate agencies partner with local affiliates. When you have these different entities working together, data consolidation becomes an issue. It could be that instead of getting data real time, it's getting pulled once a week or once a month. There may also be data hygiene issues such as incorrect currency conversions, or affiliates reporting on slightly different metrics in slightly different time frames.
Sometimes these issues can be fixed, sometimes not. Now you’re in a position where you have to take data from some markets with a grain of salt. Your data has significant limitations. You could go to a third-party provider that specializes in data cleansing, but that adds complexity and costs.
The final benefit travel managers expect to get from a consolidated system is improved ability to manage travel risk, which is known as a duty of care process. In case of an emergency, they’ll be able to see all of their travelers in a single report.
But, what also tends to happen in administrator-focused travel programs is that managers put travel policies and pre-trip approval rules in place to make their lives easier, but they’re often too restrictive and complicated for end users, giving them one more reason to go outside the system.
Companies trying to build a global program simply don't anticipate the differences in user experience that will happen in markets around the world. They don't test the booking tool in all 15 to 20 markets because that's very difficult to do, so they make assumptions about the program that turn out not to be correct.
They also assume they'll be able to mandate people to use the program. However, when it comes to dealing with an executive or a road warrior who brings in a lot of sales, nobody's going to come down too hard on them if they go outside the lines.
No matter what the reason, when people go outside the system, that adds more blind spots to your already compromised data. User adoption, or lack thereof, is probably the single biggest obstacle to realizing the objectives of these consolidated global travel programs.
For all of the above reasons, some industry practitioners estimate that 70 percent of global travel program implementations fail.
The other option is to orient your travel program towards the end user, making widespread user adoption your objective. The widespread availability of application program interfaces (APIs) to bring together data from multiple sources, together with improvements in data cleansing technology, eliminates one of the main reasons for the single, global provider approach and may even provide a better solution.
You might ask, why don't the global TMCs use this same technology to deliver better data to their customers? Some of the more tech-savvy agencies are moving in that direction. But many agencies have outsourced their reporting and analytics solutions, so they don't have the same level of control over their data tools.
A richer data set
Expense management solution providers and data analytics companies have a more natural ability to be able to bring that data together and to present it to customers in a consolidated format. They can also add more value. Previously most of your data came from the travel agency but now there is a proliferation of useful data sources that taken together can give companies a much better picture of their travel and expense spending.
For example, corporate credit card data gets richer every year. New solutions offer the ability to capture data on what we call "open bookings"—bookings that are done outside of a corporate travel program. These solutions range from email parsing technology -- where users forward their confirmation emails for data extraction -- to direct integrations with providers like Uber, AirBnB, and others. Finally, smartphone GPS tracking is becoming more widespread and accepted by employees as a travel risk management solution.
Systems like these make it easy for end users and at the same time, they're transmitting all the data that the travel manager needs. Now travel managers can, in theory, see all of the data from the travel agency, from your corporate card purchases, and from open bookings. They can understand, truly, where everybody is and how much everybody has spent.
A combination of policy and programs
Getting widespread adoption for your corporate travel program is a combination of the right offering in the right market, the right technology and the right policies. Not every company will want to allow open booking, but they can and should focus on selecting travel providers that are highly rated and are proven to deliver a great experience in a particular market.
At the same time, companies need to be realistic. The Internet is free and open to all, and there are all kinds of reasons and ways for people to go outside the program no matter how good it is. You have to have tools in place to capture that information when people do go outside of the program so you have that data and can support those employees in case of an emergency. And you have to make sure your policies are not so draconian as to turn people away from the program.
From a systems point of view, this type of program is going to be more complicated for the back office to manage than if they have one travel agency and one booking tool provider. On the flip side, there should be a lot less policing and a lot less handling of complaints, both of which can really wear down a travel team.
What they'll find is that the day-to-day costs and time involved in managing the program are lower because there are fewer complaints and issues. They're going to have the opportunity to spend time on more strategic activities, and the data they need to be successful.
There are tradeoffs in each scenario, but the bottom line is that options for data collection have improved to the point that getting consolidated travel spend data should no longer be an excuse for force-fitting a global provider in every market if they're not providing the best service and the best user experience. Companies can achieve their travel objectives by a number of different means. They are now free to move about the vendor landscape.
Ethan Laub is director of product management, Coupa expenses. He joined Coupa in 2015 when Coupa acquired TripScanner, an open booking technology company that he founded. Prior to that, he was a director of account management for American Express Global Business Travel. Ethan will speak on “Open Booking: A Megatrend in Corporate Travel” at Coupa Inspire on Wednesday, May 11, 2016 from 4:00 to 4:45 p.m.