It’s a different world out there for international travel, so choosing the right travel management company is critical
By Mark Rowh
Does anyone remember when international business travel was the exception rather than the norm? That may have the case in the early days of travel management companies. But for companies with a growing international presence, the need has become apparent for connecting with a TMC that will make global travel more transparent, more efficient and easier to manage.
From the TMC perspective, there has been no better time than now to define their target customer and then develop and communicate their differentiators, says Festive Road managing partner Paul Tilstone. “There’s far greater flexibility in their core offering than there ever has been because of technology developments and broader changes in business culture.”
For travel managers, this means expanded opportunities that go beyond the basic services of the past. “Buyers today have a good understanding of the market,” says Will Tate, a partner in the consulting firm GoldSpring. “In looking at a given TMC, the question isn't whether it can do all the basics, but how it can make business travel more efficient with better outcomes.”
Just what does that mean for international travel? There are many TMCs that will claim to be “global,” says John Keichline, Reed & Mackay CEO North America. In gauging the extent to which this is a reality, it’s important to understand the relationships between their regions. Are they all part of the same company, or are they partnerships or joint ventures? Do they share a technology platform? “While it’s unreasonable to expect a TMC to have offices in every part of the world, it’s important to understand the details of their global offering,” he says.
Positioned for Strategic Value Andy Menkes, senior vice president of global client solutions for BCD Travel, says it’s important to connect with a TMC that can do everything from anticipating the needs of first-time international travelers to dealing with serious problems, whether that’s an ash cloud or grounded type of aircraft or even a terrorist incident. “The truly global ones have true 24-hour service in multiple locations,” he says. “And they can offer local in-market expertise.”
One area of continuing focus, for global as well as domestic travel, is the effort to make booking tools address the needs of both travelers and employers. “We all hear about more Millennials in the marketplace, but everyone – not just Millennials – is becoming more tech-reliant,” Keichline says. “It’s critically important to have an efficient, user-friendly technology platform including online booking and mobile apps.”
While there may be little disagreement on this point, the gap remains between what is and what could be. “Research we have just conducted shows there’s a huge challenge with travel managers’ and travelers’ satisfaction with booking tools,” Tilstone says. “They’re looking for the next generation of tools to apply much more dynamic control, richer content and an enhanced user experience.”
Things have been made complicated by developments on the consumer side. “The growth of personalization and consumerization has really put pressure on the corporate travel space,” Tate says. He notes that when a traveler chooses, say, a hotel, it’s a consumer-friendly process. But in the corporate space it’s very policy-driven. While that might meet the needs of the organization, it also means that travelers will continue to find themselves tempted to go outside the system.
“This is the big issue for all buyers – trying to create a better mousetrap for everyone,” Tate says. He says the ultimate goal should be to develop a system that travelers don’t want to avoid.
While this remains a challenge, Tate is optimistic about the future as well as the present. “We’ll definitely get there,” he says. “Investors are betting on that. And at present, travel execs are not confined when it comes to choice. There are a lot of options out there."
Identify the Right Partners There can be real benefits in working with a traveler-centric TMC, says Nina Giovannelli, vice president of business operations at TripActions. “It drives adoption of the platform, which helps with compliance and ultimately cost savings for travel managers and finance,” she says. “It also allows employees to focus less on booking travel and more on their core job – driving value for the organization.”
A fundamental question is whether to deal with multiple TMCs. “If you’re expanding internationally, have a growing global presence or have multiple offices around the world, having a single TMC that can support you globally with a single solution is beneficial,” says Tristan Smith, VP of customer success, SME, Egencia. According to recent research Egencia conducted jointly with Harvard Business Review, 77 percent of organizations with a strong travel culture have a single TMC solution in place.
Smith says a single global solution supports consistent management of travel programs with the same policy, reporting and administration worldwide. In addition, the traveler experience should assure there are no second-class citizens. “Your travelers in the smallest or most remote countries should experience the same service and ease of use as those in your largest countries,” Smith says.
Advantages offered by a full-featured TMC may include leveraging negotiated rates in destinations with lower volume, as well as managing the various intricacies of operating a global hotel program. The challenge of reporting on international travel back to the business can be met through a one-stop-shop where all reporting needs are managed from a single location, and overall effectiveness can be enhanced.
Giovannelli notes that many legacy TMCs were built with a North American bias, and international travel inherently comes with unique challenges. “These legacy players have had to piece together many different agencies, tools and inventory sources to create a global solution,” she says. “Starting fresh, with a technology-driven approach, and thinking about the problem from the user’s perspective helps to tackle international challenges head on.”
Think Before You RFP Before going into an exercise to source your TMC, it’s important to know what you need in order to know what you’re looking for, Tilstone says. “It sounds simple, but it really isn’t,” he says. Questions to be addressed might include: What are your corporate objectives? How will they change in the next few years? What type of culture do you have? What type of travelers do you have and what problems they experiencing?
After such needs have been identified, you can look at TMCs that match your culture and that can bring you the capabilities you need. Then at that stage you can get into the commercials. “Getting the first two right will bring much more value than issuing an RFP to everyone and focusing on price,” Tilstone says.
Menkes advises starting with an internal assessment. “Survey your travelers,” he says. “Find out what is and isn’t working.”
Benchmarking with peers that have gone through the RFP process can also be revealing, as can interacting with potential bidders and asking them what differentiates them from their competition. The result can be an RFP that’s not off the shelf but meets the needs of your stakeholders, and that addresses expectations realistically.
“Be realistic with your expectations for what a TMC is going to be able to deliver to your organization,” says Hansini Sharma, engagement manager at Acquis Consulting Group. This goes for executives supporting travel managers overseeing the corporate travel programs as well as executives within the industry. “There is a place for the models that exist today, but overselling or underselling the capabilities doesn’t really help anyone.”
If your TMC model is one that is meant for global organizations, don’t set the expectation that a domestic $2 million program is going to get the same level of service from the TMC as a $500 million program, she advises. Or if you’re an executive supporting your own travel program, pinpoint your exact needs and ask the questions. “Engage consultants or subject matter experts to help you understand the experience you are really creating for your travelers, as it is unlikely that an off the shelf solution is right for you,” Sharma adds.
Tate also points to the value of defining exactly what success looks like before the project starts. “Everyone wants improved efficiency,” he says. “But does that have to happen in eighty countries?” He also cautions against focusing too much on cost as a selection criterion. "The cost side is not as important as the deliverables," he says. "What kind of throughput can a TMC provide so you can get a better ROI?"
Keichline notes that the two-way nature of any relationship should be considered. “Before partnering with a TMC, it’s important to understand if they are a good fit for your company,” he says. “The obvious way is to ask questions, but it’s also important to provide as much information as possible to them.”
Having an open and honest dialogue will allow both sides to determine if it’s a good fit. Keichline shares that he and his team have had instances where they’ve decided not to pursue certain prospects after having these types of conversations. “In today’s business world, it’s not a good use of anyone’s time to pursue a project that is unlikely to succeed,” he says.
Once a partnership is in place, much depends on relationships with the account managers at the TMC itself, Sharma says. “Travel managers have to find a way to connect with their TMC partners in a way that makes them collaborative to finding a suitable solution to the end travelers,” she says.
This could range anywhere from working with the TMC to understand the different sourcing options that are available, to the ways to configure a booking tool (if there is an indirect relationship) to return results that are desired. It could also include conversations about the agent structure for when a traveler calls in with a question on booking support.
“There are small and large ways a TMC relationship and overall experience can be customized to fit an organization,” Sharma adds. “The travel manager is responsible for fostering that relationship with the TMC and asking the right questions to get the program where it needs to be.”
Ongoing review with the TMC is also critical, according to Keichline. This should include not only key metrics, but also the goals of the firm, travel market trends and benchmarking. “There are lots of TMCs that can provide great service and value,” he says. But the only way to bring ongoing value is to truly understand the needs of the travel program and be flexible and savvy enough to make adjustments.