Serko’s Tony D’Astolfo channels his inner Col. Jessep to ask if the travel management profession can handle the truth about self-inflicted wounds.

I was watching “A Few Good Men” the other night and just after Jack Nicholson’s memorable courtroom scene, a thought popped into my head: This reminds me of today’s managed travel program.

I find a lot of symbolism in movies. You might be thinking this one is a stretch but allow me to explain. 

In the 2019 Business Travel News salary survey, when asked what they do, travel managers’ top responses were selecting suppliers, managing costs, setting corporate policy and negotiating rates. More respondents indicated their companies measured performance based on cost savings or avoidance than any other factor.

Play that against a changing business travel environment that now accommodates — and in some cases even promotes — off-channel bookings, where IATA’s New Distribution Capability enables supplier-direct initiatives, and where the Holy Grail is the integration of travel and expense data.

Tony D’Astolfo, Serko senior vice president, North America

Have we simply accepted that program leakage is a given? Do we not care that while a preferred supplier’s direct website provides negotiated rates, those might not be the best options available? Should we accommodate a model that might lower distribution costs but sacrifices comparison shopping across many suppliers at the point of purchase?

Some argue that the market-leading online booking tools are to blame. These critics point to OBTs’ lack of investment in building “consumer-grade” solutions that mirror and OTA sites. Citing high dissatisfaction among buyers about content and user experience, a recent Festive Road study suggested OBTs needed to “wake up and smell the coffee.” Airline merchandizing initiatives exacerbate the content problem because global distribution systems — the OBTs’ primary source for content — have not kept pace. 

Questions abound as the industry forges ahead. 

What about all these new tools available to manage leakage? Are they free? Do they come with any hooks that might impact data privacy requirements? What about the data you are used to getting? Will provide the same level of detail? Can you still capture the rates not selected by travelers at the point of sale, compare them to the selected rates and determine if policy needs tweaking?

As new models and solutions emerge, more questions need answers. Has the total cost of running your travel program increased? Where do your travelers go when a snowstorm wreaks havoc on your supplier’s operation to the point of having 60-minute hold times on customer service lines? Who manages the residual value on the ticket if the traveler managed to get rebooked but found themselves downgraded or missing an element of the purchased airline “bundle”? Are we witnessing — even enabling — increased costs, added risk and the dissolution of managed travel as we know it? 

I will close by offering a slight modification of the Jack Nicholson monologue:

We live in a world that has policies and preferred suppliers, and those policies have to be enforced by OBTs and TMCs at the point of purchase. Who’s gonna do it? A site? An expense tool? An itinerary aggregator? A new blockchain smart contract? The OBT/TMC has a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You weep for GetThere (for its dated UI), and you curse Concur (for system performance and an equally bad UI). You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know, that the application of policy at the point of purchase, while tragic to some rogue travelers, protects the company, and that the OBT’s existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to some, saves money.

You don’t want the truth because deep down in places you don’t talk about at GBTA, you want the OBT on that wall, you need the OBT on that wall. You use words like compliance, control, duty of care. The OBT uses these words as the backbone of an effort spent defending the basic tenets of the managed travel program. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain my tool to an industry who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the cost containment and duty of care that I provide and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said, “thank you” and paid me my transaction fee (actually a raise in the base fee would be appreciated). Otherwise, I don’t give a damn what your rogue travelers think they are entitled to do. You want the truth? Can you handle the truth?!

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Squabbling Some, Online Booking Tool Providers Address Negative Perception
Concur/GBTA Report Urges Travel Managers To Inspect How TMCs Configure Booking Tools
GBTA Study: Business Travelers Less Satisfied With Online Booking Tools Than Supplier Sites
Teleconference 3: Online Booking Tools
Louise Miller On Considerations For Online Booking Tool Selection

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