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Travel management needs a serious overhaul

Along with many colleagues, I spend an unhealthy amount of time in airports and hotels. This year is already crazy.
Written by Dennis Howlett, Contributor

Along with many colleagues, I spend an unhealthy amount of time in airports and hotels. This year is already crazy. Upcoming trips will see me visit four/five cities in as many countries over 15 days. I will fly something like 35,000 miles. It takes some stringing together. I am not an edge case. I hear about plenty  of executives who have far worse schedules than mine.

Robert Scoble knows something of the problems having infamously taken a swipe at Workday while almost shooting himself in the head complaining about the state of enterprise travel applications. While he got his critique wrong, he made good general points about clunky enterprise systems compared to consumer grade alternatives. We talked about it. That's only the half of it and a point to which I will return.

Each time when flights are booked through an agency or company (yes - I get freight paid when I'm on gigs) I run checks to figure out the least number of hops required to get me from A to B. In this case A through D and possibly E. I try to avoid certain airlines, mostly because 17 years' experience of transatlantic flying (with a three year break after 9/11) has demonstrated just how poor airline service can be. There's an entire post there but instead I recommend readers check out one of the airline seat review sites for customer comments.

I also try be as economical as possible because I know that getting people like me to events is expensive in large part due to my base location, but also because I am visiting these events as their guest. I usually make recommendations and they are mostly followed. In fairness to everyone, they all try really hard to accommodate my needs. It doesn't always work out.

Each company has a different approach to the problem. Some insist on making bookings via internal travel organisations. Some book on departmental credit cards. Others use agencies and they have their own methods. Some get me to book and then reimburse. But in each and every case, there is always some element that is broken or incomplete.

There is for example inconsistency around how receipted items are reimbursed. Some hand over cash, others want to send checks, others need purchase orders which need approval and follow up invoices with scanned receipts which may be settled directly through the banking system, still others (depending on the deal related to the gig) want the reimbursement treated in similar fashion to employee reimbursement. Some simply round up for anticipated total travel cost into the overall project cost. Some have different processes depending on whether the gig was organised by one or other department or the purpose of the gig. In the round, it is chaotic, time consuming, difficult stuff. It should not be that way.

We have flight comparison sites like Kayak, an excellent service that almost always shows the best deals available for the time I need to fly. But then sometimes I need to fly with a low cost airline and nearly everyone has problems with that because these often cut out the middle man.

Services like Booking.com could be used for hotels as I know they get great deals. But then it isn't always possible because on some gigs, the company has block booked certain hotels.

Then there are all the wee incidentals along the way such as train, cab, bus and other fares plus oddball overnight stays in between because of flight connection issues. Pretty much all of it could be handled via the internet if only we had a good way to manage it all. But we don't and because travel management is so chaotic, there is an inevitability about the email chains that get generated along the way.

For example, with the exception of PR agency Waggener Edstrom, none of the companies I deal with retain my passport/ID details. That means every time I have to rebook I have to provide the same information. Do that 20 times or more a year and it gets tiresome. Some of the companies have no idea what information is needed or make mistakes when they ask for the information. That's usually due to inexperience or their having been fed the wrong data. To solve that problem I have everything they need in a template I can simply cut and paste. Job done. Well almost - because nowadays I usually need to re-enter some or all of this information onto airline accounts when travelling to non-Schengen Agreement countries. And sometimes when booking they forget to do so, which is another source of minor aggravation.

All of this is what Sig Rinde might call a Barely Repeatable Process but one that could be made much simpler and eminently repeatable.

Nothing brings this into sharp relief more than an email I received from Wagged's staff. They asked me if I still need to fly via a particular airport and do I still travel via another airport I've frequently used as the gateway for visiting the US. They confirmed having my travel document details. No-one has ever done that before. For the first time, I felt like someone cared about my travel. I'm sure other companies care just as much but the fact I was being asked these questions takes a load off my mind.

My point is that flight and hotel comparison sites are great but what we need is a service that is as simple to use as Expensify. It needs the following attributes as a starting point (in no particular order):

  • Hold all the right information about me for automatic pick up when needed.
  • Find flights and hotels.
  • Allow me to hold a flight for booking and then communicate that to whomever needs to sign off so they can hit the confirm button once approved against policies.
  • Run checks back to me so I can confirm that what I've asked for is what I am getting before someone pays for that non-refundable ticket.
  • Allow for alternative flight booking options that can be offered inside the booking process.
  • Instantiate processes that allow for the establishment of approved budget figures against which receipts can automatically be processed.
  • Includes hotel booking options which could be one of several pre-booked or alternatively based upon Google Maps data.
  • Includes ground transportation options which could be booked as part of the overall process.
  • Guides me through each major step of the booking process for the three big elements: flight, hotel and ground transportation.
  • Allow for auto completion of the non-Schengen Agreement data (that might be tough but if you don't ask then you don't get.)
  • Allow for the uploading of scanned receipts directly into the budgeted item area and hand off the final amounts expended into the appropriate general ledger codes.
  • Arrange auto bank transfer after a trip is completed (which can be obtained from the flight information) to settle anything needed back to me and disburse to airlines, hotel operators etc.
  • Notify me of the expected reimbursement date.
  • Apply collaborative principles that ensure both the company and I are fully apprised of what's going on. No email, just push notifications with all data fields pre-populated.
  • Include flight data so that I get an early warning of any delays and passes that back to any pickup operator at the arrival area plus notify anyone I am due to meet at the other end. TripIt does some of this already.
  • Be available on any device but with a UX that takes its cue from mobile applications.
  • Not be proprietary to any ERP/budgeting system.
  • Allow for as much or as little data to be shareable as I choose so that I can discover and hook up with colleagues. That could mean making the data available to Foursquare or Gowalla.
  • Keep track of my trips for any business trip costs I cannot get reimbursed due to specific policy exclusions but which can be used for deduction against my own income.
  • Provide for automatic upload of non reimbursed expenses to my own accounting solution of choice.

I would be more than willing to put in the setup legwork and some ongoing search efforts if the application acts as a helper and takes stress out of the situation. I might even be prepared to hand over a few bucks a month for the pleasure - as long as they don't spam me with ads.

This cannot be that difficult. We already have many of the pieces in disparate services many of us already use. Travel management is not a competitive differentiator. In an age of the Internet, I'd be surprised if it is much of a cost differentiator. When will we see a solution that ties it all together and which could be used by anyone? Sure, we have lots of companies who claim to optimise the process for companies but they don't optimise for the experience of the individual. Yes, I appreciate that companies have travel policies but I wonder how effective they really are given the fluid nature of work? Do they make that much difference to the bottom line?

Who's going to step up to the plate and help everyone involved enjoy a much easier life? Who is going to be the disruptor that wants my business?

Image via Sameer Patel

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