Travel managers now should engage with budget owners to understand why people travel, argues Festive Road’s Caroline Strachan.
In a column for BTN in May 2020, I shared this line: “They say you don’t truly know the value of something until it’s no longer there. Well, the ability to travel is currently gone. So now is the time to assess its true value.”
In the months to follow, travel managers around the world grappled with how to plan their company’s return to travel and defining what “permissible travel” might look like. When might the return start? Trying to plan scenarios on a backdrop of total uncertainty, whilst trying to demonstrate value to their organizations to ensure their role wasn’t eliminated. Ouch, what a year!
While travel’s return is yet to fully emerge, it’s time to look ahead. A number of helpful assessments on what types of business travel will or won’t return are due. But travel managers shouldn’t wait for others to determine what types of travel will be valuable to their companies. It’s time to get strategic and, likely, uncomfortable— because the task will require letting go of potentially protective stances and start with “demand.”
As any world-class procurement professional can share, you always start with demand. What is driving the need? Why is the product or service needed? We don’t tend to start with this in travel management, albeit there were some early signs we were headed this way if you look at sustainability debates in our sector. For the most part, though, we have started with travel as the default and then focused on how to deliver travel services. It’s why for years travel has been seen as a cost line item. It’s a thing you do without even thinking about it; travel had become the default. Hence why CFOs always target T&E as a discretionary cost line.
So, what if we started from scratch: What if we took the initiative truly to engage with budget owners across the business to understand why their people travel? Not which flights they take, not how much they spend, not what percent of bookings are made online—you may get sidetracked, don’t let that happen!—but instead you want to drive a more valuable discussion, one that speaks their language. A discussion that helps them think through their true business need, aligned to the culture and company objectives.
Festive Road is working behind the scenes with clients and great thinkers* in the industry to test this theory, and we think we’re onto something. We believe you can classify travel into three broad categories and then a further 30-plus subcategories. Imagine a conversation where you take those types, along with the “why” (the value the travel creates) and debate which types of travel your company could be investing in? One technique to achieve this is to start that conversation by defaulting all interaction types to virtual and assume no travel. Risky, right? We’re travel people, why would we attempt to justify travel for every type of defined company interaction? But try it. By taking something away, you must get to the true value to justify its return—and that’s really powerful. Here are some examples:
Category 1: Organization
Previously referred to as “internal” travel, it’s tempting to over-simplify this category of travel, painting with a broad brush where detail is actually required to determine value. Think about board meetings through to regulatory needs and beyond.
An example of a sub-category would be “supply chain assurance.” Consider which key suppliers would have an overwhelming negative effect on your business if they stopped operating tomorrow (e.g. a manufacturer has supply issues and stops creating an ingredient of a lifesaving drug). What’s the risk of not spending time in-person at their facilities? If there’s no risk, the assessment will determine a default to virtual meetings.
Category 2: Customer
In this category, a combination of what is often referred to as “client travel” and “sales,” it’s important to consider all activities related to the development of new customers as well as the servicing of existing ones.
A Category 2 sub-category would be a “revenue development” opportunity with existing clients. Consider how often customers expect your people to spend time with them. Are competitors targeting your clients? Which customers are at risk or up for renewal? What new products or services require an onsite to truly assess their need to buy?
Category 3: People
Finally, category three is an increasingly important and complex category, exacerbated by the accelerated change to corporate structure and cultures. Whilst all three will vary by organization, this third one is the most variable. Here you need to consider every type of travel needed to attract, motivate and manage your people.
An example of a subcategory would be “motivation through team building.” How is team engagement? How is the team feeling? What priority deliverables are slow-going? When did the team last gather in person? Are you still able to build team congeniality? How do future office plans impact these needs?
It’s such a different conversation. Imagine holding a series of meetings with your key budget holders or C-suite to introduce this approach. Not only would you reach a point of agreeing what purposeful travel is to your organization, but you would also be seen as the strategic thinker who can challenge wasteful demand and encourage valuable demand.
We’re on the start of this journey, no one has been here before. That can be both daunting and exciting. While we’re not traveling, let’s make use of this pause and create something better than we had before—purposeful travel that drives qualifiable value to your company. Are you ready?
* Festive Road would like to thank the travel buyers who were able to join us for a two-day face-to-face (yes, really in-person!) exercise to discuss defining the true value of business travel. We called the exercise and process “Macroscope” because of the necessity to think beyond our normal remit. The input of these buyers contributed to shaping our thinking and the output of this exercise will be provided to the industry in due course.
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