Today’s travel manager needs more than just good communication skills to get the message across, says Amon Cohen
THE BEST JOKE I have heard recently was told to me by my chum John’s six-year-old son, Oliver. “What’s the difference between bogies and broccoli?” Oliver asked. Answer: “I don’t eat broccoli.” How I wish that suppliers in the travel industry could communicate as effectively and memorably as this young man. The gag – admittedly not his own – was tangible, bold, balanced and, most importantly, concise. These are all qualities very much missing in many of the answers I am forced to write down during my routine enquiries as a businesstravel journalist. No wonder – and perhaps I shouldn’t admit this in public – I occasionally fall asleep during telephone interviews with corporate card providers, technology companies and the like. I have even, I blush to tell you, nodded off a couple of times interrogating travel execs face-to-face.
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In contrast, I find that travel managers generally make excellent interviewees. That’s because they have to be good at talking. Business travel remains a highly emotive subject, and when everyone in an organisation thinks they ought to be the travel manager, the person who really is the travel manager needs to be persuasive to win everyone else over to their point of view.
Yet although the importance of communications within the travel management role has always been understood, I believe it is now moving to a new level. Being a personable talker remains an important asset, but maybe it is no longer enough. Today’s travel managers arguably need formal marketing skills to promote their programme in a world where employees increasingly act like consumers and expect to be sold to as such.
I mentioned in this column last year that one company recently added a comms specialist to its travel team. That company was Microsoft, and the specialist in question, global employee engagement manager Susan Baig, spoke at the Business Travel Show in London in February.
Susan explained she was hired because Microsoft decided it needed an expert communicator to sell the vision of its restructured travel programme to its numerous travellers.
Microsoft has a 20-strong travel management team worldwide, whereas many companies have to get by with just one travel manager, who of necessity must be a strong all-rounder. Is it fair to expect a small travel department to be adept at marketing communications as well as procurement, finance, data analysis andnursemaiding frequent travellers?
Well, perhaps, yes. Susan’s co-speaker in the communications session was Rosy Burnie, travel manager for the metals manufacturer Luvata. Rosy explained how she operates a comprehensive communications strategy, talking to employees through newspapers, the company intranet and even an in-house television channel. What is more, she varies the message carefully for different countries, which is crucial for a company with a presence on several continents. Rosy’s presentation was in itself a tour de force of good communication. She compared travel management to safari park management andused terrific graphics to illustrate the metaphor. Some of today’s best travel managers have become multi-media specialists. The world is definitely moving on.
ANOTHER GREAT communicator who spoke at the Business Travel Show was International Airlines Group (IAG) chief exec Willie Walsh. As conference programme co-director for the show, it was my duty to introduce him and facilitate the questions after his speech. It was the easiest moderating job I have ever done. From predicting who would win the imminent rugby match between Ireland and England to commenting on whether he regretted British Airways merging with Iberia, Willie responded to every question head-on.
His great talent is another important secret of communication – making the person you are with feel valued by listening to them and engaging directly with what they say. I had about ten minutes with him before we went on stage and even though he was frantically busy that day dealing with an Iberia strike, arguments with the government over air passenger duty, and many other issues, he still made me feel he was much more interested in what I do for a living.
One issue we discussed was travel policy. Willie had just been on a trip to South Korea and told me about a company he met there which has introduced a new rule: no receipts billed after 9pm will be accepted as admissible expenses. In a country with a post-work corporate culture of heavy drinking, it has apparently saved the company a fortune.
SOMETHING ELSE I discovered about my new best friend Willie was that his chosen mobile device is a mangy old Nokia that must be at least a decade old. It was the most un-smartphone, in every respect, I have seen for a while.
I have noticed before that owning the most rubbishy phone imaginable is some sort of inverted status symbol among senior business people. Partly, it is because they have accompanying minions to do all their research and written communications work for them. For the rest of us, however, smartphones and tablets have become an essential travel tool, and it is costing companies a fortune, especially when employees roam outside the EU. One company I met at the Business Travel Show, Uros, claimed a traveller can spend as much as €1,600 on four hours of internet time when visiting Asia.
Uros is one of several companies aiming to reduce this cost. It sells a piece of hardware called Goodspeed – a collection of SIM cards which emulate a domestic mobile environment for the traveller in the country they are visiting. Like temporary office hire, which I discussed in my last column, mobile costs are another hidden expense that can fall between the remits of different departments. If travel managers took on the job of tackling the problem, which is now possible, they could make themselves instant heroes.
TALKING OF HIDDEN EXPENSES, HRG claims to have recently uncovered US$33 million of unclaimed ticket refunds in an audit for one company. Even in 2013, there are still basic but massive savings going begging in many businesses.