GETTING APPROVAL FOR A TRIP BEFORE IT HAPPENS is becoming more prevalent, as corporates continue to focus on cost control. It is also increasingly being used as a means of ensuring companies can meet duty-of-care requirements when travellers are going to risky destinations.
As a result, many larger companies have moved away from post-trip approval – essentially using the expense claim process to decide whether a trip was a legitimate use of corporate funds. The difficulty in enforcing non-approved claims also means that upfront approval is often more palatable.
Improvements in technology, particularly mobile, mean that the tools associated with pre-trip approval are becoming quicker to use and easier to manage.
CAROL RANDALL, founder and managing director, Sage Travel Consulting
“I THINK THERE IS A REAL RESURGENCE IN INTEREST FOR PRE-TRIP APPROVAL,” says Carol Randall. “There was a trend for passive approval, based on a ‘trust-me’ culture, but all the clients I talk to now are putting in a more formal pre-trip process.”
So, which tool should you choose?
“There is a range of different products on the market but you need to have one that is integrated into the booking process. They have come along in leaps and bounds in recent years. Now you can put approval directly into the booking process and, if the trip is not being approved, the traveller has to change their behaviour.”
The increase in instant ticketing, linked to the rise of the low-cost carriers, can limit the value of pre-trip approval. “Most companies take the view that if they book a low-cost carrier it’s okay, because they are looking at a lower-cost option anyway.”
Implementing an approval process should have a clear link to compliance, believes Randall. “I put in an approval process for a client in Switzerland with some specific lowest logical fare rules. They went from mid-50 per cent compliance to 87 per cent within three months and are achieving 14 per cent overall savings in their travel budget.”
She adds: “To me, best practice is to have approval only required for non-compliant trips. That is how to use a tool to its best effect.”
Approval is not just about cost, although it remains important. “Following incidents like the recent Paris and Brussels terrorist attacks, you also have pre-trip approval for security reasons. For companies sending their people to a destination where there are risk issues, they have a responsibility for that.”
BEN VAREY, global category manager – travel and fleet, SGS
“PRE-TRIP APPROVAL IS THE NORM AT LARGER COMPANIES NOW,” says Ben Varey. “All the companies that I have worked for have had active, rather than passive approval. This means that every trip must get the nod from an approver, rather than a stream of potential trips passing them by and only the ones that stand out, rather like mis-shapen biscuits on a production line, being grabbed for rejection.”
Varey says that rather than being seen as a way of slowing things down, active approval is actually very efficient. “Before I have put a trip through the system, I have either discussed it on the phone or in an email with my boss. I would rarely just put a trip through and surprise him.” As a result, approval is most often just a formality. “What I inherited was a combination of different approval systems, including some amazing databases people had built themselves that were so sophisticated we could have sold them to others.”
SGS moved to its current streamlined system of pre-trip approval when it changed travel management company (TMC). Egencia now handles the pre-trip approval process, both on- and offline. “There was a little resistance to the change but the booking tool we implemented was so much better and more efficient that people were very happy.”
The switch to Egencia saw a “very swift move” to high online adoption, he says. “That has recently helped the approval process.”
Approval is handled by email on the desktop or, increasingly, on mobile devices.
“The person approving varies by business and country,” says Varey. “We have a global framework policy which gives certain criteria about who needs to do what. Businesses and countries can be more, but not less stringent than that. In some companies it would be the managing director doing the approvals; in others it would be the line manager.
“People are good at delegating so they don’t get caught in permanent approval loops and increasingly, with the ability to approve on mobile, people are approving trips on their holidays. It may not be right but it’s part of the modern world. The current system works infinitely more smoothly than the historical systems.”
Varey says approvers and travellers are educated on the need to approve quickly. “We do make people aware that delay could cause problems and increase costs.”
A key point is to make sure you have someone who is a site administrator, says Varey. “Online systems need to be well managed by an administrator to make them operate efficiently.”
CHRISTOPHE TCHENG, vice-president, core products and platform architecture, American Express GBT
AMERICAN EXPRESS GBT LAUNCHED A NEW PRE-TIP TOOL, EXPERT APPROVAL (EA) LAST SUMMER. Christophe Tcheng says the product came out of an expressed desire from travel buyers to have a single approval tool that would work with different online booking tools around the world. EA has been integrated with Concur and Get There already and, following the TMC’s acquisition of KDS, it will be integrated with that too.
“EA was developed to help travel managers change the behaviour of their travellers,” says Tcheng. “One of the things we have built into EA is cost-efficient channel shifting. In the product we have business rules that dictate how the traveller should book. If they get approval to book, the travel manager can configure how the booking is to be done, depending on origin, destination, traveller status or length of trip.”
EA also provides estimated costs for a trip as part of the approval process, using a real-time fare scan. “It is not completely accurate but the ballpark is going to be right,” says Tcheng.
The tool can also be configured to define budgets at a unit or division level, where the line manager sees the budget going down as each trip is approved. “The idea is to have cost cutting, but even more effective is everyone in the company knows about their travel budget and can approve knowing how much is left,” he says.
Tcheng emphasises that safety and security is a vital part of pre-trip approval. “Duty-of-care is moving to the top of the agenda. We integrate risk intelligence in EA so if you want to go to a dangerous country, we will display risk levels. You can design specific approval rules for these countries and the company’s security officer can engage with the traveller, providing additional advice and support around the trip.”