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.

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

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