An August 2015 survey of over 350 corporate travel managers or buyers by the Association of Corporate Travel Executives (ACTE) revealed that 72% of travel managers have not yet achieved their desired travel policy compliance level. With compliance being key to company savings as well as traveler safety, it’s important to consider strategies for improving adherence to policy.
Why Corporate Travel Policies Matter
Corporate travel policies are important because they allow businesses to control the costs of sending employees on work trips, and they allow businesses to have some control over the employee’s travel experience and safety. A typical travel policy will cover items such as what vendors employees should use, how they should book travel, what costs are covered on a company card, and how reimbursement works. Some companies mandate these policies, whereas others are more flexible.
In partially managed programs, some employees use the company’s Travel Management Company (TMC) and some don’t. Some organizations instead have internal travel managers who create and enforce policies, while others offer little guidance and have no dedicated TMC, internal travel manager, or team. The possibilities are endless…and rather exhausting!
Why Following Policies Is Critical
While there are many different manifestations of travel policies and people who oversee them, businesses face challenges when employees ignore policies such as requirements to book flights a week in advance, attach a hotel to a flight booking, adhere to per diems, use the designated online booking tool, or book through designated channels. These policy deviations affect potential savings. For example, if a company uses a TMC, the company only benefits from negotiated rates if that traveler books in channel.
Often, the reasons why employees ignore policies are because they are trying to find lower-price options (which reflects lack of understanding about the travel program’s structure and negotiated savings); they are not fully knowledgeable about the company’s policies; or they are unaware that the company’s policies are mandatory, according to a Carlson Wagonlit survey. Whether you are the leader of a small business logging expenses on your laptop or a travel manager for a large corporation, there are strategies you can take to educate employees about your policies, which ultimately will improve compliance.
Approaches to Corporate Travel Policy Compliance
While perhaps most applicable to travel managers, these recommendations for improving adherence can be adopted by anyone who deals with travel expense reporting.
1. Factor in employee satisfaction
Often, company savings are valued over traveler satisfaction. One way businesses can improve policy compliance is by focusing more on improving the booking and travel experience for employees. In fact, 75% of the respondents from the ACTE survey said they believe improvements to traveler service can improve compliance because it can change travelers’ behavior. Luckily, most of them also agree that improving traveler satisfaction does not necessarily equate with higher expenses
How can businesses enhance traveler satisfaction, though? They can invite traveler feedback and use that feedback to shape future policy and vendor decisions. Forty-four percent of the travel managers from the ACTE study reported that they have no formal structure in place for traveler feedback; instead, they rely on ad hoc emails from employees. Travel managers (or others involved in T&E processes) can use a simple, free, online survey tool to collect data about employees’ experiences and preferences, or they can even conduct focus groups with travelers. The goal is to learn about their preferences and consider those preferences in relationship to future decisions about preferred channels or policy restrictions. While travel managers can’t let employee preferences hike up costs, if you happen to learn that a majority of employees would prefer a three-star versus four-star hotel if more funds could be allocated for dining, this approach would constitute more of a shift than an increase in costs.
2. Get creative
Some organizations are becoming more creative in their approaches to compliance. Following a GBTA conference in 2013, gamification (using social gaming strategies such as online badges and leaderboards to rank in-policy travelers) became a popular buzzword in the industry, and some thought it could enhance compliance. Gamification could be an inventive, fun, and cheap way to encourage travelers to use the corporate booking tool and book in-channel. While the CEO of the tech firm Rocketrip, Dan Ruch, told BuyingBusinessTravel.com that gamification has largely failed, he says the perceived failure is because the rewards (“digital high fives and gold stars”) aren’t enough to incentivize employees. Rocketrip, however, offers real financial incentive. It employs a unique algorithm that uses a company’s travel policy, employee parameters, and real-time price data to search for travel and encourage travelers to make choices (such as a less-desirable flight) to save the company money. Employees, in turn, get half the money that they saved the company.
A 2015 Business Travel News (BTN) Group survey of 504 travel management professionals reveals that some businesses have tried creative strategies such as making watch lists, putting new employees on the watch list for a few months to ensure compliance and then removing them from the audit altogether. In this way, employees get a bit of freedom once they have gained the company’s trust and are fully aware of the policies. Other companies have explored approaches such as offering additional time off for travel if the employee books economy class for the flight.
3. Educate employees on duty of care
It’s a commonplace in the managed travel world that travel policies should address duty of care—a company’s obligations to protect employees from harm while traveling. How duty of care is handled within different companies and even at different TMCs, however, differs. Some best practices include assessing risk prior to an employee’s trip and informing employees of potential risks and resources prior to the trip; developing a crisis management plan and confirming suppliers support the plan; and tracking travelers at all times.
Especially in light of recent terrorism events, it is important that travelers are aware of the resources that are in place for them. An added benefit of better communication about these policies is that they have the potential to enhance travel policy compliance. The BTN survey, for example, directly suggests that travel managers should consider using duty of care as a lever to enhance compliance. Hotels are a particular pain point in this realm. Many corporate travelers book hotels outside of the preferred channel; this may mean that the travel management company or travel manager then will be unaware of where the traveler is located. Many TMCs have technologies that allow immediate access to travelers’ whereabouts, but again this is only when travelers use the technology. Linking technology use to duty of care may help alleviate this concern.
4. Make sure policies are accessible, clear, and up-to-date
The 2015 ACTE report indicates, “corporate travel managers are convinced that communication drives up compliance.” One part of communication is making sure travel policies are accessible, which is most likely when employees receive regular education on policies. Acendas maintains that new employee education is crucial, as are refresher courses for regular travelers. Also, BTN suggests that when line managers or budget owners are in charge of travel policy compliance monitoring, they often don’t know the policy well enough to enforce it. They recommend educating travel managers on policy and process, including training them on any online tools used by the company and making sure they have the contact information for directing their questions. Policies should also be made accessible for everyone’s reference on the company’s intranet, through the travel portal, and the online booking tool. Travel managers can also send email reminders to employees prior to travel.
Access and training can’t be helpful, however, if policies are not clear. The BTN study suggests that key terms (such as ancillary fees or restricted airfares) are often missing from policies, which may confuse travelers. Travel policy makers should make sure key terms are defined for travelers, and they should clearly describe any penalties in place for non-compliance. Another key way to make policies clear is to focus on keeping them up-to-date. With emerging technologies automating some travel processes, a yearly look at your company’s travel policy may remind you to delete policies that are no longer relevant or needed. At the same time, your business will want to make sure policies are continually refined, addressing trends like the sharing economy. Keeping policies accurate, easy to follow, and easy to find can encourage employees to comply.
5. Take advantage of the right technologies
Technologies that can increase traveler policy compliance come in many forms, and they probably deserve the most attention, since they have the potential to significantly improve policy compliance. An April 2013 Aberdeen Group Report, “End-to-End Visibility Into T&E Expense Management: Mobile Comes to the Table,” shows that investing in an end-to-end solution (the entire process a traveler takes, from the actual travel to post-travel reporting and analysis) to travel management results in a 44% improvement in compliance. Exploring new technologies and ensuring they enable travelers to work within one system throughout the process can help companies maintain policy compliance.
Many TMCs have partnerships with online booking tools, which they use to track expenses and manage compliance—some even have their own proprietary software. Companies without a TMC may use an online booking tool (some require use of the tool; others do not), and some travelers are left to book on their own, follow policy, and hope for reimbursement. When it comes to choosing technologies, the best approach is to involve key stakeholders in the conversation, looking at where travel policy compliance has its biggest gaps and seeing what tools are available to help with these specific issues. For example, while flights are often heavily scrutinized, hotel bookings can be overlooked. Recently, Christopherson Business Travel added Hotel Attachment to its suite of digital travel tools. Each day, the program identifies itineraries without hotel reservations, alerts the traveler, and allows the traveler to simply click to make the reservation, request a reminder, attach a hotel reservation made outside the itinerary, or waive the need for a reservation. Just getting an automated visual reminder could potentially enhance compliance. In fact, ACTE’s “A Best Practices Guide to Corporate Policy Compliance” notes that the use of online booking tools is driving higher compliance just through “the visual guilt factor.”
Christopherson’s Hotel Attachment is only part of their robust AirPortal 360, which provides travel managers with a full dashboard to track travel spending, security, policy compliance, and more. Online booking tools like Deem and Concur not only offer robust analytics on the expense reporting side, but they make booking travel easy for road warriors. Travelers can book their own travel, but their choices are integrated with pre-set information regarding your company’s preferred providers, negotiated rates, and travel policies. Employees are kept informed about any out-of-policy selections, and the tools streamline pre-trip approvals. With Concur, employees can change itineraries through their smartphones, and they can snap a photo of a receipt, which turns it into an expense entry.
Danielle Fisher, a marketing manager who is a Concur user tells us that Concur is “a very user-friendly system. It allows you the freedom of choosing between airlines and flight times while ensuring you stay within your company’s travel expense perimeters.” Fisher notes that her company “has green, yellow, and red levels set up for ticket prices. If you book a red-level flight, you have to log a reason for booking the flight. It keeps people accountable.” As Fisher notes, an online booking tool like Concur seems to combine ease of use and a level of freedom for the traveler while ensuring compliance with policies.
Artificial intelligence has the potential to further assist businesses with travel policy compliance. The 30SecondstoFly team has created Claire, an artificially intelligent travel assistant. Business travelers can communicate with Claire via text, and she books travel policy-compliant trips within minutes. Claire is unique because of the usability she provides for travelers. On the business expenses side, she also reports robust travel analytics.
An Important Reminder for Policy Compliance
Perhaps the most important thing for anyone involved in promoting policy compliance is to tailor your approaches to the company culture. Gamification might work well in a small start-up with a congenial, laid-back culture, whereas a full dashboard showing positive and negative data about individual traveler or department compliance might work well in a large corporation with a competitive environment. Regardless of company culture, a focus on compliance will remain important as a way to save businesses money and keep travelers safe.
Jenna teaches college-level writing courses at the University of New Haven, and she regularly freelances for 30SecondsToFly. When she’s not writing or teaching, she can be found traveling, running after her toddler, and/or enjoying some mac & cheese.