Question Time: SMEs

Smaller companies are not often blessed with large internal travel teams. The SME market, therefore, relies heavily on travel management companies (TMCs) for support and guidance. Martin Ferguson speaks to travel managers who spend less than £2 million annually on travel – and puts their questions to the TMCs.

Q Regarding communication…

Travel buyer, private sector:

My biggest challenge is educating travelling staff to think about what they request from bookers. It’s crucial to give detailed information about a trip, so the most economical tickets can be purchased. We need to educate travellers on why they must book through the TMC. A small percentage seem to think they can get a better deal elsewhere. Some don’t understand why TMC contracts are in place with regards to the pricing structure, volumes and rebates. Bookers need to push back on travellers requesting to stay in hotels that are out of budget, and communicate when a preferred hotel is available and should be booked. Advice on communications would be appreciated.

A Richard Lovelock, director of business travel management, ITP Travel

Key to communicating travel policy is stakeholder involvement. You set a policy for a reason, so make sure everyone knows why. Use preferred suppliers and the TMC to help promote their part in the policy through events, such as ‘lunch and learn’. Be creative. At those events you can take time to discuss the policy and why it’s important to overall business objectives. It is in the suppliers’ interests to promote their services.

Also, if you have buy-in from the very top of the organisation you can play the tactical card and make any bookings or charges outside of policy non-reimbursable. It’s a strong line, but one that I’ve known to be very effective.

Q Improving TMC-traveller relations

Travel buyer, private sector:

Having all our travel booked through one preferred supplier [a TMC] gives us instant visibility of travel spend. The TMC helps us analyse monthly travel reports so we can make sure cost is being kept to a minimum. There is great value to be derived from working with travel experts who also understand your business. They should be proactive in spotting trends and advising how to get the best out of the company’s travel budget. But they could, in my opinion, always do more. For me, they need to reach out to the travellers more often to better understand their challenges. In turn, the travellers will gain better comprehension of the TMC’s role. How could we achieve this together?

A Leanne Fowler, director sales and marketing, NYS Corporate

It’s true to say that for a TMC consultant and traveller to have a good working relationship will improve the overall value of the service.

There are a number of ways for the TMC and customer to improve their bond. Face-to-face contact is very effective. Setting up one-to-one sessions between travellers and/or bookers with TMC representatives is a simple, cost-effective way to improve the effectiveness of the value proposition. It’s also wise to consider organising targeted meetings, perhaps with a company’s top bookers. This will give the TMC a deeper understanding of booking behaviours and trends, and encourage collaboration to better deliver on the travel policy and programme.

Perhaps most logical, however, is to make sure the company’s induction process for new employees includes sessions on the travel policy, presented by a representative from the TMC.

Q Getting more from the TMC: rail fares

Travel buyer, public sector – education:

Bookers say our TMC’s biggest weakness is in the area of rail fares. They are advised to make reservations as far in advance as possible to maximise savings, but see no cost benefit in doing so through the TMC. Shouldn’t there be an incentive to book in advance? We see offers for early online booking advertised by train operating companies, but we don’t seem to receive these offers from the TMC. Why does the TMC not have access to better fares?

A Richard Lovelock, ITP Travel

In this situation you must understand the travel policy to ensure the TMC isn’t being told one thing when travellers want another. If you book rail in advance, there are savings, and these should be available through the main train booking systems used by most TMCs. But there are occasions when specific rail operators offer web-only rates, which are a constant annoyance to TMCs. A good TMC will know what is available and where to book.

Remember, a smart travel policy may encourage booking of flexible, fully-refundable tickets – a very large percentage of those special-offer fares are not. This can add considerable cost, with change fees and unused tickets due. Work with your TMC to analyse rail travel and then adjust policy accordingly.

Q Aren’t TMCs all the same?

Travel buyer, private sector:

We regularly receive unsolicited communications from TMC sales people. It amazes me how each of them always claims to be in some way unique from the competition. As far as I can see, it’s all the same proposition with very few exceptions. Am I missing something? How are you supposed to separate the wheat from the chaff?

A Leanne Fowler, NYS Corporate

From a distance, or without the right insight, TMC technology and processes could be regarded as similar across the supplier marketplace. But on closer inspection one will find that TMCs employ different types of people, possess differing corporate and cultural values, and have diverse standards in terms of quality of service. In any case, the customer has to choose a TMC that fits with their own organisational culture, while at the same time being very clear on their objectives, so work can be carried out effectively.

A Richard Lovelock, ITP Travel

You could say the same thing about many products and services but still choose the one that suits best. The TMC function, on a fundamental level, may be very much the same; the differentiator is what the TMC can offer that appeals to the travel manager, the company culture and policy objectives.

Read the full SME feature by Bob Papworth here

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