Any sentence that contains the phrase “data management” is more than a little scary for many corporate travel buyers. What’s more, “data management” just doesn’t sound like that much fun. But unfortunately these days, not being savvy about data management – or more specifically, how to do it well – isn’t really an option.

Travel managers are often faced with the unenviable choices of data that is 1) inconsistent: “Are those dollars being spent on hotel, lodging, accommodations, or all three?” 2) potentially inaccurate: “The negotiated rate was X, so why did we spend Y?” Or 3) stale: “Yeah, that happened. Sorry, too late.”

The alternative is much more appealing – and it’s not just a fantasy anymore. Thanks to advances in technology, there are now many data-oriented companies eager to help travel managers do their jobs better. As Tony D’Astolfo, senior vice president, North America at Serko, puts it, these are partners who will say, “‘let me pull all your data into one place. Let me normalize it for you. Let me clean it for you and then let me present it to you.’”

Whether this help comes from a third-party data aggregator or a data-savvy TMC, the result is clear, complete and actionable (i.e., timely) information about travelers’ behavior – a key ingredient of any successful managed travel program. And a tech-forward mindset is all you need to get started.

Better Data, Better Decisions
Travel managers know well the value of good data, given how hard it is to do their jobs without it. But what makes data good, exactly?

First, it must be complete. Rock Blanco, chief innovation officer at World Travel Inc., likens the process to cooking. “Taking reservation data isn’t enough; that's a little bit too early in the process. It’s only what we thought was going to happen. So you sprinkle in some back office from the TMC – that's what got invoiced.”

However, for the total picture these two data points must be combined with the credit card feed, the only record of what actually happened. “It's truly all about the validation, getting to a single version of the truth,” notes Blanco. “It's getting to a point where I know where all the ingredients come from, like was that broccoli sprayed or is it organic?”

Or in this case, was the fare the traveler booked the one the company ended up paying? Depending on the source, Blanco says, it could be plain wrong, 100 percent accurate, or anything in between.

That’s a big problem, says Dave Lukas, vice president and CSO at Grasp Technologies. “If you can’t get your data right on the back end, it’s like having a Ferrari with a Pinto engine. It’s not going to run that well.” Ultimately, important decisions depend on that engine’s performance, so it needs to be good.

Lukas describes an incident where a client discovered a large discrepancy between last year’s annual report and the numbers they were getting from Grasp. As it turned out, their old data management solution hadn’t made adjustments for daily currency fluctuations. Instead it was applying the Dec. 31 conversion rate to every transaction in the previous year. As a result the client had been making decisions based on data that was radically wrong – not a good place to be.

Data normalization is another crucial element, especially in the travel industry, which Lukas says is like the wild west of data. There are no data standards for anything, and a thousand free-form fields in every database are ripe for any input you can imagine. So the Atlanta Hyatt could also be called The Hyatt Peachtree or the Atlanta Peachtree Hyatt depending on which TMC you’re talking to.

Without a way to normalize these different naming conventions and aggregate the true total spend, any decision based on that information is likely to be a bad one. Lukas says Grasp has the market leading normalization suite because he knows how important it is to focus on what’s under the hood, and make sure the data is as complete, accurate and timely as possible.

The Hunt for Good Data
No one can argue with the need for clean, complete and actionable travel data. But what’s the best way to go about getting it? Traditionally, the travel management company was the corporate travel manager’s only recourse, but that wasn’t always the best route.

John Packel, co-founder of Ansero, puts forth the following argument: “Most legacy TMCs are in the same position. They have not invested properly in their ability to provide better and more consistent data to their customers overall, and especially in terms of savings.” He cites many reasons for this, including a potential conflict of interest. That is, supplier-generated revenue can be so significant for TMCs, they might be motivated to weight those relationships over those with their customers.

But Lukas warns against over-generalization. “The question is, is the TMC an intelligence company, a travel management company, or both? It all depends on the TMC’s focus and how far they’re willing to go. There are those who say, ‘Look, that’s why I hired you [Grasp]. You handle the data,” he says.

This makes sense according to Chris Lewis, CEO and founder of Travelogix. “TMCs are not data people,” he warns, so they deliver only the most basic intelligence. On the other hand, a data-focused company could offer a more sophisticated (and more valuable) view into actionable trends and predictive analytics.

But Lukas argues that “some TMCs have invested heavily in their intelligence side and do a lot in-house,” even if Grasp or other third parties are helping to fill the gaps. D’Astolfo agrees, adding that TMCs are not only partnering with third-party data aggregators now more than ever, they’re also starting to add data-specific roles to their staff.

Steven Fedry, senior product manager, analytics and reporting at Egencia, holds one such role. “Data is the backbone of the TMC value add,” Fedry says. And he’s clear on what that value is, stating that his primary goal is to mine clients’ data from end-to-end, both to find savings for the company and to improve the traveler’s experience.

In lieu of depending on TMCs, some travel programs choose to work directly with third party data aggregators or staff their own teams with data-specific resources. While the expense associated with that strategy might seem prohibitive, Blanco says companies with smaller travel budgets can and do invest in this way.

“I don't think it's about size,” he explains. “It’s about what you think you really need to manage an effective travel program. The tools are out there, so it’s worth having those specialized skills or resources as part of your travel program.”

Captain of Your Data Ship There’s more than one way to approach data management, but travel managers themselves are always a factor in its success. To begin, mindset is important.

Ideally, travel managers would wholeheartedly embrace the value of emerging technology to the travel industry as a whole and help propel its adoption by updating their systems. “Ultimately,” says Packel, “I'm at a blockchain company for a reason: Because I believe that logic and technology used the right way will make the world a better place.”

Emerging technologies such as blockchain will not only allow relationships between customers and companies to become more transparent. By streamlining their transactions, both parties stand to profit more too.

Next, develop and maintain a consistent focus on data per se – and its quality – at every stage. “It’s about starting with that interest and asking, ‘How do I put good data in, how do I collect good data for the best possible returns?’” says Fedry.

Of course, cautions D’Astolfo, good data is useless unless you know what you want to do with it. For a travel manager, the idea of serving two masters – someone in finance or HR and the business traveler – is always top of mind. “And the question becomes, how do you serve both of them at the same time?” says D’Astolfo. “What data is important?’”

Certainly having information that will help create a better traveler experience is meaningful. “If someone can tell me this guy's flight is going to be late, early enough that he can change his flight and not miss his connection home, that’s important data,” D’Astolfo says.

Conversely, data might show how this particular trip was booked. Maybe it was too far in advance or not long enough, and the company spent too much or not enough money. With that knowledge, it can be done differently next time.

With a solid understanding of what they’re trying to achieve, travel managers can also better assess their potential fit with a new data management partner. Lukas says the employees at Grasp tend to think of themselves as data plumbers because he says they’re “healthily obsessed” with data mining.

Grasp hires only one out of 70 candidates because the company insists on decades or more of travel-specific experience, Lukas explains. “People ask us how we got so good at doing this stuff, and I usually say it’s because we've been beating our heads against the wall for 20 plus years, figuring out how to solve these challenges,” he says. “We just never quit; that’s the difference.”

In addition to tools built with hard-won industry knowledge, companies like Travelogix look for ways to serve their customers better by shortening their data management learning curve. Lewis is currently developing Travelogix University, a series of online trainings he’ll offer first to TMC clients, and then directly to corporate travel programs.

The trainings won’t focus on how to use the tool, which is easy enough to use without training, but on strategy – on what to do with the data once you have it.

If it sounds like a lot of work, it is. And no one is pretending travel managers have loads of free time they’re looking to fill. Lukas suggests focusing narrowly at first. “People usually try to do way too much at once and go too broad,” he says. “But if you're trying to cut costs or be more efficient, there's probably one lever you can pull in each of those that will make the biggest difference.”

Just make sure to keep a long-term perspective at the same time, “because going to work on your data, especially in this business, is not like a one time, put something in place and you're done,” Lukas advises. “It's constant work and it gets better and better over time.  And you have to look at it that way.”