The quest for one perfect travel and expense tool requires organizations to get all the players at the table
By Bryan Yurcan
The end-to-end travel and expense process can be difficult and arduous to manage. Travel buyers must work in concert with the many different departments involved, from finance to IT, and it all has to fit with the individual travelers themselves. The process is plagued by manual operations and paper-based inputs that can be a headache – not to mention costly.
That’s why the industry has been working toward a seamless end-to-end T&E tool that manages the entire process from booking, expense management payments and more. But what makes for the best end-to-end tool? The answer to that question can come from different angles. And that, some say, has been a major drawback in the past, as most solutions are built out based on a single part of the T&E process.
“Bringing them all together requires unique technical capabilities and company-wide commitment to deliver the all-in-one solution corporate travelers want,” says Duke Chung, CEO and co-founder of TravelBank, which was acquired by U.S. Bank in 2021. “Many have focused on building either a travel or an expense solution. What’s been most challenging for providers is embedding easy-to-use payment capabilities and delivering a corporate card program that works well for businesses.”
Chung adds that one of the main benefits of his organization partnering with U.S. Bank was that by adding the bank’s virtual card solution into its own offering, the two are “meeting the needs of both corporate travel administrators and travelers.”
Most of the flaws that face end-to-end solutions today come when companies try to cobble together a solution that wasn’t built with integration in mind, says Charlie Sultan, president of Concur Travel at SAP Concur.
“As companies continue to strive for greater productivity and efficiency, having fully integrated systems is critical to eliminate the need for employees to continue keying in information that already exists elsewhere in a digitized form,” Sultan says. He adds that fully integrated solutions such as Concur automate the expense report process to make things simple for travelers, and give companies better data and visibility to improve budgeting, forecasting and policy compliance.
In addition, in this new “work-from-anywhere world,” having full integration allows companies to meet their legal tax jurisdiction requirements by being able to determine how many days their employees are actually working in different states or different countries, Sultan notes.
“The corporate travel industry has undergone massive change over the past two and a half years, which is a big challenge,” he explains, adding that according to SAP Concur’s own research, “100 percent of travel managers we surveyed expect their jobs to become more challenging in the next 12 months as a result. What can help is integrated travel and expense technologies that are flexible, support multiple content sources and booking channels, and scale as companies grow to set up a corporate travel program for success now and in the future.”
Managing expenses is typically the most complicated part of travel booking because travel is a moving target of spend controls for any company. So spend controls and insight often take priority, where the actual booking and travel experience suffer, and the overall user interface and flow for the traveler is de-prioritized, says David Barrett, founder and CEO of expense solutions provider Expensify.
“We think there’s a happy medium that can satisfy both parties, where employees have the flexibility of choice, change and comfort on the front end and admins still have oversight on the back end,” says Barrett.
Ultimately, what the “perfect” end-to-end tool entails is in the eye of the beholder, says Greeley Koch, managing director of 490 Consulting. However he says it seems no one yet has built an integrated tool that is the perfect combination on both the travel and expense side.
“Throw in payment and now you have another complicating factor,” Koch continues. “We are not at the finish line of the ‘perfect’ end-to-end tool, but we have made progress on the long twisting racetrack. The progress has come with better data sharing and pre-populating of certain aspects. However, we are still subject to what happens on the road and being able to capture that spend. We were so excited when we could take a picture of a receipt and have it show up in my expense report. But these days, taking a picture seems antiquated. Why can’t the data flow much better between the place where I had the expense, the payment I used and my expense report?”
Build a Concensus When it comes to choosing which tools will make a difference out on the road as well as in the back office, travel buyers may not own every step in the process. So it’s critical to engage with other stakeholders to have a voice in the decision. The best T&E tool will have an seamless user experience and workflow that will allow the traveler to easily book and expense their trip, have the manager review and the reimbursement process happen quickly and in an automated fashion.
This is crucial because so many different people get involved in the entire process, from the travel department, the traveler, the company’s treasury operation and the accounting group, Koch notes.
“That is a wide group of people to please who all have various needs and process flows,” Koch says. “Having one T&E platform be able to accomplish all facets easily with a strong UX and keep all the company’s departments happy, seems like a Herculean effort and one where we have not yet seen the perfect tool. The travel department can take the lead internally to bring the various departments together to develop their needs, conduct any supplier review, issue an RFP and manage the final selection process,” he adds.
“Clearly having a better traveler UX is key to driving adoption and satisfaction,” Koch explains. “Companies are focused on the traveler’s experience and that needs to start with the tools they are given to conduct their jobs. You must remember what’s populating the tool is also important. On the travel side, the tool should be able to seamlessly bring in new content sources. The expense tool should reduce steps needed to ensure all expenses are captured correctly.”
Indeed, travel and expense management solutions are most effective when they are fully and naturally integrated with one another to “give travel managers full autonomy in supporting their preferred providers and channels.” Sultan notes.
“In the next five years, more companies will implement these types of integrated systems. They’ll look for solution providers that go beyond travel and expense management and connect data across travel, finance, procurement, and other departments in one place with a consumer-grade user experience."
In fact, travel and expense should be viewed as a company-wide initiative, adds Chung. “It’s imperative that all departments are continuously engaging with each other to understand what’s working and what isn’t,” he says. “Critical to this is ongoing conversations with the employees actually using the platform to make sure it’s meeting their needs.“
Empowered Travelers Since the business travelers themselves are the primary consumers of any T&E tool, user experience should be considered first and foremost in any solution. “Historically, the user experience was built for the corporate travel administrator because they were the decision maker,” Chung notes. “They were empowered to choose the system and the corporate traveler was required to use it. Because the user experience was not friendly to the actual traveler, some employees wouldn’t use it.”
This would then lead some employees to book outside of the platform, which cost the firm time, money and policy control, Chung says.
While Barrett agrees that the user experience has typically taken a back seat to tools meant to satisfy administrators and the back office, he maintains it doesn’t have to be that way. “The industry isn’t there yet, but it’s going to be an all-in-one app that mixes an open-booking feel for an easier UI flow with the minimum essential controls in place to continue to keep admins happy.”
Depending on the size of the organization and how specialized policies need to be, the user experience is important but may not be as important as flexibility in the tool itself, adds Zach Ornelas, vice president, global network sales for UATP. “User experience has to be extended beyond the expense submitter and approver to the organization as a whole to ensure the specific information they need to collect is available and the tool itself flexible,” says Ornelas. “Some of the most important components as a submitter and approver are easy capture and presenting of receipts, that it is mobile, and provides simplified edits throughout the approval process. Today, credit card feeds are table stakes. Data capture feeds from picture receipts are definitely a great aspect of a T&E tool now.”
In addition to user experience, a good travel and expense tool should be built with features that help manage spend, says Chung. “This includes built-in policy management and enforcement, so a traveler doesn’t have to reference a lengthy travel policy manual to stay within the policy. We’ve also been successful at creating a program that rewards employees who, if they choose to, book travel that falls under the budget created by their company.”
Ultimately, the ideal end-to-end travel and expense solution that satisfies all parties involved is one that could put more power in the hands of the traveler, Barrett maintains. “There are already a million tools out there that people use in their personal lives to book travel - Google Flights, Kayak, Expedia, etc. – that do a great job of filtering on every imaginable preference,” he says. “Why not leverage the power of existing tools that employees use regularly, and find a way to bring them into the corporate booking experience directly? The best travel booking experience blends much of what is already built, with a simple and clean layer on top for spend controls.”