Starting from scratch

How does a buyer set up a travel programme from the ground up?  Four managers who’ve done just that recount their experiences 

There can be few more challenging assignments for an experienced travel buyer than to join a new organisation with little or no managed business travel programme in place.  

Exactly where do you start when facing this prospect and how do you ensure that your plans reach fruition and can be shown to benefit the business?  

Four experienced buyers who have taken on this mammoth task tell BBT how they created a new travel programme from scratch and offer advice on how other buyers can learn from their experiences, as well as pitfalls to avoid. 

Daniel Honig, senior supplier manager, travel, Medidata SolutionsDaniel Honig, senior supplier manager, travel, Medidata Solutions 

Before Honig’s arrival at New York-based technology company Medidata Solutions two years ago, there was no formal travel programme in place for the firm’s 3,000 employees.  

“There was just an administrative support role and a couple of agreements with hotels,” he recalls. “The first thing was to understand the company culture. It was very important to talk to your most trusted road warriors to understand what’s important to them and their pain points.  

“You also have to gather a lot of background information on the financials. You want to know what your benchmarks are.”  

Understanding the travel patterns of employees was also crucial, including the location of its head office in the Soho district of New York City. This was a driving factor leading to Honig setting up a preferred programme with boutique hotels in the area. 

“We’re in a neighbourhood where we have a high amount of boutique properties,” he explains. “Boutiques have a lot of advantages because they offer an elevated hotel experience compared to corporate big box hotels – they are really successful at going above and beyond. They can also offer comparable benefits to what travellers receive from loyalty programmes.”  

Having set up this hotel programme, Honig has promoted it heavily through the company’s intranet and making them “very visible” on the booking tools.  

“We have a great adoption rate with our preferred properties,” he adds. “We’re reaping the rewards because we’ve got great deals in nice hotels.”  

Making life easier for travellers is also evident in the way Medidata’s airline programme is run.  

“We have a lot of people in New Jersey so asking them to go to JFK is not great as it’s going to take two-and-a-half hours to get there,” says Honig. “Understand which airports are acceptable to your travellers and which airlines have the best services.”  

Honig also says it’s important to start any programme “conservatively” and build up relationships with suppliers.  

“Be careful not to overpromise and say to hotels you can give them hundreds of room nights,” he adds. “It may be tempting to look for a quick solution but if you can’t keep your end of the bargain, the hotel may sever that relationship.  

“It’s important to establish your reputation and show how much volume you’re delivering.”  

Honig says buyers should not overlook the advantages of using a TMC even if being charged a transaction fee may not go down well initially.  

“A TMC is important for data and safety reasons, as well as documenting and reporting,” he adds. “They can also give you data on benchmarks to work with hotels.” 

Building engagement was imperative. We had to show how the programme would fit the organisation’s requirements 

Earle Thomas, associate director, procurement, Buro Happold  Earle Thomas, associate director, procurement, Buro Happold

When Thomas joined international engineering consultancy Buro Happold, the company operated a “decentralised” travel programme with each region operating autonomously. His task was to bring this into one global programme with one TMC, which ended up being ATPI Group.  

“The first steps were to gain visibility of how the business travelled and our key markets,” he recalls. “We reviewed our organisation’s travel requirements by speaking to the stakeholders in each region. We crosschecked their input with financial data to identify our key markets, ensuring the centralised programme would provide support in these areas.”  

As with other buyers, one of the most important stages was getting support and “buy-in” from key stakeholders within the business.  

“Building engagement was imperative. We had to show how the programme would fit the organisation’s requirements and benefit long term, not just as a short-term fix to save costs,” says Thomas.  

“It was tricky to win this buy-in in some regions, as they are incentivised on cost savings on the P&L [profit and loss], so they would try and book the cheapest method of travel, possibly not via our chosen TMC and without knowing the potential implications. Educating the wider business on why this is important was imperative.”  

To improve education, Thomas launched an intranet giving travellers around the world access to the traveller dashboard – ATPI TravelHub 

“Every six to eight weeks we choose a different topic or helpful tool within the travel programme and share information on its features and capabilities to educate employees,” explains Thomas.  

“On the day we went live with ATPI, there was a leaflet drop to all employees detailing the new travel programme, as well as a poster campaign.”  

He says visibility of travel data is key to the programme’s success, with analytics tools monitoring and predicting traveller behaviour on a global scale.  

“Implementing an analytics tool has been crucial to us in driving compliance, as we can report on out-of-policy bookings which previously were around 40 per cent of all total travel,” adds Thomas.  

“We write a weekly report for our chief operations officer that details the reasons why travel is out of policy. It gets followed up with each individual traveller. There has been a massive reduction in leakage – just 3-4 per cent of bookings are out of policy.  

“We also report on duty-of-care, and there has been a spike in adoption of safe verification notifications through the use of our traveller tracking tool with ATPI.” 

Chris Day, head of procurement, Church of England Central ServicesChris Day, head of procurement, Church of England Central Services 

After 25 years in procurement, Chris Day is something of an expert on building a travel programme from the ground up. When he took on his current role as head of procurement for Church of England Central Services, it was the second time in his career he had taken on such a task.  

“One of the most obvious things to do is understand what sort of spend you have – who’s going where and when,” he says. “Because of the type of organisation we are – a provider of support services to church employees – we have some unusual destinations and out-of-the-ordinary ways of travel.  

“We got under the skin of the spend data from our expenses claims and finance system, so we could find out what the expenditure was and the cost centres it was being charged to. You need to get the data into good sensible order so you can interpret it.”  

Day worked with the financial director to analyse the data, including how much was being spent on rail travel, hotel and flights.  

“By doing this, we came up with a very sensible top-level figure, which we could use in the tender documents for appointing a TMC,” he explains. “It took a few months as we looked at the different types of travel.  

“I also needed to understand what the organisation wanted, which was to change the environment in which people were booking their own travel.”  

A key element to setting a single travel programme is to create a single travel portal with one TMC – making it easier for travellers to book and improving duty-of-care.  

Day also emphasises the importance of getting the “buy in” of key stakeholders at an early stage.  

“I spent time finding out who the key stakeholders were and convincing them of the huge benefits of using a single provider,” he adds. “They were quick to realise the benefits of putting controls in place, as well as improving management information, traveller safety and creating a preferred programme to get the benefit of charity fares.”  

As for getting the programme up and running, having a close relationship with an account manager from your chosen TMC is crucial.  

“It’s important the TMC’s account manager is very visible with all the stakeholders when going live,” says Day. “After you’ve gone live, the account manager also needs to be available to respond to any queries and questions very quickly when necessary.”  

Other factors include having access to low-cost travel providers, and a TMC being able to price-match cheaper deals that travellers find online. 

Don’t be beaten if you are knocked down at the first hurdle 

Mystery travel managerA global travel manager, finance and investment company 

Having worked in investment management as an EMEA travel manager for a significant number of years, our travel manager recently took on a global manager role.  

“What enticed me to the position was that the company had never had a global travel manager before and the operation was split across the regions and fragmented,” she says.  

“I was, therefore, given this fantastic white sheet of paper to create and develop a global travel programme, where the travel community was more joined up, there was a consistent approach to policy, global reporting and technology; that would enable the users to have a much better experience.  

She says she learnt that managing a global programme is complex with many twists and turns, and  that a crucial step for her was to gain support quickly from key stakeholders – at all levels.  

“I spent the first six months meeting and greeting,” she recollects, “giving the stakeholders the information that they needed to enable them to support me in making sound decisions and change.”  

The manager also worked with her analyst team to produce a quarterly travel reporting deck that enabled stakeholders to control their travel spend and keep within budget. “The deck also demonstrated that making small changes had a material impact to overall costs and how much could be saved for the firm. This helped me to publish significant saves in the first year,” she adds.  

“I also took advantage of collaborating with our other entities, where we were able to leverage our volume and spend with key suppliers, making better negotiating for all.  

“For those buyers embarking on a travel role, be it big or small, I would advise they learn the culture and nuances of the company, before making any major changes, as no two programmes are the same. Cost saving and automation should be key words in your dictionary, too.  

“And don’t be beaten if you are knocked down at the first hurdle; remember there is always room for change and improvement.” 

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