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The choice between in-person communication and remote conferencing is a fundamental business travel question. It is a decision made frequently by not only business travelers and budget holders, but also global travel managers in the throes of creating a multinational program.
While getting out there and meeting one's company colleagues in foreign lands is recommended for any manager putting together a new program, a recent forum discussion led by two travel buyers with different profiles showed that communicating remotely can produce results despite its challenges.
More than forty attendees to an Association of Corporate Travel Executives forum last month in Newark, New Jersey heard from The Estee Lauder Companies travel services director Cindy Shumate and MSC Software Corp. corporate purchasing director Brian Woo as they described challenges faced and lessons learned in their respective multinational program development.
"I don't think you can get into a global relationship without recognizing that we are human beings, we are transporting human beings and we need to start this conversation by meeting each other," said Shumate, satisfied that ELC managed in February to winnow to a single travel management company relationship covering Belgium, Canada, Switzerland and the United States. While the company operates in 130 countries and spends more than an estimated $100 million worldwide on travel, it had 150 U.S. travel agencies when Shumate came on board about three years ago.
Focusing on safety, savings and service, Shumate said her company this year will establish its first worldwide master travel policy (allowing for addenda in specific nations). ELC is about three quarters of the way through a global corporate card rollout, and is now bringing to Canada an online booking tool that gained about 50-percent U.S. adoption over an eighteen-month span. The agency and booking consolidations helped create what Shumate called a "funnel" that synthesizes reporting and provides travelers a single source for itineraries. Establishing a worldwide expense reporting system is another goal for ELC, which increasingly is working in such emerging markets as China and Russia.
"There's a certain level of accountability and liability that corporations need to assume when sending people far from the home office," said Shumate. "We're not a corporation that tells people they have to do business in foreign countries and they're on their own. We need to celebrate our differences, and at the same time look for commonalities in our cultures."
Emphasizing the importance of her opportunity to "shake hands and make that human connection," Shumate said, "Suddenly, the world isn't so big. This is the time we spend here on Earth. This is about our lives, and I think sending instructions from behind the desk at corporate headquarters is just going to be very difficult."
Avoiding centralized directives sounds ideal, but not every company can make it happen, as Shumate's co-panelist pointed out. A procurement manager who "was asked to look into travel last September," MSC's Woo spends about 80 percent of his time buying unrelated commodities. "I have a different perspective," said Woo. "Our company is small with limited resources."
In building a program, Woo knew he had to collect travel data from all of his company's major regions--the Americas, EMEA and Asia-Pacific. MSC Software has about 800 travelers in 23 countries. The Santa Ana, California company has an on-site TMC at its home office, so "we could get local data," but "obtaining accounting information was difficult in Europe and Asia-Pacific," where the company uses multiple TMCs. In the end, Woo learned that those two regions represented two-thirds of the company's travel volume (or about $4.5 million), and that the majority of it was booked off-contract.
"But we couldn't negotiate with carriers and hotels without the data, and one of the main issues I had was that I was dealing with different time zones, cultures and language barriers, and trying to get details from them was overwhelming," said Woo. He decided to send a survey to each country seeking details on travel spend data and any existing supplier agreements, and "the response rate was pretty high."
Gathering and examining the data helped Woo start up a program that now is implementing an online booking tool in the U.S. and, later this year, in EMEA. The company also is revamping its corporate card program to combat the usage of personal cards and data leakage.
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