Mystery Buyer: Toeing the line

Many younger business travellers ignore corporate travel policies, but travel buyers have a duty to enforce the rules

Where will it all end? I’ve just read the results of a new survey that suggests that almost one-third of so-called ‘generation X’ travellers (born between early 1960s and early 1980s) say they don’t have to follow a corporate travel policy. Among younger ‘millennials’, just short of 28 per cent claim they either have no rules to follow or, if they do, they just ignore them.

These survey results were published just before a group of gunmen attacked the Hotel Intercontinental in Kabul, capital of Afghanistan, killing more than 20 people and wounding many more.

It should be stressed that the hotel is not part of Intercontinental Hotels Group, but it is said to be one of just two top-class hotels in Kabul. The hotel was also attacked in 2011, when 11 people – plus seven Taliban ‘fighters’ – lost their lives. If you seriously needed any more evidence of the need for a corporate travel policy, surely that’s it.

Travellers must comply
As a travel buyer/manager, I fully appreciate that I – and my company – has a duty-of-care to our travellers. What I can’t get to grips with is this idea that our travellers can pick and choose where they stay, who they fly with, which taxis they flag down, and so on.

My job, or at least part of it, is to know what they can and can’t do, and to make sure that they do as they are told – whatever they may think.

I’m not against choice. We all have travellers who regularly go to destinations with which we are only vaguely, if at all, familiar. They’re at the coalface, not me, and if hotel X is preferable to hotel Y, I’ll check it out. If it fulfils my policy’s criteria, all well and good. If it’s been attacked by Taliban terrorists – twice – it’s simply not going to make the grade.

IATA started all this with its New Distribution Capability, whereby airline websites could use sophisticated technologies to ‘sell’ stuff to individual travellers, rather than simply relying on straightforward GDS bookings.

That’s now spread to the hospitality industry, where this whole ‘direct connect’ concept is designed to tempt travellers to bend the rules. A little bit of extra in-flight legroom might slip under the radar, but “we’ve got this lovely alternative hotel in Kabul – it’s called the Intercontinental, and you get extra loyalty points and a welcome drink”, is a step too far.

Making exceptions
As I intimated earlier, I’m not against choice. I see no reason, for example, if one of my travellers lives near Bristol, why our corporate policy should require him or her to schlep over to Heathrow to use one of our ‘preferred’ airlines. By the time you’ve factored in the drive-time, the parking fees, the potential overnight stay, meal allowances and goodness knows what else, it absolutely makes sense to make an exception to the rule.

It doesn’t only make financial sense. As part of our duty-of-care responsibilities, it also makes ‘human’ sense. Flying back into Bristol, this traveller could be back with his family within an hour; flying back into Heathrow, he or she could be stumbling home in the early hours, when the kids are asleep and the wife or husband takes a less-than-favourable view of being woken up at two in the morning.

Of course, travellers should be able – and encouraged – to influence travel policy, and we as travel buyers and travel managers need to understand and embrace that. Gone are the days when we could lay down the law – “you will fly with airline X and stay at hotel Y, otherwise we’ll refuse to pay your expenses” – and rightly so.

I would argue that we would be better described as ‘travel facilitators’, helping our end-users to reach compromises on what suits them, and what suits their employer. We need to get the best value – return on investment – for our companies. That means doing the best we can, within obvious constraints, for those who are working to provide that return on investment.

It’s a balancing act, and one which ‘direct connect’ suppliers are seemingly determined to weigh in their favour. Our policies should ignore them – we, not they, will provide the element of choice.

Common sense dictates, however, that their choice will not include the Hotel Intercontinental in Kabul – no matter how good the hotel’s welcome drinks might be.

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