Travel buying: tools of the trade

In a constantly changing environment, what does it take to be a successful travel buyer?

A couple of decades ago, the corporate travel manager’s role appeared to be pretty straightforward. Essentially, the task involved screwing the best possible deal out of suppliers and then telling employees that their expense claims might be rejected if they didn’t stick to the rules.

Barely acknowledged at board level, where the C-suite suits insisted on viewing business trips as a bottom-line cost rather than an investment, travel policies were often regarded with thinly-disguised contempt by the travellers themselves, and with suspicion by suppliers who didn’t seriously believe the trip volumes promised.

The word ‘mandating’ was bandied about on a regular basis, while those who failed to comply were branded ‘rogue’ travellers. ‘Senior management buy-in’ was the Holy Grail – invaluable, but desperately difficult to pin down. Black and white, right and wrong – happy days…

Front and centre role
How times change. According to the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA): “The economic downturn has allowed travel managers to take a front and centre role within their companies and has made travel management, as a profession, an important part of every top executive’s strategic planning.”

The boardroom bigwigs – well, many of them – have woken up to the ‘productivity versus price’ argument. ‘Lowest available fare’ has given way to ‘lowest appropriate fare’. Traveller feedback is sometimes sought, sometimes welcomed and sometimes acted upon. ‘Duty-of-care’ is the buzz-phrase du jour.

Tyranny has been replaced by touchy-feely. It‘s all gone a bit fluffy. Or has it? The GBTA says: “Travel management [today] is a specialised business function that balances employee needs with corporate goals, financial and otherwise. Travel management ensures cost tracking and control, facilitates adherence to corporate travel policies, realises savings through negotiated discounts, and serves as a valuable information centre for employees and managers in times when travel is not as smooth and carefree as it used to be.

“In many cases, travel managers have been asked to lead company-wide efforts to cut travel costs, track those savings and report them back to senior management.”

That’s quite a to-do list – while they’re at it, perhaps they could slay a few dragons, build an ark, and re-invent a wheel or two?

For the aspiring travel buyer, or an incumbent looking to further his or her career, there’s no shortage of advice. A quick trawl back through recent issues of Buying Business Travel and all sorts of handy hints emerge.

Ikea’s global sourcing lead Mikael Saari suggests: “You need to be a good seller, a change agent, to master project management and, last but not least, to be a good communicator.” Amanda Taylor, head of travel at Lush, says travel managers need to enjoy working with people, be organised and self-motivated and “have a willingness to learn and be adaptable”.

BBT’s Travel Buyer of the Year Award winner for 2017, Royal Mail’s Kevin Swindells, points out a key part of being a good communicator means listening. “Myself and the team take feedback from our travellers seriously,” he says. “And always make sure any feedback received is evaluated thoroughly, and any potential for improvements in the programme is addressed promptly.”

And teamwork is another important part of the job: “Having good ideas is one thing, but having a supportive team that can deliver solutions against those ideas is the most rewarding part of the role,” says Swindells.

An oft-quoted piece of invaluable advice is to have “a thick skin” – because changes will always meet with resistance.

Changing places
Tom Stone, founder and managing director of travel management consultancy Sirius, says: “If you look back 20 or 25 years ago, the travel manager’s function was maybe 80 per cent operational and 20 per cent strategic. Now that’s flipped completely. Travel management company account managers have got a lot better, and nowadays they do most of the operational stuff, leaving the travel manager to focus almost exclusively on strategy.

“I think that has mutated even further. For a long time, travel managers sat under, or alongside, procurement people and, again, that’s changed. Travel managers have developed core procurement skills – and those on the procurement side have become much better at ‘travel’. Travel managers today are working on the entire company travel programme, calling on procurement expertise only as and when they need it.”

Stone readily acknowledges that none of this is universally true – no two corporates are the same, and every travel programme and policy has its own nuances – but he suggests there is more change still to come. “Travel policies have become much more fluid, largely because the travellers themselves have access to much more information, and they know how to use it,” he says. “The overwhelming majority of travellers want to be good corporate citizens, and they are asking why they should spend more money than they need to.

“When I turn on my TV, I have immediate access to multiple channels, and to the programme schedules. I don’t have to consult the Radio Times and TV Times to find out what’s on, and I certainly don’t have to phone somebody to ask them to read the schedules to me – but that’s what ‘travel’ used to be like.”

Most of the better travel policies now have a ‘best buy’ element to them, in that if a traveller can find a less expensive or more cost-effective option – and, frequently, they can – there has to be a very good reason why they shouldn’t be allowed to take it.

That heralds another shift in the travel manager’s role. Having moved from an operational function to a strategic one, and acquired far greater procurement skills, the job entails a much higher degree of communications and social media expertise.

If the traveller can find an alternative travel option, the travel manager needs to know where he or she found it and, if there is still a reason not to allow it, that reason has to be communicated to the traveller, the budget-holder and, ultimately, the boardroom. “Travel management today is focused on ‘smarter’ travel, and even travel avoidance,” says Stone.

Supply side shifts
On the supply side, hospitality industry consultant Simon Scarborough, founder of Simon Scarborough Associates, whose career spans senior roles with Thistle Hotels and Peel Hotels among others, says: “There is no question the corporate travel manager’s role has changed beyond all recognition, largely because the hospitality landscape has changed beyond all recognition as well.

“Even just a couple of decades ago, while negotiations were inevitably centred on price, consistency of product was vital. Hotel brands that could offer the same rooms, with the same furnishings, the same menus, the same service levels, regardless of destination, were on to a winner. Corporate deals were almost exclusively volume-driven, and nobody paid much attention to travellers’ preferences – they did what they were told, and they were told to be grateful for it.

“The real revolution came with the advent of boutique hotels, which tore up the cookie-cutter rule-book and focused on quirky individuality. At the same time, the dramatic rise in the use of personal computers to access the internet gave those travellers a glimpse of what they were missing and, unsurprisingly, they began to go off-piste.”

There are a number of other strands to the story, says Scarborough – 2008’s financial meltdown and the introduction of more stringent duty-of-care legislation key among them. “Corporate travel managers needed to keep costs under control, and to do that they needed to bring travellers back into line,” he says.

“Since the travellers wouldn’t change, that ‘line’ had to. More recently still, there has been a growing recognition among corporate employers that ‘productivity’ matters at least as much as, if not more than, ‘price’. A happy traveller works better – and more profitably – than a disgruntled one. If it costs a little more to keep that traveller happy, in most cases that’s a price worth paying.”

And these changes are reflected in the hospitality sector itself, he says, with multiplying ‘lifestyle’ brands, the growth of the boutique sector, and growing corporate use of serviced apartments – none of this makes the travel manager’s life easier.

He says a combination of these factors has made the travel manager’s job more complex and challenging. “That said, complexity and challenge bring their own rewards. A tough task well done is much more satisfying than a straightforward job that you just sail through.”

Undervalued skills
It gets more complicated still. One travel manager says that when she left her previous role to move to a new position, her old job was advertised as requiring “technology skills” as a high priority.

“Employers are demanding more and more of employees on the road,” she says, “so they barely have time to make phone calls – unless something goes wrong – let alone have face-to-face conversations or attend briefing sessions. Everything has to be done via email, intranet and even social media. It’s all ‘in the moment’. Travellers who need information need it now, so constant contact is a pre-requisite.”

The GBTA has a word of warning. “Travel management is still misunderstood and undervalued by some corporations today. Therefore, the role of business travel within the corporate structure must be placed in proper context so that its value can be measured and appreciated.”

Then again, that was a month ago. It’s probably changed since then…

In their own words…
All too often gagged by risk-averse corporate communications, travel buyers often politely decline to comment. “What makes a good travel manager?” proves to be a rather touchy subject. “What if my boss sees it and decides I’m not good enough?” asks one individual in the utilities sector. “It would be like writing my own resignation letter.”

However, anonymously they are more forthcoming. One university travel buyer says: “There is no one job description, because it’s not one job – you have to be able to juggle a whole lot of things, every day. I’d say ‘communication skills’ would have to be top of the list.”

Indeed, “communications” are the most frequently referenced attribute, along with “dealing with people” (which is much the same thing) and “strategic thinking”.

One energy sector buyer says you need to be aware of the gaps in your knowledge whether your experience is in the procurement or travel managing disciplines. He says while procurement professionals have a lot to learn about how travel is a complex and nuanced category, likewise travel managers need to learn best practice procurement skills to build valuable relationships with suppliers. 

A travel buyer in the engineering sector adds: “You have to be an effective facilitator in many areas of the role. For example, creating a travel policy means bringing together your TMC with key stakeholders such as HR, finance, health & safety, IT, facility management, etc.”

Another source says simply: “There was a travel buyer job going earlier this year which went to an IT specialist. Travel technology – particularly mobile – is where we’re all going.”

Top answer, as they say on TV’s Family Fortunes, comes from a contact in the banking business. “What makes a good travel manager?” “Me. What more do you want?”

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