When travel managers talk shop, it doesn’t take long for the conversation to turn to the job’s challenges: out-of-policy reports that go nowhere, non-preferred booking channels, the creeping cost of leakage. But, in the end, one question overshadows all else: “Why don't travelers get it? The more they get on board, the more they benefit!”
We convened a panel of experts with nearly a century of travel industry experience between them, representing programs with spends of less than $10 million and more than $100 million. In a rousing gab session, they spoke at length about how travel managers can achieve what their company needs while giving employees what they want.
1. Put people before prices.
The primary responsibility of the travel manager has changed. It is no longer simply cutting costs to the bone. Rather, it’s figuring out how to engage, in some real way, with employees and their needs. Put another way, the job’s challenges aren’t accounting issues; they’re HR issues. With employee retention lower than ever, keeping morale high and employees happy has to matter as much as how much money you save.
2. Never forget that business traveler = human being.
Most travel managers—certainly the most effective ones—have become students of human behavior. They’ve come to expect that even the most loyal employees will look for shortcuts and loopholes that make their lives easier—even when those shortcuts and loopholes don’t exactly align with the company’s best interests. The fact is, compulsory compliance has lost its power. If you want travelers to maximize their employer’s interests, you need “carrots” to incentivize good behavior. Chasing down offenders with flimsy sticks wastes time and resources.
3. Share. Explain. Tell. Repeat.
One of our panelists told a powerful story that offers two lessons: A traveler, walking to meeting in a city halfway across the world, received a text warning to shelter in place due to a potential terrorist threat. Because he booked his trip through a preferred channel, his employer was able to keep him updated and provide safety solutions. Back home, the traveler repeatedly talked about how lucky he was to have used that preferred channel—if his employer hadn’t been able to find him, he wasn’t sure he’d have gotten out alive.
The first lesson is that while travelers may not care much about their employer’s finances or handbook, they do care about their own safety. To convince them to work within your guidelines, show that you care about their safety, too. And let them know what they might be forfeiting by going outside preferred channels. Transparency can get you the obedience that demands will not. As one panelist with more than 25 years of experience said, “I want them to be comfortable, but I also make decisions that help us take care of them.”
The second lesson builds on the ideas of transparency and communication. Most employees are unfamiliar with the reasons for/ advantages of most (if not all) aspects of corporate travel policies. And few (if any) are ever going to spend any time rectifying that situation. But travel managers are regularly privy to these kinds of revealing anecdotes, which can and should be shared appropriately with all company travelers. Humans learn best from stories, especially if the lessons to be gleaned have the potential to make their lives easier.
4. Remember that half of something is better than all of nothing.
One panelist offered this familiar hypothetical: Imagine a traveler is choosing between two options: a $5,000 business class flight and a $1,000 economy fare. You can offer an incentive for choosing the more economical flight, but it’s unlikely a $100 gift card will make her forgo the comfort of the more expensive trip. Plus, the administrative challenges, tax and logistics issues posed by these small rewards barely make it worth while for either party.
Suppose, on the other hand, that instead of a tiny piece of the pie, a company offers to split any discretionary savings equally with its employee. Now the traveler is no longer choosing between their own interests and the company’s; the two interests begin to align.
Our panelists acknowledged that the idea of splitting savings raises the eyebrows of some colleagues in upper management. But they also noted that most skepticism is easily enough rebuffed by a reminder that in such a situation there would likely have been no savings at all were it not for the offer to split the difference.
Better still, our panelists agreed, such a reciprocal transaction helps to build a better corporate culture. When employees stop feeling like squeezed minions and start feeling like empowered collaborators, everybody wins.