16 experts advise on what’s to come this year.
Speaking at the recent Association of Corporate Travel Executives conference in New York, three midmarket buyers discussed what they want from their travel management companies, from scale to customer service to technology. On stage were Tapestry senior manager of global travel Rosemary Maloney, who moderated the session; Evercore VP of corporate services Jason Ring; and Neuberger Berman VP of global service and business continuity Tracie Saunders. Audience members also chimed in, including BTN managing editor Amanda Metcalf and KBB Partners director of travel services Mira Rosenzweig. The moral: Know yourself, i.e., your travel program, first.
Maloney: Do you believe there is such a thing as a one-size-fits-all agency?
Saunders: Definitely not. Our program is under $20 million. It was important that I found an agency where I was important. For some of the larger companies, it’s easier to partner with a larger agency and not get lost in the shuffle, but for a company that’s my size, you have to find the right relationship where, when you have concerns or if you’re frustrated or if you’d like to make changes or you’re looking for assistance, they’re willing to meet you at the table and that your $5 counts. For companies that have a lot of money, maybe pricing becomes more important because everybody wants to do business with you.
Ring: [Evercore works] with American Express Global Business Travel. We’re a small fish in a big pond. [The TMC should be] frank at the table. Everyone wants to say, “I can do everything.” There should be [TMCs] out there that recognize sometimes, “This isn’t the right piece of business.” The [company we used] before Amex came into our RFP process and said, “Oh, we can do all of this—white-glove service, VIP, knowledgeable—and they weren’t. They were really a self-service online tool that was a great product [among] companies that did that, but to have the honesty right out of the gate and say, “You know what? Looking at your needs, we’re not gonna be able to meet those,” would have saved everybody a lot of heartache and a lot of contracts and a lot of money.
Metcalf: Is there ever a reason to go with one of the big ponds if you’re not a big fish?
Saunders: A mega works for a company that’s looking for a fully developed product they can purchase off of the shelf. For me, it’s more important to be a valued partner with your TMC, where you’re able to give input—if you put [service-level agreements] in, they’re accountable for it. If the shoes don’t fit, you’ll stop wearing them.
Ring: I don’t want to say the big box can’t service a midsize company, [but] there’s this misguided [perception] that because we have a mega box, we’re gliding: We can just travel anywhere and we’ll get the best rate and the best discount, the VIP. All of the sudden we’re not this midsize company anymore—we’re this beast of a financial institution—and that’s not a fair expectation.
I want to
roll it out
if it’s not
what I like,
it’s not a
Rosenzweig: The megas have standard, off-the-shelf tools that work for some. This includes some vendor relationships because of their buying power. Sometimes, for companies that do not have multimillion dollars in air, the air savings that can come out of a mega can be pretty beneficial to you. If you look and shop and do your own due diligence as a travel manager, looking at the tools and the rates that they’re providing, you will see some significant savings, although not as much as you can achieve in direct, corporate noncommissionable contracts. For the middle-size TMCs, they need to work with their vendor relations teams, combat the megas and put in the programs to meet the needs of the type of clients they want to have.
Maloney: I speak to my account manager weekly; she helps me every time there’s an issue. How does your account management communication work?
Ring: I recently got a new account manager, Laura. I love this woman. What [my previous account manager] would provide me was also what he would provide another company. I [now] feel like I have a partner at that managerial level. I don’t feel like they’re working for me, and I don’t feel like I’m working for them. That’s my advocate within Amex, and that is what makes a strong account manager.
Saunders: I actually have relationships not only with my U.S. agency but also with account managers across the globe because I want to know all of the minutiae. I [might be] on a call with the account manager and the supervisor for our team and sometimes the IT guy and the airline people from strategic solutions. For some people, that doesn’t make sense, so you want to ask yourself the amount of time you want to spend managing your program and how many different locations you need to focus on and the bandwidth that you have.
Ring: Does your TMC get your input [about planned changes], or are you just told, “This is changing?”
Saunders: I tell them what I want even if they didn’t ask. You really need to advocate on your own behalf. Luckily, I partner with an agency that wants to hear my feedback, but I would have told them anyway. You need to pick up the phone; you need to say, “I don’t like the way this is.” I see nothing wrong with calling the direct department that needs to change. They might still push it out to you and still give you a product that doesn’t work for you, but it’s really important that you let them know consistently what your needs are.
Maloney: I give my TMC partners a list of the things that are changing that are affecting my program and the things that I would like to see. Because they know that I came from a TMC background, they run new reports and technology by me as an advisory [like] savings reports. I want to see those things before you roll it out because if it’s not what I like, it’s not a useful use of their resources and [it’s] a waste of their money. That’s an important thing that all TMCs should know: Utilize your relationships with the buyers. Get their feedback.
Saunders: Volunteer to be the guinea pig. My TMC knows I’m all about it. They know I’d rather give you my feedback now than for you to roll it out and for me to be upset. So be that buyer.
Maloney: Do you ever feel like you’re getting too much data? Do you want something that’s easily packaged, that you can receive it and then send it to your SVP or your exec board, or do you want to take it in yourself and do that kind of work?
Ring: I’d like the ability for both. Obviously, I’d love to be able to take the raw data and do what I want, but I would also love a file that I can just forward. What’s important is some sort of eyes on the data. That’s the challenge I have now with trusting a report that comes to me to just forward. All it takes is one time for that data to not make sense and now I look like a bad travel manager. You’re feeding off so many different things like the ARC and the airline and the flown versus bought, flight versus ticket versus flown. There are so many variables, so reporting has to be customizable. [The need] is to get the right eyes on it consistently so you have a consistent report.
People matter, so the TMC and the
resources that they bring to the table are
important. But ... if you’re unhappy with the
person who’s on your account, then your
TMC needs to know. You’d be shocked
that sometimes, it’s the person and not
the organization you’re working with.
Saunders: Data accuracy is really important, [as is] evolving the product as the industry changes. Is advance purchase still the same [as] it was a decade ago, where you wanted people to book 14 days [out]? Maybe you want people to book seven days [out] because your people are now doing all of these changes. You want your agency to be thinking about ways for you to understand how your program is evolving and what decisions you need to be making. Customization becomes really, really important.
Ring:For my travelers, customer service is not just booking the correct flight, ticketing it in a timely fashion. It’s about getting the right seat. It’s about calling the hotel for late arrivals so they don’t get walked. Sometimes I get pushback on customer service because the calls are picked up within 20 seconds and emails respond in a day, [but] that’s not all of it. For me, customer service is getting agents and agencies to a place where they can say, “Go above and beyond.” A perfect TMC is having the culture of customer service go across the board. When we used to be with a smaller agency, we had one guy that everybody went to; everybody loved George. Now, with Amex, we have a large group of agents, and sometimes people will hang up because they got Mary and they want to wait for Theresa.
Saunders: The high-touch experience that Jason’s people are looking for is very similar to what our people are looking for. I have an incredible relationship with our team supervisor. We have the most complicated policy in the world, so it’s important that the agents understand the policy. It’s also important that they understand that our people would like to have the best experience possible and that we’d like to pay as little as possible. They know the person who works at that hotel. The same thing with the airlines; they know who are our account managers, and they’re reaching out to them when that makes sense. I say to my team supervisor, “If they have a question, I’d rather they ask you and if you don’t know the answer you ask me, than for one of my people to be really unhappy and for me to hear about it on the back end.”
Saunders: There is all this new technology, and I want better reporting and I want things that are going to help me make decisions and do things faster and where the analysis to some extent is in the report and things are more efficient. Some agencies spend a lot of internal technology funds to make that happen. I’m like, “Do I have to pay for that or does it come with your product? It’s understanding your appetite for spending for new technology and then talking to your TMC within that context. Talk to your peers—maybe they are worrying about something that you haven’t even started worrying about yet—and then go to your TMC. If they haven’t started working on it, they’re going to hear that I’d like for them to start working on it. Sometimes you gotta be the catalyst.
Ring: There [needs to be] a balance between technology and customer service. The company [we had] before Amex was super technology driven. Their person-to-person service was really struggling. With technology nowadays, so many companies are trying to put their hands into everything that [they] spread a little thin. It’s OK to not be [at] the technological forefront of the TMCs: Your technology is not 2022; your technology is, like, 2004, which is OK, but make sure that 2004 technology works and does what I need it to do. The right TMC—as you roll technology out, do it the right way.
I [now] feel like I have a partner at that
managerial level. I don’t feel like they’re
working for me, and I don’t feel like I’m
working for them. That’s my advocate
within Amex, and that is what makes a
strong account manager.”
Saunders: I would say to my account manager, “Which one of these should my travelers actually be using?” If your flight is canceled, and they’ve got 14 different apps, whose texts matter? When you encourage people to use technology, make sure they understand the pros and the cons of everything they’re downloading onto their phone because if they miss their flight because they received the wrong information, they’re probably going to look at you because at some point you told them that app was awesome.
Saunders: People matter, so the TMC and the resources that they bring to the table are important. But the people who work on your individual account are more important because if you have an advocate on your behalf, then a lot of things will happen. If you’re unhappy with the person who’s on your account, then your TMC needs to know. You’d be shocked that sometimes, it’s the person and not the organization you’re working with.
Ring: Buyers, speak up. Demand what you want, and don’t take anything else. For the TMCs, admit when there’s a gap, and work together. Don’t try to cover it up. Don’t try to make it seem glitzy and more glamorous than it is. Say, “Look, we have a gap here. How do we meet in the middle?” Cause then it feels like a partnership. I look at a TMC to make me look good. If they do their job well, then everyone thinks I’m a good travel manager; [if] they don’t do their job well, everyone thinks I’m a bad travel manager.