There is no shortage of black swans, pan-airline technology glitches, mega-storms and surprise attacks on sovereign nations that can easily up-end an already teetering balance when it comes to global travel and managing an international business. But headlines aside, travel management companies, fresh from worldwide shutdowns and pandemic pandemonium, have already been navigating through battering headwinds trying to keep their clients safe, comfortable and efficient in their travel operations. As businesses become increasingly global and global conditions become increasingly unpredictable, are travel management companies ready to meet these challenges with the global solutions required?

According to Global Business Travel Association data released this year, the return of volume from the pits of the pandemic should reach 80 percent by the end of 2023. Such revival reflects the health of the global economy, yet executives managing travel budgets remain jittery when looking at long-term cost and program management concerns.

Business travel is the second highest expense for companies, coming in just behind payroll and perks, according to, and small to medium-sized enterprises are driving most of the business travel traffic in the US and in Europe. However, in the US there are greater differences in the frequency of international vs. domestic trips. That is, on average, domestic trip numbers tend to out-number international trips by a factor of five.

Such ratios bring up alignment issues between clients and their travel management companies. The world seems to be shrinking and technological developments keep making it easier for businesses to grow their corporate footprints and influence beyond conventional boundaries. However, the question this raises for a company’s travel program is will these factors herald the trade of a long-standing relationship with a regional TMC for a management company with a worldwide reach? Both sides have advantages and disadvantages.

Business Travel News Promo

“While there are obvious gains to consolidating under one travel management partner, each client must decide that as part of their procurement approach and TMC partners, good partners, should support their desired approach,” says Maureen Brady, chief operating officer, North America, at Corporate Travel Management (CTM). “The pandemic period brought to sharp attention the downside of a strategy that focuses on either side of that proposition.”

On the “pro” side of this question, global TMCs can offer worldwide rates and negotiating strength for competitive deals. With global resources come a comprehensive approach to technology that allows for more robust booking, policy management and traveler communications tools. Global reach makes duty of care that much more streamlined to handle and follow, adding 24/7 support, emergency assistance and tracking technology.

However, on the “con” side, a global company will necessarily mean a less than personal touch. Some say the client can become just a number and is left dealing with call centers that process thousands of customers. Similarly, if a company’s travel spend or volume falls below a certain threshold, some global TMCs may put those clients in a category where they do not receive the same level of service they have come to expect from their more local travel management company.

Small World
“In today’s world, even the smallest firms have global reach, so the days of only servicing clients in the US is not practical,” says Gabe Rizzi, president of the corporate travel division of Internova Travel Group. “It’s critical to any TMC’s long-term success to have the ability to service clients where they are, regardless of geography or language needs.” The New York City-based company is a global TMC with some 100,000 travel advisors worldwide employing what it calls “glocal” servicing, or the high-touch service levels of a boutique regional agency possessing the scale and reach of a large international agency.

“I think many agencies are in the midst of an identity crisis,” Rizzi notes. “We recently took a client survey across 12 different dimensions of travel, and it wasn’t mobile, bleisure, duty of care or even sustainability that they were willing to pay more for. It was good, old-fashioned customer service with a knowledgeable and caring professional who knew who they were.”

However, he adds that technology comes in as a convenient substitute for companies who are looking at the staffing and labor line of their spreadsheets and trying to mitigate those costs. “We’ve found the most effective approach on tools is that there isn’t a single one that is all things to all regions of the world, whether that’s an online booking tool, mobile app, duty of care solution or sustainability program. You must work with your clients to understand the markets they operate in and configure the tools that are best suited for that area of the world,” says Rizzi. “The most difficult component for all global programs is the ability to provide real-time data reporting, which is an area we’ve made a significant investment in to tackle with our business travel insights reporting platform. Everyone is data-rich and insight-poor.”

People are by far the largest expense of any TMC, and with the pandemic-induced travel slowdown, many TMCs were forced to reduce staff, in some cases, dramatically. Now that travel is surging back, replacing those experienced travel advisors – especially on a global front – requires innovative recruitment, engagement and professional development initiatives. “Travel has new challenges today, many stemming from recruitment challenges as travel resumed post-pandemic and remains so for many travel suppliers,” Brady notes. “This can profoundly affect the traveler experience.”

It can also affect costs, Rizzi warns, “so if there is a low price, that’s a clear indicator they removed people to lower costs, which invariably means average or worse service levels. The ‘pause’ technology has changed everything, including most companies’ go-to-market strategies as every client, whether they have five or 5,000 employees, has the ability to be global in their reach. And as such, they expect a nimble, fast and effective travel partner that has the ability to deliver that local feel with global reach. That’s why our ‘glocal’ mindset is so intense.”

Global Citizens
One travel management company, Reed & Mackay, now part of the Navan brand, agrees that businesses are, indeed, looking for high-touch, white-gloved service but that service is best managed with the underpinnings of excellent technology.

The UK-based global travel and events management company says it has a high proportion of clients from the law, financial, and professional services sectors, and they are looking for dedicated service from experienced travel consultants – backed by a fully integrated digital offering. Global vs. local is no longer a factor. It’s more about alignment and fit through a variety of touch points.

“After the pandemic, we invested heavily in our North American operations to ensure we were ready to meet the pent-up demand that we all hoped would come – and it did,” says John Keichline, CEO, Reed & Mackay North America. “Across our global business, we invested across global functions and in local talent and infrastructure also. The pandemic highlighted that every one of us is a global citizen. COVID-19 did not respect borders. But it also showed us the power of local community. We’re a people-focused business, supported by client-led technology.”

For businesses looking for the right fit in a TMC, Keichline advises that the evaluation should include “questions on traveler wellbeing to ensure employees are looked after while traveling on behalf of that business. Will they have a dedicated team of travel consultants to minimize stress and help prevent burnout? Are there measures in place for proactive support in the event of flight cancelations or delays when a traveler just wants to get home after a long business trip?”

Indeed, air travel has seen some of its worst years during the pandemic, and coming out of that has been expensive and beyond bumpy – all bringing to the fore the question of service in real time, not just on a spreadsheet line. Managing NDC capabilities has proved to be time-consuming for travel managers, adding pressure to cost agreements and the costs of air tickets in the US. In the condensed premium cabins alone, seats have risen nearly 50 percent in the past two years, according to a recently released white paper by CWT.

“Setting appropriate expectations for travelers and being able to ‘predict’ service delays and provide alternative booking options proactively are game changers and strategies we are pursuing aggressively,” says Rizzi. “When was the last time a bot sat in the middle seat or experienced missing their son’s birthday because their flight was canceled and they couldn’t find an alternative?”

Solutions, Wherever
A travel management company like CTM operates locally in every market, supported by the scale and resources of a large global organization, Brady explains. “This means our solutions deliver global buying power and innovation, but operations remain client-centric in every market we operate, ensuring we stay close to our customers around the world.”

In addition to offering excellent local service, Keichline adds that partnering with an international TMC that has in-country expertise also provides support for the company’s ESG goals, traveler safety and wellbeing, and the cost reduction strategies needed for businesses with a global footprint.

Helping TMCs navigate in that footprint for clients is the job of HRS, a global technology provider specializing in managed corporate hospitality. These functions include sourcing and negotiation, inputs of rates and amenities, shopping, rate filtering, payments and crucial level-4 data reconciliation.

“We believe companies gain by using our singular platform, which is designed to serve global clients and provide superior insights into challenges that need to be solved and data to be leveraged to optimize everyday operations,” says HRS media relations director Michael Brophy. HRS has been assisting travel management companies with the growth and triumphs of coming out of COVID in the last year or two as staffing shortages and a barrage of new conditions and models left agents scrambling for a map, if not basic solutions to client needs.

Brophy outlines what he sees as the most notable challenges over the past year. TMCs are under pressure to have the type of resources they had pre-pandemic. A great deal of expertise left TMC payrolls during the pandemic, and the majority of those skilled and experienced people are not coming back. Accordingly, service models have changed, and that transition can be bumpy, especially as travel volumes ramp back up.

Corporations increasingly have different priorities for their travelers – the legacy focus of “lowest price” doesn’t always apply in a time where more companies are more keenly targeting elements like sustainability and security to address bigger-picture goals for their organizations.

Finally, Brophy says, at a time when hotel rates are on the rise, more companies are trying to leverage the totality of their lodging segments – transient, meetings and extended stay – in an effort to truly showcase the value of their business to suppliers and mitigate rate increases. TMCs need to look at their service structures and align them so that those different data streams can be properly collected and analyzed to best serve clients during both procurement and booking scenarios.