As with areas like expense, meetings, payment and risk, mobile phones and plans don’t fall within the typical travel manager’s bailiwick. Building on its language and Wi-Fi dialing capabilities, TripLingo is looking to challenge that norm. Its latest service helps companies that do not have a centralized mobile phone program to manage excess charges.
From one country or region to the next, there are loads of cell phone networks. Keeping track of them isn’t a human task, let alone one for a busy international traveler. Knowing which plans to enroll in for lower roaming fees is even harder.
“This isn’t a big issue when the entire company is on a centralized mobile plan managed by IT and they have huge contracts with an AT&T or Verizon and a centralized companywide data plan,” said TripLingo founder and CEO Jesse Maddox. “In these cases the rates are already negotiated.”
An unrelated firm called Visage partners with Concur to pull expense and travel data, and advise clients on when to activate discounted roaming programs from their existing mobile providers. But “most” companies don’t have such providers, according to Maddox. And sorting through “180 different plans from 30 carriers” is all but impossible.
Based on an employee’s travel itinerary, home location and carrier, TripLingo can recommend phone plans, even for temporary use. The service is now live with a large customer whose procurement official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the firm’s media policies. The manager said that for safety and security reasons, the company wants its travelers to keep their phones on and connected when they travel internationally. The result is big roaming charges.
Now, when travelers book international trips, they get an email recommending an add-on plan, cutting down on those expenses. “IT is happy,” said the official. “Finance is happy.”
For some travel managers, it may be challenging to establish a program like this since it can cross multiple departments. According to surveys by Business Travel News between 2013 and 2015, no more than 15 percent of travel managers have responsibility for mobile phone contracts.
“It’s not usually a travel manager’s responsibility or budget, but they have the data and the ability to drive savings,” said Maddox. “So for travel managers taking a holistic approach to it and being proactive, it’s a great place to add value. There’s only so much you can get from air, car and hotel.”
ITW director for strategic sourcing, global travel and expense management services Cathy Sharpe is a TripLingo booster. A subset of the company’s approximately 14,000 travelers logged in to TripLingo more than 1,000 times during a recent 30-day span. They enjoy its language and Wi-Fi calling features. ITW hasn’t pursued the new roaming management service, but Sharpe said it piqued IT’s interest.
“A lot of companies have just gone to reimbursing a fixed amount, but that doesn’t really work for the international traveler,” said Sharpe. “You can’t just leave them high and dry out there. So we’re partnering with IT on it.”
Asked about travel management personnel reaching beyond their fiefdoms for such services, Sharpe drew a parallel with expense management.
“Looking back 12 years, as a travel manager I had nothing to do with expense,” she said. “If I asked travel managers how many had responsibility for both travel and expense, no one did. But now most travel managers have something to do with the expense side, too.” She said Concur “forced that hand,” and similarly TripLingo “puts a spotlight on that mobile phone spending and how we’re managing it.”
TripLingo’s Maddox sees TMCs as the main means to get the service to end clients. It recently signed a partnership with BCD Travel. TripLingo has a few dozen enterprise customers.
Meanwhile, TripLingo has updated some other facets of its app. Last summer it added an image translator, allowing users to photograph a sign or menu, read the translation and hear the pronunciation.
Sharpe said this and the app’s other tools — the phrasebook, plus language learning, safety tips and culture info — all add up to “instant confidence” for travelers when they’re abroad.
These intangibles mean a lot, said TripLingo clients.
Is it possible to calculate the app’s return on investment? Savings can be attributed to the Wi-Fi dialer by comparing minutes used versus what they would cost on a cell plan — but otherwise, not really.
“It’s a very easy-to-use app that more than pays for itself,” said Tokyo Electron manager of travel and fleet services Dianne Bradley.