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Travel buyer Q&A: Paul Keery

BBT talks to independent consultant Paul Keery, a travel buyer and manager for a range of client companies

Was travel management always your goal, or did you have other ambitions?

I wanted to pursue a career in sport but a serious knee injury at the age of 15 put paid to that. Following my ‘O’ Levels, I read a paperback on careers in the school library and, being competent at geography, I applied for the position of junior travel clerk with both American Express and Thomas Cook. The American Express Mount Street travel agency in Mayfair offered me a job at my first interview. Later on in my career – 23 years later! – I was to go back to be manager of the agency, where I built up the business travel side.

What advice would you give to someone new to the sector, and what are their biggest challenges?

Their first challenge is that this sector can be complicated and confusing, with so many industry acronyms, cities and airports with three-letter codes, airlines using different booking classes, hotel companies continually launching new brands, and so on. Get to know your organisation’s travel management company [TMC], especially if you have an account manager. Don’t be afraid to ask questions – they are paid to give you expert advice.

To learn about our industry, become a member of an industry body, such as the Institute of Travel and Meetings [ITM] or the Association of Corporate Travel Executives [ACTE]. Attend the annual corporate travel shows with an agenda pertinent to your needs. Subscribe to the various on- and off-line industry magazines and websites.

So how important is it to join one of these professional associations?

Industry-specific peer groups can be a help: no-one is going to divulge information on deals, but it is good to discuss common problems. The likes of ITM and ACTE offer a vast of amount of learning material vital in the ever-changing world of corporate travel.

Do suppliers appreciate the value that intermediaries such as yourself and TMCs can offer? And how do you view the current ‘direct-sell’ trend, with suppliers targeting the travellers?

I find that suppliers do appreciate an independent consultant who has worked on ‘both sides of the fence’. You understand where they are coming from and you can explain what seems to be complex issues to your customers.

With regards to direct-sell, I would always use a TMC, as my clients value security and the importance of accurate, timely management information [MI] which assists in supplier negotiations.

In your experience, do end-user travellers understand and appreciate the role of the travel manager? Is policy compliance still an issue – and if so, how is this best addressed?

Most of my customers have mandated travel policies. The key is to communicate effectively the travel – and expense – policy to avoid misunderstanding. This can be achieved by new joiners attending induction days, an effective company intranet and regular in-house travel clinics.

Cost-control is always a key element of the travel manager’s function. But to what extent does traveller satisfaction influence policy-making decisions?

It is a fine balancing act. Negotiating with a select band of preferred suppliers is key.

Spreading your budget over too many suppliers will not lead to the keenest prices.

Listen to your travellers and interrogate your MI from all your sources, be it TMC, supplier or payment card. Remember, the cheapest hotel is not necessarily the most cost-effective if it is situated on the wrong side of town and you have to take expensive taxis – look at the total trip cost.

In light of recent events, traveller safety and security has shot up the corporate agenda – what do you consider constitutes best practice in this area?

Security is top of my list. Every company has a duty-of-care to their travellers – not just for far-flung destinations; Europe is increasingly becoming a focus for risk. For one of my clients, the approval process is automatically copied in to the security department, so they are alerted to offer advice relevant to the destination. Another aspect to bear in mind is that travellers also have a duty-of-care to their employer to behave responsibly.

You are heavily involved in the mining and extraction industries – in travel terms, what are the sector-specific challenges?

Commodity prices have recently plummeted. This has had an effect on how my clients buy travel. With a high percentage of multi-sector, long-haul travel they have had to take a long hard look at their travel policies. Class of travel has not been affected but there has been a reduction in the number of people travelling.

You’re off to Bordeaux for the weekend – when the work is done, how do you most like to relax?

Watching films and rugby union – I gave up playing at 54! – and travelling, although I am a bit set in my ways with annual visits to Barbados and the Greek island of Ios.

Paul Keery Associates is an independent corporate travel consultancy, advising clients in the mining and packaging sectors on supplier negotiations, policy compliance and TMC relationships. ITM member Keery is also a hotel inspector for a luxury chain and sits on an airline corporate advisory board.

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