Guest column: How to optimise pre-trip approval

You’ll benefit from PTA, but only if it’s used in the right way, says Chris Pouney

The topic of pre-trip approval (PTA) was raised a number of times at our recent BBT forum, with many buyers keen to share their experience and tips to avoid pain points.

The theory is simple; change behaviour before the money is spent. In practice, this means that a traveller making a booking will be required to get internal sign-off prior to the trip being processed. Approvals are normally automated – managed through email or app, with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ required from the approving party. Sounds simple? Well, not necessarily…

Do all bookings require approval or just those deemed out-of-policy? Perhaps certain types of trips, such as client-related travel, or certain grades of travellers are exempt from this process. 

Who do the emails go to? How to maintain the list of hierarchy of booker to approver; what about when companies have a matrix management structure where a traveller reports to multiple people, and what if the approver is away or locked in an all-day meeting?

Steps to approval
Span of control (SpoC) plays a part here, too – how many staff to each approving manager? Make this number too great and you create a bottleneck resulting in delayed approvals. Additionally, line managers might be so distant and unconnected to the traveller, they don’t feel close enough to challenge them on maverick behaviour. Make the SpoC too small and approvers, particularly in organisations with very flat structures, might be too close, too friendly with travellers to feel they can challenge them, too. There is a sweet spot.

Make the booking process too difficult, too cumbersome or the consequences too great and you may force people to book their travel off the programme altogether – call it the ‘law of unintended consequences’. It’s of particular concern as this is very difficult to spot if travellers book on their own corporate cards and re-claim through expenses.

Make versus buy
One company’s solution to this was to run their own process. As procurement folk would call it – ‘make versus buy’. 

Some might say foolish, others would say very smart; after all a key step on the journey to outsourcing anything is to truly understand the processes and complexities involved, and there is no better way of achieving this than to do it yourself, at least until technology is available which completely suits your complex requirements.

Buy this process from your TMC and you may find it difficult to break away from your TMC in the future. Some may see this as a good thing – cement a strategic partnership to allow you to create deep-rooted programmes; others may see that as a bind.

There is yet another challenge. Yield management practices by both hotels and airlines require an immediate commitment to buy with lower rates. Delay this commitment, for example by waiting for a line manager to approve the booking, and the rates would actually increase, which is completely counterproductive to the aims of deploying PTA in your programme.

Tips for success
•  What are you trying to achieve and what are your success points? If there are certain types of trips you are trying to limit, is launching PTA going to change behaviour, or are there other simpler measures you can take?
•  Engage with your travellers and IT early – not doing so is a sure-fire way to delay a project.
•  Deploying PTA will shine a bright spotlight on your travel policy. Any omissions or ambiguities will be quickly shown up. Is your policy fit for purpose? When was the last time you benchmarked it against your peers?
•  Start small, perhaps with just out-of-policy bookings, or a pilot group, before you take on the real challenge areas.
•  Make it easier to book in-policy and harder to book out-of-policy  when designing your sign-off levels. Ideally, in-policy bookings should flow and out-of-policy require sign-off.

One thing is sure: PTA is a short acronym for a complex process which, if you get it right, can optimise programme compliance, deliver savings and supercharge your travel programme. Get it wrong, however, and… well, come to our next BBT Forum to make sure you don’t!

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