Don't be asleep at the wheel - how travel managers can demonstrate their value to the organization

January 11, 2017 Mark Dauner

by Rita McKee, Dedicated Travel Manager

I’ve worked in the travel industry for 30+ years , primarily with corporate travel.  I started as an agent but for the majority of those years I’ve worked as a buyer in various roles (supplier relationship manager and global category manager in procurement, among others). I’ve been a member of GBTA for many years and as such I’ve benefited from the wisdom and lessons learned of many travel managers much smarter and more experienced than me. 

In that vein, I’d like to share one particular hard-knock lesson that I learned coming up (so to speak) into the role of trusted advisor at a Fortune 500 company.  That lesson is that for years I did a horrible job of demonstrating my value to the organization. I made the terminal mistake of thinking that if I were doing my job well and travelers were happy, that I would be recognized and rewarded for my hard work.

Instead, much to my bewilderment, I was shown the door.  What?  How could this be? I would find out later that it was said I was "asleep at the wheel." But what does that mean? 

Demonstrate your value to senior leadership

What it means is that every single day, we as travel managers have to show our value to leadership. It isn’t enough to rely on the fact that our TMC is doing their job very well in that our KPIs are trending where they should be and our travelers are happy. It’s so much more than that.  We HAVE to understand that our role is to help our company solve its problems, reduce costs and even create revenue streams.  We CAN'T be modest about sharing our goals and accomplishments.  

It all works together

As a category manager, in addition to travel, I was responsible for telecoms and all things HR, like recruiting, employee benefits, etc. To some, these categories might seem distinct from one another but if you think about it they are actually quite interconnected.  

Here’s what I mean.  No matter what company you’re talking about, Human Resources is concerned with retaining and attracting top talent. Travelers, especially road warriors, often represent the best of the best in the talent pool so HR wants them to be comfortable and productive on the road.  Happy traveler equals happy employee equals reduced risk of talent drain.

Travelers depend heavily on mobile devices for staying connected with work and family. They want to be able to do simple time-saving things like completing an expense report during down time while they wait for their next flight.  This makes having efficient and secure, IT approved solutions essential.  

Another advantage in my role was that I was often privy to discussions about R&D and project travel which meant I could work with a hotel property to secure a short-term rate to help reduce costs associated with due diligence or long-term stays for large groups of travelers. Often times that information becomes known to the travel manager after the fact when you notice a spike in travel to a given location. By then the opportunity to be proactive in negotiations to reduce costs is diminished or even lost.

By working with individuals across these three categories, I had the advantage of helping HR, IT and Procurement (who had responsibility for the travel program) address the challenges in their respective areas while simultaneously keeping the best interests of the other two categories in mind as well. 

Make Interdepartmental connections

For travel managers who don’t have that same advantage, you have to make those interdepartmental connections amongst the key stakeholder groups like HR, Finance, IT, Procurement, etc. If you’re having regular conversations with these areas you not only gain intel but it also reduces the risk that you will be left out of the decision-making process for things that could impact travelers. It isn’t that this information is intentionally withheld but sometimes the potential implications to the traveler are inadvertently missed. 

During these conversations, find out what kinds of challenges the area is facing or what kinds of initiatives they’re working on. For example, is it time for HR to do a comprehensive employee satisfaction survey or are they looking for ways to improve the candidate booking process?  

  • Can you add some travel-related questions or perhaps piggy-back a separate road warrior survey to share back with HR to assess flight risk (pun intended)?  
  • Can you work with HR to develop an exit survey specifically for frequent travelers to find out what pain points in the travel policy may have contributed to their decision to leave?
  • Can your online booking tool support non-employee, self-serve bookings?

Is IT/Telecoms sourcing a new mobile phone provider or thinking about the types of devices they want to support?    

  • Have they considered service availability in international destinations?
  • What can be done to reduce exorbitant roaming costs (for global companies this can be a large percentage of total telecoms cost)?
  • Are there pockets within the US where coverage will be spotty, very poor or non-existent resulting in the need for a secondary provider?
  • Will the devices offer the flexibility and functionality that travelers need to be productive wherever they are?

These are just a couple of examples. There are many ways that a travel manager can engage with key stakeholders across the organization to address challenges that on the surface may not appear to be under the purview of travel but could very well impact the traveler.

The best case scenario is that once the relationships are established and the conversations are happening, these individuals will see you as a trusted advisor and proactively engage you as part of their extended team. 

Your TMC as a consultant

Finally, engage your TMC! You hired them for their expertise, right? They can’t be left out of the conversation because they are the ones with the insight to the lessons learned across the broad range of clients they support; those companies that ‘look’ like you as well as those that are quite different. Sometimes, we learn more from the latter than the former.  

Gone are the days of travel agencies in the role of order-taker. You should expect your TMC to instead be a consultative insider that understands YOUR business and how they can help you, help your stature within your organization. Your success is their success. A good TMC understands that it doesn’t do any good to bring new business in the front door if they’re losing clients out the back door.

Travel has always been and will always be a highly visible category both from an expense, as well as an employee satisfaction perspective. It has been my experience that senior leaders tend to be very interested in the travel program. Do you think they show as much interest in other corporate expenditures like the type of laptops that IT chooses for the enterprise or the limiting, core list of office supplies? Probably not. They tend to be more concerned about those things that have the greatest impact on employee attitudes and satisfaction level. Travel is very personal to most business travelers. They have certain expectations about how their company should treat them while on the road.

Think about the times you or your leader have been contacted by a member of senior leadership about a travel-related incident that they or one of their people experienced. Think about those times you’ve received feedback related to policy choices that senior leadership may have supported but are now questioning at the first sign of dissatisfaction from their constituency. It’s a much easier conversation when you can respond with a gentle reminder about the solid due-diligence that you underwent WITH the support of your TMC to get to that decision. This helps that senior leader in turn respond thoughtfully to those who express criticism and reduces knee-jerk reactions to unpopular policy or program changes. In essence your TMC helps present that united front that we all strive for when we’re charged with managing such a highly-visible and ‘personal’ category. Take full advantage of their mutual interest in your success.

The bottom line

It all boils down to this. The most important thing is to keep leadership apprised of your/your team’s efforts and the results, even if a conversation doesn’t evolve into a project or initiative. The fact that you’re working holistically toward corporate goals vs. travel-specific goals, speaks volumes about the value you bring to the organization. 


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