Is there a business case for creating a better traveller experience?

Niklas Andreen and Michael Ryan

People tend to have a very glamorous view of business travel – flying business class, five-star hotels, lobster dinners, piling up the points, cutting epic deals.

But as people who have travelled frequently for work for well over a decade, we assure you that the reality can be starkly different!

Business travel is one of the top controllable expenses for many organisations – many big Australian companies spend tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars a year flying their employees around the world. And so cost management – and containment – has always been a top priority when it comes to business travel.

This is often achieved by enacting more restrictive travel policies. Ask any seasoned road warrior and they’ll tell you “things ain’t what they used to be”, as they reminisce of a time before the 2008 financial crisis when they could fly business class on a three-hour flight.

No one can doubt or underplay the importance of cost management – and cost management is something most business is good at. However, more and more organisations are realising that while crucial, it is only one dimension of their success. Leading organisations are therefore increasingly focusing on the strong business case that exists for putting the traveller experience at the centre of their strategy.

Data shows it improves retention, boosts performance, and even lifts the bottom line when you don’t just treat travel as movement of people, but understand how employees see this as part of your company culture.

In fact, in a recent survey of business travellers by CWT, more than three in five (61 per cent) respondents to the survey said they factor in a company’s travel policy when evaluating a new job opportunity. This pattern is even more pronounced with road warriors who have taken more than 10 trips in the past year – close to three quarters (71 per cent) said corporate travel policies influence their job search.

Striking the right balance between cost control and the traveller experience is the Holy Grail in business travel.

We think 2019 is going to be an exciting year for business travel because technology is reaching a point where it will, for the first time, allow companies to achieve these goals simultaneously.

The Golden Trinity of business travel – Cost, performance and traveller experience

Part of our strategy at CWT is joining the dots between many masters. We think of it as a holy trinity: the cost of travel that needs to be managed; performance – what you expect to achieve by sending someone on a business trip; and the experience your people have when they are travelling.

Our industry used to think about these things in silos and also quite often see them as mutually exclusive, but it’s essential that we transform our thinking. It’s “both, and”. It’s not “either, or”.

Our focus is making sure we can define the optimal solution between the three for our clients. We know from research that successful companies are using employee engagement to drive other areas of the business: namely recruitment, retention, performance, and savings. It’s the same in the business travel sector.

There’s no longer a binary effect between cost and service. It no longer has to be the case that effectively managing your program needs to result in a worse service for your travellers.

With data science and tools like personalization, we have the opportunity to play around with the three points in the triangle to find the ideal mix for each and every company.

Here’s an example: In a past role, one of us had to fly out to Chicago for a training week. With the old rules, any flight over six hours was booked in business class.

But there was no real need to fly business for that trip. On the other hand, if someone is flying two hours to make a big pitch for their company, you definitely want that person stepping off the plane fresh and shipshape, mentally and physically prepared to nail the deal.

The ROI on an economy class ticket which leaves them stuck in the middle seat in row 52G, with a kid drooling on their shoulder on one side and a loquacious co-passenger on the other, is probably not great.

Of course, the challenge is we all have data coming out of our ears. It’s not always easy to know what to do with it. But companies that are able to truly understand what their data is telling them about the traveller experience they are generating, will have the power to develop systems that allow you to run a very cost-efficient program, as well as build a brand that resonates with your travellers.

Getting the green light from the C-Suite

At a recent ACTE event in Paris, the audience were asked which strategies they felt travel managers need more training on. The results were cost savings (19 per cent), traveller engagement (36 per cent), and making a business case to senior leadership (45 per cent).

These results are not surprising.

Yes, we’ve been talking about the traveller experience for a long time. But we haven’t truly been able to measure it using data. Now, technology is at a point where data can be used to make a well-rounded business case: To show how the travel program can drive the culture of who we want to be as a business, drive savings, and achieve return on investment (ROI).

The challenge now is how organisations change the conversation internally.

How do I engage with my travellers? How do I make a business case to start talking internally about this shift from just talking about cost – the binary – to defining what a holistic approach looks like?

Successful companies who are pivoting the conversation to a strategic and holistic view of travel aren’t trying to boil the ocean. They aren’t looking to technology to solve a problem within three years. This is because by the time you get to the three-year mark and you have solved the problem, there will be new ones.

Successful companies know where they want to head, understand the importance of the travel program in their company culture, and have figured out how to move the needle step-by-step while also taking their travellers along for the journey.

What’s exciting is that more and more organisations are saying, “We can accomplish both.”

We are now all asking: “What’s the actionable insight?”, “What can we start to change today?”, and “How can I make sure I service and engage travellers better across all the channels we use to interact with them?”

Once travellers have the right tools, they change their behavior naturally. You will have fewer discussions around compliance. Instead, the discussion will be around how you help travellers get the most out of the tools you provide.

Niklas Andreen is the Chief Traveler Experience Officer at Carlson Wagonlit Travel and Michael Ryan is Managing Director, Australia & New Zealand, Carlson Wagonlit Travel.