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BTiQ Interview: Navigating Multinational Travel Programmes

Posted at : 25/10/2018

By: Mervyn Williamson

Corporate travel programmes vary enormously in size, scope and complexity

They span markets, cultures, and in many cases, multiple companies. Some organisations may let each country manage travel independently, while others will have one policy and one TMC across the world. Effective management of these programmes is vital to having a productive, efficient, cost-conscious workforce. In this interview with Mervyn Williamson, managing director, Travel and Transport Statesman, we delve into the details to understand how to get it right for you and your programme in every market.

This article was originally published in Business Travel iQ.

Complex-Travel-Roads 

BTiQ: What do buyers need to be aware of?

MW: Problems arise when companies appoint a single travel or expense provider across multiple markets without checking how flexible they can be. Different approval processes, booking tools, and hotel rate caps by traveller, country and project banding can be done, but you need to do your research to guarantee success.

Whether you are managing numerous unrelated providers, a network, or one dedicated global partner, you need to define multiple transferable criteria for success. These can be as broad as ‘positive traveller satisfaction with the TMC' or as detailed as total costs broken down across all divisions then linked to performance, resulting in a definitive return on investment.

If you have counterparts in other countries, work with them to agree on the measurement criteria. As well as fostering a more positive and collaborative relationship, it’s also the quickest way to learn more about what matters to your people in those countries.

It’s also important not to confuse ‘consistency’ with ‘quality’. It’s easy to lower the bar on quality in favour of something that’s consistent at face value. If you can help one region or market get ahead of the pack, why hold them back in favour of fairness and consistency?

BTiQ: When does it make sense to take a local, regional, or global approach to managing travel?

MW: There are cultural, structural, and commercial reasons why any approach might benefit an organisation in different ways. Travel spend can dictate how things are managed at a policy and TMC level but it’s not the only factor. If you don’t have dedicated employees managing travel, even as a small part of their role, centralising countries or regions into one programme can be beneficial. It’s just essential that someone owns it.

Technology can play a part as well. Smaller TMCs are struggling to keep pace with the investments in mobile, new distribution channels, and duty of care that you just don’t get out of the box without in-house development. Travellers and travel buyers often need more than that, which is easier for larger providers to offer. Networks are doing some interesting things in this space, leveraging not just spend with suppliers but also internal resources like apps, data, consulting services and research.

There are many industries though, where the service and experience employees require for booking and changing travel plans is right at the top of the list. Top executives in the Legal, Financial and Advertising sectors will not tolerate a sub-par experience for long. It’s definitely a balancing act to get it right over the long-term, but it is possible.

BTiQ: Do different approaches significantly impact travellers?

MW: Absolutely. It all comes down to what will achieve the best outcome for the company. This starts with how to get the best out of their people and the partners they work with. It’s important to remember that travellers want to do the right thing, but travel is not their job, it’s something they have to contend with in order to perform. It’s important to consider the challenges facing them and the people they work closely with when deciding how to manage travel.

To be able to measure the full end-to-end impact on your business is an area I expect to see real tangible improvements within the next 3 years, highlighting a true return on the travel investment. When travel managers can see project and employee returns alongside travel, expense and other spend, you’ll see some changes in how we manage travel.

BTiQ: Can travel policies be cut and paste into different markets?

MW: Some companies insist on everyone doing things the same in every market, for every business function, keeping things equal and simple. However this can lead to conflict if headquarters is seen as too heavy-handed and ignorant of local organisations. Others let each market do what’s best for them and try to pull it together through data and regular communication focused on company goals, rather than process and sticking to a rigid policy. Sometimes it’s important to take a step back and say, “Are we getting the best out of our people? Are we keeping them safe, happy and productive at an acceptable cost?”

BTiQ: Why is it important to get a good cultural fit across markets?

MW: Having a consistent culture across different markets would be great, but it needs to be the right culture for all, understanding how your own company culture differs across each region. When you have that, it’s easier to identify the right partner. Don’t just look for travel management companies, online booking tools and other partners that mirror your culture in only one location; this is a recipe for disaster when you later introduce them to your other locations, especially if you haven’t consulted them.

Travel is a service industry and encompasses much more than just efficiency, commercials and key performance indicators. You’ll never really be starting from scratch but when evaluating your travel programme for the future you need to identify your goals, define your strategy putting in the right tools, people and processes to meet your objectives.

BTiQ: What are some specific examples of how different cultures impact business travel?

MW: Culture varies massively from business to business, not just country to country. A good example of such is online adoption. In some regions like Asia you may get lower adoption because of cheaper labour costs, meaning the savings aren’t as significant.

Moreover in other markets adoption is lower because companies take a more relaxed view and don’t mandate as much. How companies reinforce behaviour across all areas of business varies wildly, so make sure your culture and policies are aligned at all times.

BTiQ: Who should be responsible for multinational programmes?

MW:  Travel needs to be owned and frequently sits within Finance, Procurement or HR which is great, but unless that person has a travel background it can help to have a travel partner who’s willing to share their skills and give you access to subject matter experts sharing knowledge, helping achieve your desired outcomes.

If you don’t have someone owning each market internally, ask your TMC to appoint a person who could fulfil that function. Across Travel and Transport, we have clients who have a mixture of in-house and outsourced travel managers. Balancing what’s best for each market with what’s best for the company isn’t easy but having a partner with a flexible mind-set gives you a wealth of options.

Regional players and networks are changing their methods, blending and sharing proprietary technology with agency partners to provide an agile approach in areas that the bigger TMCs can’t always focus on. Despite further consolidation in the market, I truly believe there are more options out there now for global travel buyers than ever, who previously would have just interacted with the big three or four TMCs.

BTiQ: When is it a good time to switch from a local or regional approach to a global one, or the other way round?

MW: Mergers and acquisitions usually trigger an evaluation of operating procedures and economies of scale whilst consolidating areas of the business. Sometimes this benefits travellers who get new tools and support, but usually it’s about the controlling company gaining greater visibility and influence, which should be handled sensitively. Having a supportive travel partner involved who understands these goals and values can help ease this transition.

We also see many companies evaluating how they can manage travel on an international scale when they grow rapidly, opening offices in new countries, with a core group of senior executives travelling until all of sudden, they have 200 people in the air every week.

When a company is growing this fast, travel management can be an afterthought, but a proactive agency will give the client options to help ease the growing pains. When you have countries doing small amounts of travel, but you know it’s going to grow, you might decide to take a hub approach, with those offices using your existing partner until it makes sense to add local travel teams, account managers and other support staff. If you’ve picked a flexible and responsive enough TMC, this is much easier.

BTiQ: When do local or international deals with suppliers work best?  What are the options?

MW: There are three real options here for any sizeable travel programme for negotiating with airlines; Utilise your TMC’s deals, negotiate directly with carriers on particular routes, or try to work with the airline alliances. I say “try” to work with the alliances because although you will get a single point of contact, it’s still the individual airlines pricing their deals 95% of the time.

Taking full advantage of your TMC’s deals should be the minimum you’re doing. If you have the travel spend to leverage your own deals, then this widens choice. Negotiate deals by route, then by market will benefit the whole company. You don’t want travellers missing out because their country wasn’t part of the deal as their office didn’t travel as much.

It’s important to remember that whoever negotiates the deal, it’s your company that owns those rates, and you can access them through any agency, you just need to give the airline permission to provide those fares through whichever channel you wish to use. A proactive TMC will assist in negotiations, or provide access to dedicated consultancy if the project is complex enough.

BTiQ: What would your top takeaways be for a travel buyer tasked with managing their programme across different markets?

MW: To summarise, I’d focus on the following:

  1. Establish internal understanding of your programme objectives, and communicate that regularly.
  2. Look at the bigger picture – how will any changes I make impact our company outside travel and outside my region?
  3. Think ahead – what used to work, and what works today, won’t necessarily work in the future.
  4. Evaluate from both a qualitative and quantitative point of view, numbers alone may hide the complete story.
  5. Culture is everything. If you want a strong marriage, pick a partner who shares your values.

Mervyn-Williamson-Statesman

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