Koch talks to BBT editor Paul Revel about the need to think strategically in times of change and the importance of traveller centricity
As is the way these days when a Brit talks to an American, the first thing I ask about is Donald Trump’s administration. The “unacceptable” travel ban aside, ACTE executive director Greeley Koch can see some grounds for cautious optimism.
“We’ve heard some positive things, like the talk about an infrastructure spending bill, which hopefully could help the airport situation in the US,” he says. “Clearly infrastructure investment is important. Air traffic control and rail also need investment.”
Plus, he says: “You’d hope a Trump administration understands this industry given that he owns hotels – he’s in the business. So you’d think he would get it, and be supportive.”
Travel policy appeal
ACTE has made much of ‘traveller centricity’ in its recent education programmes. Why is it so important?
“We’re saying that you have to focus on the traveller for several reasons: it’s a retention, motivation and recruitment issue today,” says Greeley.
ACTE members are seeing employees and candidates citing the travel programme as a “deciding factor” on joining or staying with a company, he says. “We’re hearing more and more about recruits wanting to see the travel policy before they join the company.”
While for some members savings are top priority, Greeley gives the example of one buyer member, based within the HR team, whose performance – and bonus – is “all based on employee satisfaction with the travel programme – we’re seeing more of this trend,” he says.
“Also, recent research shows travellers asking more about work-life balance, people don’t want to travel as much as they used to. Travel is tough.”
A crucial area for buyers has long been policy compliance – does a traveller-centric approach help with compliance? Yes, is the short answer. “There’s the old command and control way of doing it,” says Greeley.
“But now we’re seeing that successful travel programmes are those that engage with the travellers, find out what is and isn’t working, and adjust the programme accordingly. Those folks get better buy-in from their travellers. When I talk to those buyers they’re pleased with their adoption levels – and the savings.”
Another bone of contention for travel buyers is being driven by ‘personalisation’ – it makes the process better for the travellers, when the systems they use know their needs and preferences. But buyers and their TMCs bridle at suppliers who want to own the relationship with their travellers.
Greeley says maintaining both B2B and B2C strategies are a “fine line” that suppliers struggle with, but he also cites suppliers’ frustration when deals are made and then buyers don’t deliver the volumes.
“This is where the buyers should look at it and say: ‘if I need to help my cause, and I want the best deals. I need to ensure, when I negotiate them, that I’m supporting them internally and I’m really focused on compliance – which then comes back to traveller engagement and centricity.
“We’ve seen very successful communications and engagement programmes where they’re telling travellers about the benefits of using suppliers through the corporate programme. And that’s why it’s incumbent on buyers to make sure they’re negotiating the best deals possible, with the best benefits and perks for their travellers – at the end of day that will help drive adoption.
“It is the three-legged stool: buyers, suppliers and travellers all working together, open communication, open dialogue about the agreement and benefits available to travellers. If you do that you’ll have a very successful travel programme.”
Adding to a distinguished CV that includes global travel buyer for Bank of America and senior roles in a TMC, travel tech firm and consultancy, Greeley was appointed as executive director of ACTE in 2013. So what has changed in the four years since he took up this role? Technology is the most significant and exciting driver of change, he says, with new entrants into the market and established companies investing in startups.
He cites a range of developments, from virtual keyless hotel check-ins and voice recognition bots to ‘block-chain’ technology and bitcoin payments.
“The buyers that succeed are those buyers that aren’t afraid of change,” he says, and ACTE’s New York conference in April will introduce the ‘travel programme CEO’ concept, he says. “You need to elevate yourself from being travel manager to being the travel programme CEO. You need to be thinking strategically, you need to be tied in and have a seat at the table with senior leaders and all departments.”
“You really need to be engaged. With all this constant disruption and change, success means you need to be telling the story within your company.”