The Frequent Traveler: Travelers And Companies Share Responsibility For Productivity And Comfort - Business Travel News

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The Frequent Traveler: Travelers And Companies Share Responsibility For Productivity And Comfort

October 29, 2012 - 09:30 AM ET

By Jay Boehmer

If running the gauntlet of flight cancellations, missed connections, unfamiliar locales and spotty Internet access isn't enough to provoke stress, travelers also are expected to maintain a continuum of productivity. As the weary well know, deadlines, meetings and emails don't stop when they take a business trip.

Considering all that can go wrong and all that employees must do to perform their duties when traveling, the question of who takes responsibility for providing creature comforts and enhancing productivity can be a confounding one. Does it fall to the traveler or to the employer?

Yes and yes, according to BTN research. Both sit with travel suppliers at a sometimes ill-defined intersection of corporate cost, control and policy on one side and employee productivity, comfort and connectivity on the other.

[Please click here to view the digital edition of The Frequent Traveler: Finding A Balance, featuring all charted data, downloadable as a pdf.]  

These responsibilities are "absolutely shared," said Advisory Board Co. vice president of information systems and travel buyer Steven Mandelbaum. "The notion that travelers alone are responsible for their own destiny or that travelers alone can make it what they want is an impossibility. It has to be shared. But to do that, we give our travelers a tremendous amount of flexibility. Travel buyers can do a number of things to make life better for travelers. It depends on your travelers and their most pressing needs and their biggest pain points. But as a travel manager, you do have a shot at doing that."

According to BTN survey results, there are a number of services that companies provide and expenses they'll cover to ease life on the road.

Among those, 59 percent of buyers indicated they negotiate with airlines for elite status designations for some travelers, while 55 percent do the same for rental car programs and 42 percent do so for hotel programs. Mandelbaum suggested that buyers are in a much better position than travelers to secure such designations, which provide not only comfort and productivity enhancements for travelers, but also cost-saving opportunities for companies.

"We do an annual and semi-annual review of who is on our [supplier elite status] lists," said Martha Ferguson, Interpublic Group of Companies senior manager of travel operations for Europe, Middle East and Africa and the global corporate card program. "It is something we take really seriously. We upgrade a lot of people's status, on multiple airlines."

While such designations once were considered merely "soft dollars," a nice add-on to supplier negotiations, the growing array of optional services—from rental car GPS devices and inflight Wi-Fi to checked bags, which can be waived or discounted through status—has firmed their value.

For frequent traveler Sarah Howell, a busy flight schedule, not her travel manager, earned her elite airline status. Howell, who blogs under the moniker Road Warriorette, not only gets free checked bags and potential upgrades, which can save on travel costs, but other perks that ease the process of travel. "It really does increase productivity, because if there is a flight disruption, because of my status, I get preference over most other people when rebooking," she said.

Another perk worth exploring is airport lounge membership. Though only 12 percent of buyer respondents said their companies foot the bill, Carlson Wagonlit Travel suggested companies take a closer look at such expenses. "It may be most cost-effective for an organization to pay for airline lounge memberships for road warriors if the savings in Internet access fees, not to mention food, beverages and other services, outweighs the membership costs," according to a recent white paper from the travel management company.

The App Gap  

Of buyer respondents to the BTN survey, 43 percent indicated that their organization's travel department either provides or recommends mobile travel apps to their traveler population, a practice that Flightcaster co-founder and independent consultant Evan Konwiser suggested more adopt.

"We'd like to see when a travel program can enable these tools, whether that's through back-end integration or pre-downloading applications onto company-owned smartphones or just marketing by email to say, 'Here are 10 tools that you can download yourself and use,' " Konwiser said. "We look for the travel manager to enable all those tools and provide a menu of options that are plug-and-play and easy for travelers to use."

While there are a multitude of free or inexpensive mobile apps that can ease the travel experience, issues of cost, time and resources can constrain company efforts to customize.

That's an issue with which Microsoft senior travel manager for strategy and technology Eric Bailey has grappled.

Conveying a relatable predicament for many travel buyers, Bailey said he is shifting "a huge amount of focus to what the traveler experience is and how we can improve it, but the goal is to do it with the same bucket of money."

Bailey suggested that an ideal corporate mobile app would incorporate other elements of employees' professional lives, going beyond travel to include other internal corporate services. Microsoft has developed some of those in-house, providing things like corporate campus maps and directions and information on employee shuttle and commuter services. "We are sort of building the spokes without a hub, and at some point we'll build this hub," he said.

While Bailey is exploring app options, he acknowledged that he doesn't "have the budget to build a travel app, then set up all the feeds to the agency. The hard thing with productivity is it isn't hard savings, so I know that with a good app, that if I had a million dollars, I could build something fantastic, and I know I could improve productivity. I don't know if I can quantify that or prove it, and I'm pretty sure I can't get a million dollars in the budget for an app that we think will make people more productive and happier when they're traveling."

Building internally can be daunting and expensive, but many travel agencies, online booking tool providers and expense reporting technology firms provide apps to their corporate clients. Among traveler respondents, 46 percent indicated they used mobile online booking tools while traveling and 37 percent used mobile expense reporting tools.

Buyers and consultants speaking with BTN noted that such mobile tools ideally would come from the company, especially if they are tied to corporate-approved channels or integrated with agency or other back-end systems.

Of course, not all tools that enhance productivity or reduce travel stresses come at a cost or butt up against established policies. For example, apps that provide flight status updates or organize itineraries don't necessarily conflict with corporate spend controls. In such situations, Konwiser and others suggested that companies get out of the way.

For some, Konwiser said, "you don't need much integration at all. For example, you can recommend travelers download SeatGuru so they can pick the seat they like before they get on the plane versus, say, an itinerary manager, where you might want to integrate it to the point where it can incorporate real-time itineraries, including changes. Or if you can integrate on the back end for expense management, that's helpful. There's a spectrum of different integration points, some requiring a lot of integration and some not."

Frequent traveler Howell said she uses Concur's TripIt for itinerary management, as well as flight notification tools to alert her to disruptions. In both cases, she grabbed those tools for herself, rather than waiting for her company to hand them down.

Both have paid off in terms of easing the travel experience, and neither interfered with corporate control. "I've gotten notifications when I've been on a plane and the flight attendants don't know what's going on," she said. "But I've got a notification that says, this flight has been canceled. That's kind of a big deal."

Still, Howell also turns to her company for important travel services. In many ways, a managed travel program is built on delivering productivity-enhancing services as much as saving costs. "I work for a pretty decent-sized corporation," she said, "so we have a corporate travel agency that we go through, and any time I have a canceled flight and need rebooking, I can call them. It can be very easy for me when I have flight issues or disruptions to get it fixed. I know that for people who travel for smaller companies, who have to book their own travel, it's a much bigger hassle for them and they often have to deal with the airline directly."

The Connectivity Conundrum 

According to the survey results, travel buyers take different stances on reimbursing Internet expenses, possibly depending on where they are being incurred. While 79 percent of buyers surveyed said their companies would pick up the tab for hotel room Internet access, only 48 percent said the same for inflight Wi-Fi, and 46 percent would foot the bill for airport Wi-Fi.

To some travelers, it's silly that companies restrict access to tools that help them get their job done, just because they happen to be in an airplane seat and not in a hotel room.

"My company's policies reflect that they want us to be as productive as possible and they recognize that we sometimes have to pay for tools to make that happen," said Howell. "But there are people who can only pay for Wi-Fi at a hotel, for example. They can't be out and about and pay for Wi-Fi at a coffee shop. That's just makes it more complicated for you to do your job."

Still, Advisory Board's Mandelbaum argued that unlimited Internet access on multiple devices could become quite a costly proposition.

"There's a ton of devices, and that's the thing you have to careful about," he said. "They have a computer, so they want to connect their computer. They have an iPad and they want to connect their iPad. Then they've got their phone that they want to connect. Between all the different devices and all the ways to connect, you can really get in trouble. That's why it's important to put some rationalization around it."

That was a driver for The Advisory Board's decision to create policies addressing connectivity. The company recently allocated to travelers a monthly connectivity budget, which varies based on what Mandelbaum called "travel intensity," with latitude to choose how and where they connect. "We give people allowances," he said. "You want to use it on [inflight connectivity provider] Gogo? You want to use it on an unlimited data plan? You want to use it on data for your iPad? The traveler optimizes that money."

Mandelbaum may be ahead of the curve. Carlson Wagonlit Travel in an October white paper declared that managing connectivity is the "next big thing" in travel management. The travel management company suggested buyers take ownership of traveler connectivity.

According to a CWT survey this year of 6,000 business travelers, "poor/no Internet connection" was the second-biggest stress inducer for travelers, after lost or delayed luggage. CWT suggested buyers look at corporate card data to see which connectivity providers travelers are using, be they at the airport, on the plane or in a hotel. After that, the TMC recommends setting a policy so "travelers understand the organization's expectations for their spending, and any repercussions for not abiding by the rules," and also leveraging spend data to consider preferred connectivity providers and pursue discounts.

"Staying connected while away from the office is a key aspect of traveling for business," according to CWT. "Travel buyers can help employees remain connected—and in some cases even improve their connectivity experience—while significantly reducing costs, by starting to address connectivity as another area of travel management. Buyers can apply many of the tried-and-true principles of managed travel to the area of connectivity to yield substantial benefits for their organizations."

This report originally appeared in the Oct. 22, 2012, edition of Business Travel News. 

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