Solving the mystery of corporate travel RFPs

February 17, 2020 Mark Dauner

Throughout our series on rebooting the corporate travel RFP, we’ve looked at movie properties that have been rebooted and re-envisioned over the years to keep up with changing technology, culture, and society. Our looks at Star Wars and A Star is Born analyzed the reasons why these films have been so often rebooted and compared that to the way RFPs have been administered in the industry over the last 20 years. 

For our third installment let’s look to one of the most often-rebooted stories in not just motion picture history, but in literary, stage, television, and radio history too: Sherlock Holmes.

Tales of Sherlock Holmes in film and television over the last century have featured many fine actors in the leading role, including Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Christopher Plummer, Ian McKellen, Robert Downey Jr., Benedict Cumberbatch, and well over 200 others.

Stories have been set in different locations and time periods, from 19th century England where the stories originated to modern-day London, New York, Tokyo, and many other locations around the world. Many other stories have been derived from Sherlock Holmes, such as the television medical drama, House, and DC Comics’ legendary crime-fighting detective, Batman.

The power of deduction in the business travel RFP process

A common theme throughout each version of Sherlock Holmes is the power of deduction. In each mystery to be solved, Holmes analyzes all of the possible information – things that seem obvious as well as outside sources that to the average person would seem entirely inconsequential. He then puts all of the pieces together to determine the real identity of the killer, or thief, or whatever criminal happens to be eluding Scotland Yard.

It’s no secret that the RFP process in the travel industry can be improved. Many industry insiders on every side of the process have brought this up before. It’s time to unravel the mystery of the RFP process. Just like Sherlock Holmes, let’s all put on our deerstalker caps, pull out our magnifying glasses, and take a look outside the borders of the travel industry to give us a much-needed perspective. 

Leave transactional buying behind

Industry consultant Caroline Strachan from Festive Road helps TMCs and clients approach RFPs differently and says understanding how other industries approach the RFP process is instructive.

“From a procurement perspective, any company has essential concerns as they approach the RFP process. They must consider how to buy a service more effectively and in a way that achieves company objectives. Yet, buyers purchase differently. A continuum exists with transactional purchasing on one end and relational buying on the other. While buyers in many industries move up and down across the continuum, the travel industry is largely stuck at the transactional end,” says Strachan.

The harm in staying at the transactional end of the spectrum is that your services are allowed to become commoditized.

“Many companies believe every TMC will want their business and then it simply becomes a process of finding the best price,” says Strachan.

Moving toward the relational end of the spectrum takes a TMC from a provider or even preferred provider to a performance-based model. Over the last ten years, Strachan has seen a number of TMCs make that move, to the benefit of all parties involved.

“When you move beyond a preferred model to a performance model, you have skin in the game and come at the partnership in a different way,” says Strachan. “Both parties think about the relationship strategically and recognize the rewards each receives from the partnership.”

While this approach is common in other industries, it is just beginning to break through in the travel industry. This transformation can be aided along by learning to view the RFP process less as a transaction and more as a relationship.

Learn to see business travel RFPs as a relationship

Ditch archaic questions for a process based around attraction. Learn to think of the RFP process as a means for making the most attractive match possible between your company and your TMC. At Festive Road, Strachan advocates for smart partnering between clients and suppliers.

Buyer Supplier Attractiveness - Corporate Travel RFPs - Festive Road - Caroline Strachan

“The RFP stage is like the dating game where everybody is lovely and brilliant and out to impress. You’re showing your ‘A game’ every day. The selection stage is like engagement. You’ve worked through the courting phase and found the right fit. Signing a contract is like getting married. Making an announcement that you’re proud of your new partnership is the honeymoon. Then, as you start working together, you’re coming home from the honeymoon and are learning what this new world of married life is like. Delivery is different from the courting phase. Delivery is where the cracks start to show. Overpromising begins and the parties involved enter a five-year relationship where they largely move in a circle, never really making progress or finding satisfaction,” says Strachan.

Sadly, that process usually ends with the selection of a new TMC, but without any changes to the selection process.

While the parties may not have been a good fit for each other, the process was never set up to reveal that. Instead, an RFP process centered around three Cs: Culture, Capability, and Commercial, could help enable proper fit and provide a firm foundation for a healthy, long-term and profitable relationship.

Use the Three Cs to revolutionize your RFP process

Much more effort needs to be put into culture during the selection stage of the RFP process. According to Strachan, many buyers issue a capability-based RFP instead of a cultural one.

“We need to take a step back. Buyers should link their travel strategy back to their company objectives and spend time deciding what they want their travel program to achieve, before sending out the RFP,” says Strachan. “Do you want to grow the company? Add value? Have a clear understanding of what you want to achieve and then start having conversations with TMCs. Use the RFP process to answer the question, ‘which of these TMCs is a great fit for our company? Who will help us achieve our specific objectives?”

Finding that fit requires understanding both your culture and the culture of the TMCs you are considering. If your company is complex and values consensus, working with an agile TMC may not make sense. Similarly, if your company is a fast-paced tech startup, partnering with a slower-moving, consensus-oriented TMC could be a recipe for disappointment. Regardless of the capabilities, each TMC brings, the fit would simply be too difficult to manage.

Ask better questions to determine true capability

The final two Cs come in to play after you’ve narrowed your selection down to a handful of TMCs that fit your culture. Instead of issuing a long list of questions about capabilities that you ask those handful of TMCs to answer in painstaking detail, consider crafting statements that convey the essential capabilities you expect TMCs to possess and then ask them to simply answer, ‘yes’ or ‘no’ as to whether or not they have them.

“We like to reverse-engineer this part of the process for our clients,” says Strachan. “We don’t ask the question, we make the statement. ‘You can deliver X data points within X amount of time through your self-service portal’ for example. Then, the responding TMCs mark ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ This is an efficient way to determine core capabilities. The real magic happens when companies ask what else a TMC has to offer. We solicit information about advanced capabilities in areas that TMCs are then able to show their true strength and really shine.”

This is the time in the process to ask questions that get at the real information you need to make your decision about which TMC is the ideal fit for your organization. Customize questions like the following to your needs:

  • What processes are in place for collecting and responding to traveler feedback?
  • What other clients do you serve and what is their experience?
  • Who will I be competing with for resources?
  • Can I talk with someone local, who understands the locales of where my company operates?

At this point in the process, after all the right questions are asked, the third ‘C’, commercial, becomes less relevant because you already realize you have a great fit. You’re just looking to come to agreement on price at this point.

That’s a logical, deductive process that we’re certain Sherlock Holmes would be proud of.

Is the current RFP process creating more mystery than it’s solving? Take a clue from Caroline Strachan and Sherlock Holmes. Instead of staying with the same old, tired process and expecting different results, use logic, deduction, and reasoning. Look outside of the process to administer a truly successful travel management company RFP.

Get a clue!

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Special thanks to Caroline Strachan for contributing to this article. You can find Caroline at Festive Road or follow her on Twitter.

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