How to be on the winning side by keeping your travel programme aligned with corporate strategy
Change is a fact of life and this is just as true for an organisation’s strategy as any other facet of business. The trick is being able to manage whatever change comes your way. An extreme example of how things can change suddenly occurred in the oil and gas industry when the oil price fell sharply two years ago leading to a rapid reassessment of all types of corporate spending, including travel costs. The impact this had on travel management within the energy sector was discussed in a feature in the November/December 2017 issue of BBT.
While most sectors, thankfully, don’t have to endure such volatile situations, how do buyers ensure that both their travel policy and programme are in step with their organisation’s corporate priorities – and continue to stay that way when these goals shift or change completely?
Who are the key stakeholders that travel buyers need to engage with in this process? Also, what happens when a company goes on an acquisition spree that creates a period of transformation for the travel department? And finally, can buyers show their worth to their organisation by successfully keeping in lock-step with the overall corporate strategy?
If you look at recent surveys of CEOs – such as the 2017-2018 study by Gartner – their main priorities continue to be business growth followed by product improvement and technology, with cost control lagging well behind towards the bottom of the Top Ten list.
Culture and comms
So, when it comes to travel buyers making sure what they are doing is aligned to help achieve these wider corporate goals, current and former travel buyers have two words to say about this important subject: culture and communications.
Yves Galimidi, veteran former travel buyer and now owner of YG Business Travel, Meetings & Mobility Solutions, says: “Corporations absolutely need to have a very strong corporate culture and strong corporate values. Communication is key – CEOs should communicate with their co-workers/travellers at least on a yearly basis and inform them about the company goals, strategies or pillars. These include financial goals, of course, but also goals related to life-balance and sustainability.”
So aligning a travel policy is not simply about financial targets and keeping a tight control on costs. There are inevitably other issues, such as ensuring duty-of-care to travellers, as well as sustainability policies that often revolve around cutting company-wide carbon emissions – a tricky balancing act when overall travel may be increasing at the same time.
Louise Kilgannon, an associate at consultancy Festive Road and former buyer for pharma giant Astrazeneca, advises: “Take a structured approach – by ensuring that your programme aligns with company goals, you will do a much better job of internal selling as you will be ‘speaking the right language’.
“Look at your overall company goals, how this feeds down into procurement – or the department in which travel sits – and then think about how travel contributes to those goals. For example, if one of those goals is to improve employee satisfaction and retention, does your programme align with this?”
Understanding the goals of other ‘stakeholders’ within an organisation is key for Beth Sarmiento, travel and HR compliance manager at payment technology provider TSYS. “You have to talk to other key stakeholders, such as finance, HR and even IT, so you can understand their priorities and make sure it’s all aligned,” she says. “For us, I work with finance very closely so that the whole of travel and expense is totally aligned from a corporate point of view.”
She adds: “Travellers are stakeholders, too, and it has to work for them. You have to understand what the business is expecting of their employees.
“It’s best to communicate with all of the business units, travellers and cost control managers because they will all have different views. I am part of the HR business unit so, as a travel manager, I fully understand the policies that make the business tick.”
Kilgannon agrees that the most important factor is to understand the views of other key stakeholders within an organisation. She adds: “This doesn’t need to be the company CEO – although if you can get five minutes of her/his time, well done – but think about the departments affected by travel.
“Identify executive sponsors, who work closely with the C-Level team and can advocate on your behalf. Then look across the business at the departments you work with. This will help you demonstrate that you have looked outside of your own area to see how travel affects and is influenced by other groups.”
Getting buy-in from top executives is also vital to having a travel policy and programme that can be updated and adjusted quickly and smoothly to recognise any changes in overall corporate strategy – whether it be a loosening on the travel budget’s purse strings to fuel business growth or an increased focus on issues such as corporate social responsibility (CSR).
“Make sure that all co-workers/travellers acquire a need to contribute by adopting the right business travel and meeting behaviour,” says Galimidi. “Leading by example is very important – senior leadership needs to behave in order to get respect and achieve compliance.”
This can be one of the trickiest situations for buyers – particularly if senior managers are not following the policy that has been set down – but all the other employees are expected to comply with it.
“It can be difficult when the top layer of management is not following their own policy,” comments one Europe-based buyer. “For all the talk of millennials booking out of policy, it’s often the C-suite people who are the worst offenders when it comes to doing their own thing.”
Mergers & acquisitions
One of the more challenging situations for travel buyers is when their organisation is growing through mergers and acquisitions, which means that suddenly there can be a multitude of different travel policies, programmes and suppliers for a buyer to try to consolidate.
“Just because your company has taken over another firm, that doesn’t mean you should just impose your policy and programme on the new acquisition and their travellers,” says another travel buyer who’s experienced the takeover scenario. “You need to understand their policy and programme, and how it works for them in terms of the suppliers they use and their overall travel patterns.
“These things can take time, but it’s always worth talking to people before making any firm decisions – if you act in haste without proper consultation, you could cause some issues down the road with a programme that’s not working across the whole expanded business.”
So how do buyers prepare for such circumstances? Kilgannon says it’s crucial to stay “agile” because “change will come” at some point. She adds: “Develop a rigorous way of prioritising projects and be quick to reassess if criteria changes. Most travel programmes are a balance of employee satisfaction, safety and savings. At any point, the focus can change from one to another so look at how you can plan for future scenarios.”
Galimidi suggests creating a “travel process council” that can meet every three months – either in person or as a ‘virtual’ meeting – to manage any changes that need to be made to travel policies and programmes during mergers, acquisitions and other major developments within an organisation.
“All main stakeholders will be represented – travel management, procurement, HR, IT, CSR, finance, corporate finance and communications. The council will be very helpful to share respective business plans and relevant information,” he says. “Buyers will also be able to use the council as a buy-in or green-light step for all projects and make sure that financials and resources will always be there.”
While it may be tempting to concentrate mainly on senior management when trying to ensure the travel department is ‘singing from the same hymn book’ as the rest of the organisation, there also needs to be a focus on communicating with the travellers individually so they can also ‘buy in’ to the overall corporate strategy.
Making sure travellers are continually up to date with what’s going on is a key part of Sarmiento’s management strategy at TSYS. She explains: “It’s important to talk to travellers so you have an ongoing conversation with them. Having a discussion helps them to understand why we make changes and it doesn’t just come out of the blue. The conversation gives them some justification for these decisions.”
This range of communication includes internal email updates, drop-in sessions for travellers, and even a ‘mini-expo’ where employees can meet some of the company’s main travel suppliers.
“This helps people to know that travel is a managed business area – it’s not just something people book,” adds Sarmiento. “They know that somebody is looking at it and looking after them. It’s not a forgotten element in the business. Out-of-policy bookings are managed – travellers are approached if they booked out of policy to find out why. Often there are good reasons why they do this and we want to understand that.”
Galimidi believes that the best way to ensure that travellers follow policy is to make it mandatory for them while illustrating the benefits of booking in-policy, such as receiving extra ‘value contribution’ services from suppliers that make their journeys easier, make them more productive or save them time.
He adds: “We all know this is a very challenging process sometimes. In my opinion, a travel policy must always be mandatory. Buyers and travel managers should identify ways to increase, as much as possible, their traveller satisfaction levels.”
Boosting your profile
At any time of strategic corporate change, there come great opportunities for the travel buyer to show their true value to their employer and come out of the shadows of more prominent corporate departments, by successfully managing these transitional periods.
“This is how you move from being your company’s designated ‘travel person’ to being a leader within your organisation,” says Festive Road’s Kilgannon. “Often travel managers complain that important decisions were made without their input. If you align with company goals, have a strong executive sponsor and have a structured programme of stakeholder engagement, this should not happen.”
With the rapid adoption of more automated travel booking and reconciliation processes, it’s possible that an increasingly strategic role may be taken by travel buyers in the future.
Travelport vice-president and regional managing director Simon Ferguson says buyers need to move away from “just being procurement-focused to having a more strategic focus”. This could allow them to “actively engage” with travellers to stay on budget and enhance the standing of their travel programme.
“You need to focus on designing experiences,” he says. “If you are just concentrating on compliance and procurement then your role could end up being done by a robot.
“We need to help the role of the travel manager to evolve – the travel team needs to be talked about in terms of being marketeers. Don’t think of yourselves as being in procurement; think about becoming marketeers.”
Ferguson says the important questions travel buyers need to ask are: “Can we move from just processing bookings, can we move to becoming mobility advisors and consultants? Can we help design fulfilling trip experiences and move up from concierge services into workplace and leisure planning?”
Change is always on the way – whether it’s a shift in corporate goals or the introduction of new technology – those buyers who can create a flexible and robust approach to planning and communications will be best placed to illustrate their value to their organisations when it comes.
Top tips for aligning travel policy with your organisation’s overall strategic goals:
• Establish regular lines of communication with major departments and cost centres within the organisation including finance, IT, human resources and communications.
• Try to identify and cultivate an ‘executive sponsor’ who can report the travel buyer’s opinions and concerns to the senior management when strategy is evolving.
• Engage travellers with regular internal communications including email updates as well as holding occasional drop-in sessions where they can share concerns or issues about travel policy or suppliers.
• Creating a conversation or ongoing dialogue between the travel department and travellers can help drive up compliance and ease the process of change when necessary.
• Travel creates a huge amount of rich data that can be used to showcase the impact of changes in company direction – this can be a powerful tool to make a buyer’s case for resources to senior management.
• Data can also be used to show travellers why travel policy has been changed – it may not placate them completely if you have to make an unpopular change, but it can illustrate through hard facts why the organisation is making the move.
• Categorise your travellers based on how often they are on the road – communicate more regularly with your most frequent travellers as securing their ‘buy in’ is vital during times of corporate change.
• Use the opportunity of change to show that a travel buyer can become a ‘leader’ within the company.