October 23, 2019

Building a World-Class Travel Program

Let’s just say it: building and managing a robust travel program can be a huge challenge, especially as companies grow and scale. Organizations must accommodate growth and ensure that their travel program is able to evolve with an expanding roster of travelers and destinations while being mindful of travel spend and its impact on both the top or bottom line.

What’s a travel manager to do? We at TripActions had the same question. Taking a page from Caroline Strachan, Managing Partner at Festive Road, we find tremendous value in looking to organizations orchestrating successful travel programs to glean insights and best practices. With Caroline moderating, we hosted a panel featuring Slack’s Global Travel Manager Frankie Rodriguez and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s (CZI) Strategic Operations Manager Penelope Talbot-Kelly at TRAVERSE 19 earlier this month.

Caroline opened the session with the statement, “There is no such thing as a completely world-class program. Our advice is to pick elements of a managed program that match your business needs and heavily focus on those.” The panel then went on to share their priority areas including culture, data, and duty of care.

Culture is King

Culture is closely tied to travel policy, and many travel managers face a chicken-or-the-egg dilemma when it comes to building a policy for their organizations. In light of recent workplace culture developments including flexible time off, office dog policies, extensive parental leave, and bleisure trips, it’s clear that in many ways the workplace has moved on to adapt to the needs of employees. Travel policy, though? Not so much.

With 90% of employees viewing travel as a perk of their jobs, it’s clear that business travelers want to feel excited and motivated when asked to travel for work, and travel programs should reflect that excitement.

“At Slack, we revamped our travel program when we added TripActions,” said Frankie Rodriguez, Global Travel Manager at Slack. “One of the first conversations we had was around policy. All key stakeholders agree that we’re all adults, and we should trust our employees to utilize our policy as a guideline to make the right choice. We want people to feel in control of their travel and that’s why we use TripActions. Travel is there to support you in your role and your job.”

Caroline expressed similar feelings during her keynote earlier in the day, explaining, "Travelers want to make their own adult decisions but are so used to being treated like a child. I can't be trusted to make a decision for $25 of this company's money?" This can be off-putting to say the least.

Employees will certainly feel the pressure when travel policy does not communicate trust. Travel managers, therefore, must push to align policy with a culture that supports employees and trusts the decisions they make as travelers. For some, including Penelope Talbot-Kelly, Strategic Operations Manager at CZI, that means mandating corporate travel policy adoption.

“We wanted full visibility [into our program], so we focused on fully mandating our travel policy,” said Penelope during the panel.

For others, like Frankie, a full mandate doesn’t necessarily mesh with the company culture.

“I have very strong opinions about hotel booking leakage,” Frankie said. “When leakage happens at Slack, it’s usually for a good reason, like a conference rate that you can only get from the hotel or added flexibility given to road warriors via loyalty programs. Instead of focusing on controlling traveler behavior, we’re trying to get creative and are focusing more on how we can get access to real-time data and context regardless of booking channel.”

Data + Duty of Care

Duty of care was a hot topic across sessions at TRAVERSE 19, and this panel touched on what the promise of care looks like for actual business travelers faced with unexpected bumps in the road. Data is a key element when it comes to building a travel program that delivers on care.

“I remember I was working in Toronto and I got a call at 6 AM from a traveler who was stuck in Newark and slept at the airport overnight. You hear from your travelers when something hasn’t gone right,” said Penelope.

Penelope went on to explain how TripActions data allows her team to put context behind one-off incidents to gauge the true health of the travel program. “Whenever that happens, we like to leverage TripActions data to put things into perspective,” she explained. “While I appreciate travel not going according to plan, it’s nice to know that the majority of people using TripActions are actually enjoying it. We pull data from the active traveler map and look at our most frequent travelers."

Both Penelope and Frankie highlighted the importance of context when it comes to managing travel and how data provides that context.

“The focus right now [at Slack] is figuring out how we can get access to real-time data and streamline our data sources so there’s no puzzle to solve at the end of each month,” said Frankie. “Travel data, expense data, GL data — especially on the expense side because you’re flying blind until your employees submit. You also have to factor in the possibility of human error, for example, you can’t always be certain the dates on the travel itinerary match what’s submitted in the expense report. You can launch a mandated corporate card program for real-time visibility but that also comes with a long list of administrative burdens. There has to be a better way.”

Moreover, the simple existence of a travel policy doesn’t necessarily fulfill duty of care. It’s critical to think about how and when policy is surfaced to travelers.

“Your policy is only going to be read when someone is ready to travel,” said Penelope. “Otherwise, it’s not contextual. You don’t get it until you actually get out and travel.”

The Future of Travel Programs

Technology and travel no longer exist separately — there is an ecosystem of business travelers and the tools that support business travel. And when you consider how technology makes booking and managing travel less time-consuming, it’s clear why they must work together.

“CZI is 400 people. We don’t have one person dedicated to travel which speaks to the value of technology to support a travel program,” said Penelope.

Regardless of how other companies choose to manage travel, each travel policy can be as unique as their organization.

“Every program is different because all companies are so unique, and their programs therefore are too,” Frankie said. “I find it funny that people struggle to think outside of the box when it comes to managing travel. All travel programs are different, and that’s OK.”

Want to hear more? Check out the TRAVERSE 19 Day 1 recap.