Google Travel Program Still Relies On Policy 'Framework' - Business Travel News

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Google Travel Program Still Relies On Policy 'Framework'

October 10, 2012 - 10:20 AM ET

By Michael B. Baker

Budapest - Despite Google's reputation as a maverick among corporate travel programs, global travel and expense manager Michael Tangney said he didn't bury the travel policy but merely redefined it as a concept.

Last month at the Global Business Travel Association's Europe Conference here, Tangney's response when presented with the question "Is travel policy dead?" was an emphatic no. While Google's travel program might look very different than most other large corporate travel programs, it exists within a framework with a timeless need, even for the most do-it-yourself-natured travelers, he said.

"On a very fundamental level, people like being told what they can and can't do," Tangney said. "They want flexibility, choice and to be able to do what they want to do, but they also want to know what's reasonable and what's acceptable in this company."

The strategy behind Google's best-practice-bucking travel program, which earned Tangney honors as BTN's European Travel Manager of the Year in 2010, maintains the same core as when Tangney introduced it in 2008, and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future. Travelers can book however they want and with whatever supplier they want, as long as those bookings fall within the price parameters that Google sets through its own tool for travelers.

Google still uses many of the core tools of a legacy travel program. It negotiates with suppliers. It uses a travel management company, Carlson Wagonlit Travel. It has a corporate card, though its use is not mandated.

On that level, Mark Cuschieri, UBS executive director of travel management for the EMEA region, noted that Google's program was not radically different from his own.

"We're closer than what you would imagine," Cuschieri said. "We have a global policy, a framework of guidelines and controls, and my role really is to influence people. Whilst I am termed as a traditionalist, we do allow people a choice within a framework of contracted partners."

For Google, that influence comes from making sure its supplier partners are at the top of its travelers' lists of choices, Tangney said. For example, the company once put together a structured hotel program from a general idea of where people stayed. Now, however, it keeps tabs on where travelers stay and uses that list to determine each year with which hotels to contract.

Contracts with those suppliers more resemble rate agreements than binding contracts, and Google never commits to spending levels. Even without a mandate, Google per week gets between 8,000 and 9,000 hits on its internal site for hotels, Tangney said.

"The contract is not dead. We push it back to the supplier," Tangney said. "They provide a service, we'll push it and promote it, and they'll probably get more than they planned for," he said.

About 30 percent of Google's travel goes through its TMC, mostly complex itineraries or cases in which travelers were busy and needed someone to manage their bookings, he said.

Google does not mandate corporate card use because doing so "may be a little counter-culture," Tangney said. About 70 percent of its travel spending goes through the corporate card. U.S. travelers are less likely to use corporate cards than their European counterparts, as they are more tempted to bulk up their personal card reward points tally, he said.

For duty-of-care purposes, Google collects data on the back end. Travelers enter about nine fields of data—where they are going and at which hotel and for how long they are staying, for instance—into an in-house system. This area remains one of the program's biggest challenges, Tangney said.

"It still requires manual entry, and if there's anything Googlers hate, it's having to go and enter different information on multiple pages and in different ways," he said. "It's not as deep as I like."

During the next year, Tangney said he expects to find partners with technical solutions to take the user out of the data-gathering equation and "consolidate information not from every source but the broad source to get high-quality data, which still requires your view and management."

It's not an issue unique to Google's program, said Guy Weismantel, senior vice president of strategic marketing for Egencia. Buyers who overlook complete, back-end data increasingly risk being run over in supplier negotiations, he said.

"We've seen an uptick of suppliers, especially in the hotel space and in some of the bigger markets where demand is very tight, getting very good at using their own data to come back to the table," Weismantel said. "Everyone should arm themselves with facts and insight."

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