Why have corporate travel managers become so prone to inertia and averse to innovation in recent years? Why are numerous companies spending millions of dollars more on travel than necessary? Is it time for the travel manager’s job description to change?
I’ve been trying to find answers to these questions since I dedicated myself to travel education and training this summer, through my Kralev International advisory services.
But it was a post by Scott Gillespie, who writes a blog on procurement and corporate travel management, that prompted me to air my thoughts in public. Although my arguments aren’t quite what he had in mind, I was happy to see that others share my concerns about corporate complacency.
Why do I feel qualified to pass judgment? Because I almost always pay the lowest coach fares, but I haven’t sat in coach since 2002 — and I’ve flown nearly 2 million miles and visited 38 states and 82 countries. And because this year, I’ve flown 100,000 revenue miles, for which I paid a grand total of $747. I’ve never admitted this publicly before, although friends have repeatedly urged me to use it as a selling point — I just didn’t think anyone would believe it. That’s why I’m writing a book, so I can explain it.
I’ve been shocked by how many companies still rely on large travel agencies without almost any meaningful supervision. I’m not suggesting that they stop using travel agents, because this may be the only way to handle high volume. The problem is that, in many cases, they are not getting the cheapest available tickets — but they don’t know it.
Why does that happen? One reason is that many travel agencies have lucrative contracts with certain airlines that encourage them to send more business their way. If your agency receives its biggest commission from American Airlines, it will likely book you on American even if United Airlines has a lower fare. Did the agency disclose any of this before you signed a contract?
The other reason is much less obvious, but hopefully this column will change that. While technology and automation are enormously useful and efficient, they discourage us from using our brains. Automation is no doubt vital for the travel-booking process, but the extent to which travel agents rely on computers to tell them what to do is stunning — and it costs your company a lot of money.
Let me give you an example. Last year, my former managing editor at the Washington Times had to go to Mongolia at a week’s notice and asked if I could find an affordable business-class fare. The cheapest ticket from Washington to Ulan Bator we could find — both from a travel agent and online booking engines — was about $8,700, which was out of the question.
So I started thinking outside the box and decided to try splitting the fare — if I could get a much lower business-class fare to a northeastern Asian city where one would connect on the way to Ulan Bator, I’d book the short haul in coach. Sure enough, I found a $3,250 business-class ticket to Beijing on Air Canada, and coach on to Ulan Bator on Air China for about $550. Both carriers are members of the global Star Alliance.
While any company most likely would have paid $8,700, I saved almost $5,000 — and it took me 15 minutes to do it. When was the last time your travel agent did that? I’m not suggesting that splitting the fare makes sense every time, but there are other creative — and legitimate — ways to save money that computers are not yet fully capable of mastering.
There are also things you can do to help your travel agency save you money. One of the services I offer is strategic travel planning. What does that mean? If you have more than one trip coming up, why not plan them at the same time? You don’t have to take them together — in fact, they can be months apart.
Several months ago, I had a client in Washington who wanted to go to Paris in the spring and to Buenos Aires in the fall. I knew that coach fares from Europe to South America are generally lower than fares from North America, so I suggested an unconventional way of booking two tickets simultaneously — one originating in Washington and the other one in Paris — and the savings exceeded $800. I won’t bore you with further details here, but send me a message if you’d like to know more.
How do you think most travel managers respond when I offer to train them and anyone in their company who might book travel directly? Some say their travel agency already takes care of all their needs and there is no reason to rock the boat. Others are unhappy with the travel agency, but they don’t have money to invest in learning how to save much more money. Yet others don’t seem to understand what exactly I can do for them.
Last week, a friend in Phoenix recommended my services to his company’s travel manager. The response was that, “due to budget cuts to travel budgets and their departmental budget, they felt that they could not justify the expenditure right now.” No comment.
In June, a business-development specialist from a Washington law firm took one of my seminars and saved $500 on her first ticket, so she recommended to the firm that I train their executive assistants who book travel for the attorneys. Management, however, saw things differently. “We have an agreement with American Express, so bringing you in would conflict,” they said.
I asked how exactly that would represent a conflict, since I wasn’t offering to book tickets for them, but I never received a response.
Nor did I hear back from the Association of Corporate Travel Executives, having contacted Megan Costello, then-acting executive director, Kate Farrell, senior director for global education, and Amber Kelleher, director for global education, three months ago. I suppose they have better things to do than listen to new ideas that can actually benefit their members.