Pre-trip approval for many organizations is a necessary evil. It’s bureaucratic by nature. It may be the antithesis of the traveler-centric approach that’s all the rage on the conference circuit. But the practice is effective for travel pros and senior managers looking to put the kibosh on journeys deemed too expensive, unworthy or unsafe.
The ultimate demand-management control, pre-trip approval appears to be no more or less prevalent than it has been for at least a decade. Over that timeframe, though, risk management and closer scrutiny of travel expenses have raised the practice’s profile. Better technology can make it more accessible and productive as manual processes give way to automated workflow management systems.
At Stonegate Mortgage, policy compliance and dialogue with travelers are the reasons for pre-trip approvals. The Indianapolis-based company has about 400 travelers and spends around $3.5 million each year on corporate travel. Using Egencia technology, travel manager Monica Whitehead sees all reservations, 90 percent of which adhere to policy and need no action. When bookings are identified as out of policy, she’ll check them out.
That creates an important line of communication. Maybe the policy capping a nightly hotel room rate isn’t fair when the traveler is going to New York City. Or maybe travelers don’t realize that taking connections won’t cost them too much extra time.
“I pride myself on talking to them. We have been fairly successful in getting them to reconsider,” Whitehead said. “I’ve given the travelers fairly good boundaries but if it’s something completely off the charts, then yes, I have to escalate it and send it to their managers so they know what is going on.”
Other travel agencies, corporate booking tools and third-party providers also offer configurable solutions. Several include rules engines to determine when reservations need approval. In some companies, it may be all bookings. In others, only out-of-policy reservations or intended purchases above a certain amount will trigger a review.
For any organization interested in pre-trip approval, there’s much to consider. What’s the ROI? Who approves? What if they’re unavailable? Might that delay jeopardize availability of a favorable airfare the traveler intends to buy?
Then there are types of approval. Silent or passive approval means reservations go through unless stopped by the authorized reviewer.
A 2014 World Travel Inc. presentation explained that this approach allows companies to customize parameters that set off an inquiry. Among the drawbacks, passive approvals may allow travel to high-risk destinations slip through unnoticed.
A different approach, “hard-stop approval” means all reservations need approval before ticketing. That, according to World Travel, identifies risky travel and “supports full control of travel expenditures prior to purchase.” But the agency pointed out that hard stops need reviewing managers to constantly pay attention and warrant “a back-up process.” Bookings on carriers that use instant ticketing also can be problematic.
Culture is a key factor, as is the fear of rubber-stamping or extra red tape. A 2014 Carlson Wagonlit Travel survey found that half of 10,000 travelers from “global” companies with pre-trip approvals “have never had a trip request rejected.” The overall approval rate was 90 percent.
Speaking during a January Global Business Travel Association webcast, Trondent’s Jan Lofgren mentioned “permission-to-book” functionality available in some tools. The latest from her company is among them. She explained how travelers or arrangers can “complete a trip request summary prior to even making reservations.”
Lofgren also noted “rule chaining,” which prompts examination when more than one condition applies. International and over a certain cost threshold, for example. She said certain systems “also help manage the hierarchy of users.” They do so by incorporating human resources feeds, passenger name record data and other information, perhaps supplied via Web Services.
Establishing the value of the trip and reviewing the price are key reasons for pre-trip processes, but risk management may be the more compelling one.
Pre-trip procedures can identify reservations for trips to destinations considered particularly dangerous. “It’s important that it is done early in the approvals process to trigger things down the line,” like traveler training, briefings and inoculations, said FCm Travel Solutions senior director global travel risk management Charles Brossman.
Brossman said the industry soon would see pre-trip automation account for risk ratings before bookings are reviewed. He noted there already are ways to apply risk information to online booking tools and travel agency quality-control systems.
According to GBTA Foundation research issued this month, pre-travel approval is a practice that appeals to organizations of all sizes. The group reported that 49 percent of 257 travel, HR and risk management professionals said their firms include pre-travel approvals for domestic trips. The number jumps to 72 percent for international protocols.
A 2010 Egencia/GBTA Foundation poll of 689 North American travel managers found 58 percent of companies use the method for some or all trips. Thirty percent indicated they “do not require any kind of pre-trip approval before trips are finalized, and only 30 percent subject all trips to a pre-trip approval process.” Researchers found that 14 percent limit PTA for travel to specific destinations. Thirteen percent apiece do so when costs exceed a predetermined threshold or for trips booked by “non-executives.”