Op Ed: Steve Reynolds On The Myth Of The Traveler Satisfaction Silver Bullet

During decent economic conditions, traveler satisfaction is big in travel management circles. Everyone wants happy, healthy and productive employees, and many see that translating to improved corporate performance. Tripbam founder and CEO Steve Reynolds takes a contrarian view. He argues that it’s impossible to measure the return from giving travelers what they want. And once they start getting what they want, “diminishing gratification” may set in. Moreover, trying to change their travel booking behaviors later, during leaner times, would be that much more difficult. Instead, Reynolds suggests travel management pros find ways to keep travel costs down without creating bad experiences for employees.

Recently, I’ve noticed a marked increase in focus on traveler engagement and satisfaction in our industry. With the labor market heating up in step with a stronger U.S. economy, managed travel programs have come under scrutiny not only in the traditional sense of driving cost savings, but in how well they are gauging feedback from travelers and supporting their wants and needs. At the risk of voicing an opinion that stands apart from popular perception, I have to say I’m firmly against the latest rallying cry of “happy travelers make for happy companies.”

Under this mantra, travel managers are told to reward travelers for doing the right thing. But shouldn’t travelers do the right thing without being rewarded? Further, not only are the true costs of these rewards difficult to measure, but also it’s impossible to measure the return on investment. I can speak from personal experience, having been a road warrior for more than 25 years in both fully flexible and tightly monitored programs. Once a company starts paying me to do the right thing, my first thought is, “So why do the right thing in the first place? My colleagues who have been booking outside the policy are being rewarded to do what I’ve always been doing, so perhaps I should start booking outside policy so I am rewarded too.” I don’t think I’m alone in this way of thinking.

Tripbam founder and CEO Steve Reynolds

In the end, most travelers care about their airline and hotel reward points. Would I like to travel first class all the time? Sure. Will I be more productive in first? Perhaps not, as I may take advantage of the free drinks! Would I like to stay at the Ritz Carlton versus the Courtyard? You bet. Will I be more productive? Only if the Courtyard is a cave without Internet and a desk. Will I be happier? In all likelihood I will be for a while, but only until the upgrades become my new norm.

These examples demonstrate diminishing gratification. For most corporate travelers, airline seats and hotel beds are commodities. It just doesn’t matter where I sit (just don’t put me in a center seat or force me to take an unnecessary connection) or where I sleep (unless you put me in a seedy motel with only twin beds). Aisle or window is fine. A three-star or better hotel with a TrustYou score over 75? I’m good to go. What I really want is someone to just book it for me. Want to increase productivity? Give me an administrative assistant. Want to make me happier? Give me a raise and a bonus.

How did we get to the point where we started to think that providing upgrades will make travelers more productive or satisfied? I believe it’s due to three things:

1. Travel reporting to human resources. First, when travel managers report to human resources and not procurement, it shifts the travel category manager’s goals and objectives. HR cares about happy employees and procurement cares about healthy bottom lines.

2. The advent of the Internet. Back in the ice age, travelers had to book through an agent and the agent enforced the policies. Travelers had no opportunity to book around the system. Then along come the Internet and online booking tools and things got out of control. Travelers started acting like kids in the travel candy store. Later, OBTs got back some control over the airline seats, but hotels are still a traveler buffet. Under the new traveler happiness mantra mentioned above, we now want to pay the kids to not eat the candy.

3. A strong economy. Why rock the boat when profits are good? Let them have their points. It’s not worth the fight. The fly in this ointment is that bad behavior gets worse over time. The longer you allow the bad behaviors to exist, the harder it will be to tighten the controls when the next recession hits. If you give a kid candy every night for five years, be prepared when you take it away for a huge temper tantrum from a really fat kid. It’s best to not give it to them in the first place, or only on special occasions.

These points aside, my real gripe is the inability to measure or quantify an increase in productivity or traveler happiness as a result of travel perks or upgrades. I can hear the pundits now: “Just because you can’t measure it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. You must start thinking in terms of value, not just costs.”

Au contraire.

The reason you can’t measure it is because employee happiness varies by individual. It includes a myriad of factors such as the nature of their work, what happened yesterday, their boss, their salary, their co-workers, the weather, the purpose of the trip, how often they travel, completely unrelated factors in their personal life … I could go on for days.

Trying to tie employee happiness to travel is like trying to tie company performance to trips taken last year. While they may appear related, it doesn’t mean they are — just like how the stock market isn’t tied to the length of the grass in my front yard. If you want happy employees, give them raises and tie raises to job performance. Now that’s a relationship I can believe in.

If you’re a travel manager sitting within the HR department of your company, don’t fall for the trap of believing that upper management will agree that spending more money on travel will increase employee morale and improve employee performance. In reality, their first thoughts may be, “It’s time to move travel over to procurement, and why is this person managing travel?” If you want to get that promotion or improve the perception of your role among senior leadership, the better approach is to identify significant and quantifiable cost savings without impacting travel quality. You have to keep both the company and the traveler satisfied.

Traveler Friction And The Diminishing Return Of Cost Savings
Traveler Engagement: (Hard) Work In Progress
Saving Dollars And Making Sense Of Travel Management’s Worth
Teleconference 6: Traveler Engagement

Steve Reynolds

Author: Steve Reynolds

Steve Reynolds is CEO and founder of Tripbam, a hotel shopping service changing the way companies and travel agencies procure hotel stays. Based on the company's success, Business Travel News named Tripbam the most innovative technology for corporate travel in 2014, and in 2015 recognized Steve as one of the most influential executives within corporate travel. The company in 2015 also won Phocuswright's Battleground competition. Steve previously was managing director in North America for WNS Global Services, president and EVP at TRX and president of Travel Technologies Group. Find more of Steve's info in his LinkedIn profile, on Tripbam's Twitter feed and the company's Facebook page.


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Steve ReynoldsMark AltmanJames FilsingerLora EllisAlan Tyson Recent comment authors
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Jeroen van Velzen

Steve, I agree whole heartedly with most of your statements. Might sound weird for the founder of a company whose mission is traveler happiness. Moving a good travel program to a great program means focusing on productivity and satisfaction AND sustainable savings and safety. We use this as a traveler happiness formula as, to your point, you have to satisfy the corporate AND the traveler. So if the total equation means higher overall cost it’s not a great program (unless you can prove that productivity and satisfaction create lower cost, higher revenue and/or leadership is willing to accept soft dollars).… Read more »

Scott Gillespie

With great respect for Steve Reynolds, his views on this topic are fundamentally flawed. His points come straight from procurement’s old-school playbook — travel is a commodity, cost matters more than value, we’ll decide what’s best for travelers, and travel ROI can’t be measured so don’t bother. All that, and zero facts to shore them up. I’ll tentatively agree on one point, that traveler satisfaction may not be a good indicator of the value achieved from spending money on travel. The key is asking what metrics can be used to judge the value received from a travel budget, and then… Read more »

John Smith

Right on Steve!

Chris Dane

Right on the money … after all, we do get to keep the points on air car and hotel, get a decent hotel with internet, and hopefully a tool that monitors safety threats. Our moods will always be impacted by many factors … all we should ever want is to be treated fairly and equitably.

Prashanth Kuchibhotla
Prashanth Kuchibhotla

We are looking at different questions to balance: Was the trip effective? Was it due to relative traveller comfort? Was the traveller happy with the journey? Effectiveness is very hard to measure. A binary answer is subject to judgement calls by the traveller (self-bias, context). My trips are always so important and effective. Once you go past a minimum threshold of comfort level, correlation between comfort and effectiveness isn’t causation. Only in a few scenarios can you make linkages, like getting off a 17 hour Perth to London flight at 5am and be in a meeting at 9am. Traveller happiness… Read more »

Caroline Strachan

I hear you Steve. Across the article I believe you’re saying business travel is about business and not travel (we have to thank Scott G for that line). I agree. Having directly led programs for 10+years (with regular C-level contact) and worked in consulting roles with 100+ companies, travel is simply … insignificant (shock!). However, with the rise of the consumer comes the rise of the employee. In the 2018 PWC CEO study, the lead theme is CEOs feel the need to create higher value and purpose for people than just hitting the numbers. With this comes greater linkages between… Read more »

Jennie Robertson
Jennie Robertson

Thanks for this! I see firsthand that the more you let people get away with, the more they want. I explored some gamification ideas, but could not get behind rewarding travelers to “do the right thing.” And don’t even get me started on points!! I purposely choose boutique hotels for our program for that reason. I love the Google concept of a trip budget and accruing points in a bank for good behavior on one trip that you can then use towards the next trip if you want to fly PE or stay in a nicer hotel. It gives the… Read more »

Alan Tyson

A lot of points well-taken and grumpiness is always appreciated. I’d like to expand on Steve’s debunking of the idea that you can’t spend enough to enhance travelers’ well-being. In the course of his argument, he takes the free spenders to task for dismissing the objection that they cannot quantify their proposal’s benefits. I would suggest that business travel itself is open to Steve’s criticism. To properly evaluate whether a trip should be taken, you have to identify the business purpose, estimate the value of fulfilling that purpose, determine whether travel offers sufficiently greater odds of success to justify the… Read more »

Lora Ellis

An interesting perspective and one I used to hold, until I started listening to thousands of business travelers. Very few of those travelers stated that flying first class and staying at the Ritz Carlton versus the Courtyard will make them happy or more productive. In fact the vast majority of them are looking for improved productivity from their travel program – specifically better technology (booking, travel apps) and policies that are easy to understand and find. While hiring an administrative assistant might solve those issues, it will also impact the company’s bottom line. I absolutely agree that travel perks or… Read more »

James Filsinger

While I understand and appreciate Steve’s position on traveler satisfaction, I have to disagree. Traveler satisfaction is critical to bottom line performance for a company. And there is a continuum of satisfaction. Being a satisfied traveler doesn’t mean I have to go from the Courtyard directly to the Ritz. It could be I go from the Courtyard to Moxy because the Moxy gives me the experience I need to be successful. A core fallacy of Steve’s argument is that more satisfaction is driven by more money spent. Not true. Also, blanket statements like ‘salary raises and bonuses drive satisfaction’ assumes… Read more »

Mark Altman

Great dialogue about an important topic by two very qualified authorities, As Steve mentions, there was a time when the travel manager had absolute control in overseeing how money was spent on business travel and travel policy dominated the conversation. Now, the pendulum has swung the other way with vendors going directly to the company’s business travelers and diverting them from the guidelines of policy. Travel mangers are forced to carry two flags which requires them to guard the company coffers while minimizing the complaints coming from their travelers. One wonders if Scott’s interpretation of “trip quality” is merely the… Read more »