Travel bookers: Executive decisions

There are pitfalls to asking staff to book travel as an additional duty

Thirty years ago booking business travel looked very different. Airline tickets were impenetrably complex, often handwritten by specialist travel agents on fiddly carbon paper. Check-in could only be done at the airport desk, piles of paper in hand. Then came finding a hotel room via expensive international calls and far too many faxes. For companies where staff made regular trips invariably the job of making bookings was limited to either external agents, or in-house specialists whose sole job was to make bookings on behalf of colleagues.

With the advent of the internet, though, that all changed. The digital age brought with it price comparison sites, online booking and check-in, along with the ability to scroll through a list of hotels for free. The impact of this on the cost and ease of booking business trips has been huge. Hours to book a flight have become minutes, piles of paperwork reduced to an e-ticket tucked safely away in a digital wallet.

As a result, the approach to travel booking is far more varied. Some companies still opt to keep the job of travel booking limited to internal specialist teams. That’s the case at Lush Cosmetics where all booking requests are emailed directly to a central inbox staffed by a team whose sole job is booking travel on behalf of others, explains head of travel Amanda Taylor. “We work directly across the business in all areas; working with founders, directors and retail staff, manufacturing teams and digital staff to name a few.”

The approach has led to “few issues when it comes to booking problems”, she adds. “We have the full support of staff to either work on their behalf or get them involved in the process as and when required as the passport holder – particularly for passport renewals and visas.”

In other companies though, the job of travel booking individual trips is no longer limited to specialists alone. “Naturally, if everything is online and bookable for the leisure market on Skyscanner or then it makes sense for travellers to make their own booking when it comes to business travel,” says Michael McSperrin, global head of facilities and support services at Alexander Mann Solutions (AMS). “They will know best what is a convenient time, airport or hotel, and so we predominantly encourage people to book online directly [via Egencia] themselves. When you have a traveller booking their own travel I find they’re more bought into the whole journey.”

Not everyone in an organisation will have the time or capacity to sit down and find the best airfare though. What does AMS recommend for those employees? “We as a business ask ourselves: Is it a valuable, cost-effective use of their time to be checking flight options and planning an itinerary?” adds McSperrin. “This is especially relevant when individuals at a senior level are those more likely to be travelling intercontinental on transatlantic flights which can be more complex.”

In-house staff
At AMS, and many other companies, there is a new layer of travel bookers organising trips on behalf of others, but for whom it’s a job juggled along with many others. Often it’s a role that falls to personal assistants and executive assistants, working on behalf of senior members of staff.

It can be a “time-consuming” part of the job, says Helen Gower, global executive assistant at legal services firm Jordans. She is tasked with booking travel for all 150 staff in the company’s Bristol office. But it can be difficult, particularly when “the traveller isn’t sure what they want, or don’t give me the full information from the off”.

It’s an approach that does have clear benefits though, over and above outsourcing all bookings. “They have the relationship with their boss or travellers, and they also know the destinations and where people need to travel to,” points out Judith Heinrich, managing director at independent business travel consultants Travelocity.

But it also brings with it challenges for travel managers and buyers. After all, busy PAs and EAs have a long list of responsibilities, which does not necessarily include booking travel along with the process of finding the cheapest flight, negotiating refunds or reissues, and liaising with travellers when journeys go wrong. It can be “very complex”, Heinrich says.

“They’re given access to the online booking tool but they don’t understand the travel policy,” she adds. “Some personal assistants are very good, but for the majority their job is being a PA and not a travel agent.”

“This is exactly the issue,” agrees Rebecca Deadman, commercial director at Blue Cube Travel. “Travel may seem straightforward, but there are many potential pitfalls. [For instance] bookers with limited personal travel experience can be drawn to a low fare, business class seat on a low-cost carrier and believe they are doing the company a good turn. However, if the booker has never experienced a flight in a premium cabin, they would not know the difference between the level of service on low-cost versus a legacy carrier. We have heard of cases where PAs have been fired for making such a mistake.”

Inexperience can often lead to leakage, says Simone Buckley, chief executive of Fello, as travel bookers go off grid, failing to book through centralised booking systems put in place. “That causes two lots of problems. One, data of what’s being spent on hotels, for example, isn’t all in one place, and it also means if it’s booked out of channels there’s no record of where they’re staying.”

Security concerns 
In other words, if something goes wrong it can throw up serious security concerns. Particularly where the lines of responsibility or duty-of-care between the travel booker, travel manager and TMC get blurry. “You know those travellers are in that part of the world but you don’t know specifically where they are because it wasn’t booked through us,” adds Buckley. “The travel manager is often held responsible for that.” The critical importance of keeping tabs on business travellers was brought very close to home for Buckley recently when a business traveller they’d worked with regularly was caught up and killed in the Nairobi attack on a hotel and office. “It was devastating. Every incident flags up something you just didn’t think of and, unfortunately, it’s happening more and more frequently.”

Booking outside of policy can also arise from PAs or EAs carrying out requests from senior staff, be it for a first class seat or a later flight home to combine a business trip with a holiday. “A PA under pressure from their boss won’t be strong enough to say something shouldn’t be booked outside of policy,” says Heinrich. “The traveller isn’t interested as they’re not paying for it, the company is, and so the PA will do what their boss tells them.”

Understandable perhaps, but problematic for travel managers. So, what are some of the solutions available to smooth out the process? The first and probably most important remedy is to provide proper training on the contents of a company travel policy, and also the reasons why it needs to be followed.

For example, at AMS, anyone given permission to book on behalf of others (a permission which is reviewed annually) undergoes webinar training. Meanwhile, at Lush, Taylor says the travel team “work directly with the stakeholders and their teams by regular pop-up travel sessions in key office locations”.

From a TMC perspective, Blue Cube developed an eight-module training course for clients’ travel bookers, including PAs and EAs, “detailing the insights and nuances of booking travel”, says Deadman.

Ensuring proper training is in place helps PAs carry out travel booking, and also resist attempts by others in the team to plan routes outside of policy. “All staff are aware of the travel and expenses policy,” says Gower. That means “if someone was asking me to book something that was over and above their entitlement, I would ask them to provide email approval from their manager, and the department that was paying for the travel, with a reason as to why this was being allowed.”

The second element is support. At AMS, McSperrin opts for a “shared workload model” where – in addition to PAs – there is a remote back-office team that “have become our internal experts on travel”. The team books trips for the “layer of senior management immediately below the executive team” who might not have assistants themselves (alongside other administrative tasks) and acts as a source of internal expertise for others in the business. More recently, the company has created a chatbot called TRAVIS that helps to resolve frequently asked questions, while reducing the burden on the team.

Having internal expertise for travel bookers in one form or another is vital, believes Heinrich. “Every company should have one ‘champion’ where all PAs and EAs can go to with travel-related questions. As soon as they’ve got a problem that champion can take responsibility for the queries people have.”

Technological solutions
Finally, travel managers need to ensure that any centralised booking systems help to keep bookers within policy. “OBTs can ensure that company policy is followed to the letter and where a company policy is not hard-mandated, the visual guilt factor can often lead to increased savings,” says James Stevenson, vice-president and general manager UK at American Express Global Business Travel.

OBTs pre-populated with the parameters of a company travel policy can really help, adds Fello’s Buckley. “It’s not just a case of the ‘computer says no’ but if someone books outside of policy it will provide an alternative option and explain why they should take that. It will also ask you to add hotel to an air booking or if not adding a hotel it will ask why, and then that notification goes to a travel manager. A few days before the trip they’ll be prompted to book a hotel or at least advise us as to which hotel booking has been made so we can track it in the system.”

In this way the same technology and digitisation that created the challenges around business travel booking is also doing its bit to help provide solutions, too.

Independent view: Michelle Taft, managing director at Aspensia, on how TMCs can help
“With travel being so easy to purchase online, often bookers will do their own research outside of the approved booking channels.

“To minimise this, ensure your TMC is providing you with a wide range of competitive content and educate bookers and travellers on the value and importance of booking through the TMC – they need to understand what’s in it for them.

“Bookers are usually juggling travel booking with a whole host of other responsibilities and therefore expect prompt and efficient service from their TMCs.

“Giving stakeholders a voice throughout the decision-making process will help get their buy-in to support the contract [with a TMC]. Once the contract goes live, good communication is essential, both in terms of educating bookers and travellers, but also being open to feedback.”

Three tips for travel bookers
1 Develop your own tool for gathering all the necessary information on each travel booking. That can be as simple as a piece of paper for travellers to fill out. For example, “I devised a form for staff to submit when requesting rail tickets so I know I have all the information I need before processing,” says Helen Gower, global executive assistant at Jordans.

2 Check all documentation required is valid and in date. “Make sure the executive’s passport is valid and not about to expire,” says Josh Wertheimer, executive assistant at Clarity Capital. “Certain countries also require vaccination forms and visas, and don’t forget travel insurance.”

3 Use the archives. Look at similar journeys booked within the company to see what insights can be gleaned from PAs or EAs who have planned the same type of trip. “They may have already done much of the fact-finding labour for you, and they may have made blunders you will want to avoid,” says Wertheimer.

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