For $250 million life sciences firm Promega Corp., adhering to a senior management request to keep travel spending flat during the recession did not require drastic policy changes or big reductions in trips, although some of that was happening already as a result of emission-reduction efforts. What it took to remain even on spending was a kind of relationship management that was anything but a hard science.
"The best thing I ever did to develop trust with my department heads, general managers and travelers--who I think of as warring factions where one wants to save money and the other wants to get out and get the job done--was to walk a really careful line, reach out and ask them how I could help," said travel and meeting services manager Kathy Kirk, a former journalist who assumed her current position four years ago. "I have established that kind of trust [where] they know I'm working in the best interests of everyone here."
Kirk reports to finance, and the company uses a pretrip authorization process. It was through this process, as well as budget reviews and personal interaction with big spenders, that Promega kept costs down, Kirk said Wednesday during a webinar hosted by the National Business Travel Association.
Fewer trips were approved, she said: "It wasn't written anywhere, but no manager wanted to be the manager who didn't buckle down. We looked at the trend for all departments and all kinds of expenditures, and during the 2009 downturn, we wanted to see our trend lines staying flat. We looked at those on a quarterly basis and whenever we would see a projected increase, we'd reach out to that department or that foreign branch to ask, 'Why are we looking at a $500,000 increase in travel spend?' Sometimes there was a good answer--sometimes it was, 'We weren't paying attention to budget'--and sometimes it's, 'We'd better go back and reevaluate that.' So even though we didn't officially mandate that we wouldn't be traveling anymore or reduce it by a certain amount, we watched the trend lines very carefully."
Kirk acknowledged that the pretrip approval process results in some "push back" and "grumbling," but she only personally gets involved in "extreme situations," she said.
"As with any organization I have a handful of prima-donna travelers, and they will push back and try and test the boundaries a little bit," she said. "I reach out to individual travelers, and I will grill them when something comes in where the cost isn't in line with the mission or the projected airline ticket is five times what it should be. I reach out directly, and that makes people a little squeamish, so we have good compliance and people know they have to have a good reason for taking the trip."
Kirk employed similar sensibilities when rolling out Concur's corporate booking tool globally. "When I came onboard, one of the first things I did was implement Cliqbook and I reached out to many of our international branches and said, 'I have this great thing for you for managing your expenses in your office and also for rolling up into our global reporting.' Now I have five European branches using Cliqbook. I had some push back at first. It's sort of our corporate personality that our branches prefer to be more autonomous, so anytime someone from corporate reaches out, they say, 'Uh oh, corporate is pushing something on us.' It took some time, but now they're onboard and quite happy with it."
Kirk last year translated the firm's U.S.-centric policy into a global one, using local languages. She reports travel data to senior management on a global basis as well as by department and supplier type. The company has maintained a business-class policy for international travel.
Meanwhile, Promega last month issued its 2009 Corporate Sustainability Report, which indicated significant travel reductions in support of the company's environmental goals. "Reducing travel to customer sites is difficult, but with the rollout of videoconferencing systems at every Promega location, business travel has been reduced," according to the report. "Business travel via air, automobile, and rail make up about 10 percent of our current carbon footprint. In 2009, air travel decreased by over 1.2 million miles and prevented over (sic) 200 metric tons of carbon dioxide from being emitted. In Europe, branches are using more environmentally efficient high-speed rail in lieu of air travel to reduce carbon emissions. While rail travel contributes only a small portion to our carbon footprint, a platform for tracking its usage worldwide has been added in 2009."
According to the NBTA webinar's presentation materials, Madison, Wis.-based Promega employs more than 1,000 people in 18 offices across 15 countries and spends $12 million globally on travel and entertainment, including $3 million on air travel. The company has a consolidated travel management company program in five nations.