Corporate travel departments depend on a travel management company to act as the travel agency for their business travelers. TMCs come in small, medium, large and mega sizes, and most offer technology solutions such as online booking engines and data analysis tools, combined with personalized customer service.

The key to selecting the best TMC is to match a company’s service needs and culture with the right travel partner.

“Some TMCs will proactively engage in helping you build a travel program rooted in the traveler experience with cost containment strategies, and some will require you to take a more DIY approach with a few value-added services,” says Gabe Rizzi, president and chief sales officer for Travel Leaders Corporate.

“Travel policy mandates, duty of care requirements (risk management), supplier negotiations, expense management, key performance indicators, metric-based reporting – there are many reasons small and medium-sized companies are choosing to partner with a travel management company,” Rizzi adds.

On any given day, more than 2.6 million passengers fly into or out of US airports – a testament to the pervasiveness of travel in our society and in our businesses. But while business travel is more commonplace than ever, travel management has become increasingly complex.

The best TMC will offer easy-to-use technology and tools that make even the most complex travel program easy to manage, says Virginie Pouget, head of global consulting at Egencia.

“Business travelers expect the same booking experience they have with leisure travel so a TMC needs to know what’s working in the leisure space and how to bring it to business travel,” Pouget says. “You should also take a close look at their employees. You want experienced global program managers and highly trained consultants dedicated to your success.”

Bryan Leibman, president and CEO of FROSCH Travel, says business travel is not a one-size-fits-all proposition, so corporate clients should seek a travel management company that has the ability to identify the specific needs of your organization and offer truly customized solutions.

“For example, finding the right balance of technology and customer service can vary depending on the unique culture of each client,” he says. “A company brimming with next-gen travelers would absolutely want to incorporate a mobile travel app solution, while an established company of infrequent international travelers might see the app as unnecessary and be more focused on true 24/7 VIP service for their travelers.”

In addition, a successful travel management company will have a full suite of services that can be deployed through a single global platform to ensure consistent service and consolidated reporting.

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Andy Menkes, senior vice president of Global Client Solutions for BCD Travel, says the secret to being what a corporate client needs is listening, absorbing and using internal resources to collaborate on a solution.

“Too often TMCs will assume because of their size and experience that they can handle any program, but that’s an overly confident assumption,” Menkes explains. “I don’t believe you can offer a solution to a client without some prior and deep engagement.”

As Will Tate, a partner with GoldSpring Consulting, points out, when global organizations are choosing a TMC, they expect a consistency of technology, and want to see deployment of innovations such as AI and chatbox happening as consistently as possible.

“They are looking for a proactive partner, someone who will monitor their programs and recommend improvement strategies continually,” he says. “They are looking for TMCs willing to back their promises up with financial guarantees.”

According to a survey by the Global Business Travel Association, 79 percent of business travelers in North America say their experiences on the road affect their overall job satisfaction. With record low unemployment rates, travel policies have become an important factor for companies to attract and retain top talent.

“A TMC can help you develop travel policies that increase traveler satisfaction and offer bleisure options while on business trips while keeping you on track to reach your financial goals,” Rizzi says. “Partnering with a TMC has many benefits, but one of the best is knowing your travelers always have the help they need when they need it. Whether it’s a last-minute itinerary change or a canceled flight, a professional travel advisor is never more than a text or call away.”

A TMC will also work with you to develop a risk management program and implement duty of care policies that will help companies ensure the safety of their most valuable asset – their employees.

GBTA estimates that partnering with a TMC saves companies between 5 percent and 50 percent of their annual travel spend, and as travel is often a company’s second largest expense, even companies that spend as little as $250,000 a year can see significant savings.

“By working with a TMC, you’ll have the guidance and support you need to develop a travel program that increases your ROI, without sacrificing traveler satisfaction,” Rizzi says. “From online booking to integrated expense reporting, and customizable mobile offerings, TMCs offer end-to-end solutions that increase efficiency and reduce costs.”

What To Look For
Hansini Sharma, engagement manager of Acquis Consulting Group, says to meet the demands of a corporate program, a key characteristic that a TMC should offer is flexibility.

“Agents should be available beyond just business hours to meet the needs of business travelers,” she says. “When you think about professions that tend to have more travel (professional services, technology, sales), their schedules are not 9 to 5, so having a travel partner that can assist them earlier in the morning or into their evening without a significant incremental cost is a benefit.”

Another thing companies should look for is strong account management. Sharma notes each time she has encountered a client switching TMCs, account management has been cited as one of the top three reasons for the change.

“One of the challenges I hear about most frequently is that clients are happy with the quality of the products they receive from their TMC partners, but they struggle with getting regular updates, support and guidance from their account manager,” Sharma says.

“Each client has different needs, even if they are grouped into industry and spend clusters,” she explains.  “Account managers have an opportunity to proactively anticipate improvements or mitigation of perceived challenges if they spend time getting into the details.”

A third factor, Sharma notes is supplier openness. “There are many sources of content and booking incentives these days, ranging from API connectivity into hotel content, low-cost carrier partners, to technology partners like Tripkicks that require a TMC relationship to best serve their client,” she says. “TMCs should be willing and able to accommodate the diverse supplier requirements of their clients.”

She adds that if your company is selecting a TMC, a formal RFP process is definitely the best route.  However, if you’re already working with a TMC partner, you should take advantage of quarterly business reviews.  Further, she recommends these meetings be in person as often as they can be. This gives the client the opportunity to pull in the relevant stakeholders from their side so there is transparency in information sharing.

It’s important for the TMC to offer relevant suppliers that can be booked on mobile or desktop, Pouget advises, because that’s critical to traveler satisfaction.

“Reporting is another must-have – travel managers need access to data analytics and on-demand reporting to see what’s working with their travel and where the opportunities are to increase compliance and savings,” she says. “Egencia customers have access to Egencia Analytics Studio, which unlocks data that can be simply analyzed and understood to deliver actionable insights.”

Knowing Me, Knowing You
As is the case in any relationship, the secret of a successful partnership between a company and their TMC is understanding what the other party’s needs are and being proactive versus reactive. “As TMCs, we need to provide a suite of products and services that can pivot easily,” Rizzi says.

“For instance, companies’ finances can expand and contract. When a small business grows, it’s easy to scale up, but what about scaling down?” he asks. “It’s important that we understand that sometimes our customers might be watching their travel budgets.”

A TMC needs to understand the customers’ needs as they stand right now, and offer them appropriate solutions, Rizzi says.  “Like a long marriage, people and companies grow and change, and if you’re concentrating on what you can get out of the relationship, instead of truly understanding what the other party needs to be happy, that relationship won’t last long.”

Successful travel management companies work in tandem with clients to adapt and scale to their changing business needs. “Providing a consultative service, rather than a transactional service, enables a TMC to grow with a client,” Leibman says. “Establishing transparency, demonstrating value and proving flexibility – whether it’s around a particular technology, global expansion or simply a transaction – ensure that clients feel looked after instead of being nickeled and dimed.”

Sharma notes the various “classes” of TMCs tend to have similar products to one another. While there are some nuances in their technical capabilities and geographic reach, ultimately they are similar. “It’s the people clients work with and their willingness to turn the model on its nose and be innovative that creates a lasting relationship,” she says.

Listening to customers is another key to building a strong relationship, Pouget says. “Companies rely on their TMC to help refine their travel program so that it adds real value to their business whether that’s through savings or traveler satisfaction,” she says. “They also need a managed travel solution that can grow and scale with them so getting support from expert TMCs is crucial to success.”

Asked & Answered
A TMC is a fundamental partner in the success of most travel programs, so when shopping for a new relationship, it’s a good idea for the travel manager to talk to a few to understand their approach and why they should be trusted with the company’s T&E dollars.

“You want to find the right combination of excellent service at a reasonable cost,” Rizzi says. “No two TMCs are exactly alike, so you’ll have to decide what’s most important to your organization. The main question to have answered by all candidates is: ‘How am I being charged?’ Ask for references from their existing clients that have needs similar to yours.”

Menkes notes some questions that need to be asked include: “What distinguishes you from the competition?” “What have been your most successful new client engagements?” “What would you have done differently with any of those?” and “What would make my company a good fit in your portfolio?”

Other important questions center on the TMC’s vision of its own growth over the next five years or ten years, as well as how they see the larger business travel industry changing.

“The best answers are a combination, together with being able to provide relevant references,” he says. “There does need to be a deep understanding of a client’s vertical, and even more so if that client is a relatively new company.”

A TMC candidate’s technology offerings need to be carefully considered to ensure their booking tool is intuitive and will work well in your technology environment. “It’s critical you’re given options that match the pain points your travelers are experiencing versus chasing every shiny technology object,” Rizzi cautions. “Adoption is the Achilles heel of technology and you need to ensure you’re getting the right tools for your team.”

Sharma feels the most important question is to ask which types of clients the TMC best serves.  She stresses that the needs of a $400 million program in 100 countries is different than a $5 million program in three countries.

“Ask the TMCs about their service models, geographic capabilities and pricing structures,” she advises. “Determine whether you should be on a transaction based or managed services contract. There are no bad choices for a TMC, but there are certainly the wrong choices for a company. In this situation, you want the client to be a big fish in a small sea, not the little fish in the big sea.”