12 December 2022, etc.venues Monument, London
Business Travel Show Europe, presented by The BTN
21 November, London Hilton Metropole
AS A JOURNALIST, the News International scandal that erupted this summer has made me feel about as popular as a wicker chair in a nudist camp, to paraphrase Sid James in Carry on Cabby. The only good thing to come out of it, is that I finally understand why reporters are referred to as ‘hacks’.
For the record, I would like to assure everyone in the travel industry I have never hacked into anyone’s mobile phone. Not necessarily because I wouldn’t like to, but because I haven’t the remotest idea how to do it. My fortnight’s holiday this summer, when I couldn’t get a signal on my own phone, illustrates the near-limitless depths of my incompetence in this respect.
It took a full week for me to figure out I could get the device working through the simple remedy of switching it off and then switching it on again.
However, lest I sound too flippant, the revelations from Wapping have genuinely given me – and, I would guess, every news person – pause to reflect on what they do, and how they do it. It is not always an easy judgment. Away from the inexcusably tawdry world of tabloid newspapers, journalists perform an extremely important job, explaining, entertaining and also investigating. By and large, I believe the business travel press serves its readers well, but doing our job properly does unavoidably involve wading into sensitive subjects. Even when trying to take the utmost care, I would guess that every two or three years I write something I subsequently regret because of the trouble it has caused (usually inadvertently), even if it was perfectly accurate.
It’s rather odd writing about ethics here, because it is a subject rarely considered when it comes to travel management. Some professions – law, medicine, education – are fraught with moral complexities, whereas travel management appears to be resolutely innocuous. But is it as simple as that? What if you are a travel manager or a travel management company helping to send a weapons salesman to a country with a poor human rights' record? Or how about a tobacco company, or even a manufacturer exporting junk food to countries that have much healthier indigenous diets?
The other major ethical question in business travel is whether the trips we arrange are contributing to global warming. Striking the correct balance between economic expansion and environmental protection is a bigger dilemma than the travel industry can struggle with alone, but I do think this is an issue where travel managers, TMCs and others can be a clear force for good.
An increasing number of companies no long consider travel in isolation but alongside alternative, virtual forms of communication, such as tele- or video-conferencing.
The more travel managers can steer employees to those alternatives and encourage others to travel only when necessary, the more they are doing a really worthwhile job.
Another reason that journalists hack people off is sometimes, it seems, they only give one side of a story. I saw an example, over the summer, on the front page of The Daily Telegraph: “Ministry of Defence spends £1 billion on staff credit cards”, the headline said.
If you saw that in Buying Business Travel, you would probably think it was a good news story, indicating the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is starting to control its expenditure much more professionally through the use of company credit cards.
However, the Telegraph article went on to say: “Officials and senior military figures at the Ministry of Defence have spent almost £1 billion on taxpayer-funded credit cards at a time when thousands of soldiers are facing redundancy.”
From reading this I understood that defence staff would somehow not be spending that £1 billion if they hadn’t been issued with credit cards and, therefore, a lot more service personnel could have their jobs saved.
In fact, spend could well have been much higher if it had been through old-fashioned processes such as invoicing, which are very hard to track and administratively inefficient.
The reality is that credit cards make expenditure more transparent and, therefore, more controllable, and the biggest irony of all is that it is precisely this new-found transparency which has enabled a Telegraph reporter to learn, with some ease, how much the MoD is spending.
They wouldn’t have been able to do that as easily if the MoD didn’t use cards. Similarly, the article continued to say “several officials at the department have been privately disciplined or prosecuted over fraudulent or inappropriate use of the cards”.
Quite right too, but I would bet again that their misdeeds only came to light because they could be detected through their card data. In the past, as in any sector, the miscreants would have been able to bury the inappropriate spend in hard-to-verify paper expense claims.
I fail to see why Conservative MP Priti Patel believes, according to the same article, that the £1 billion spend is “an outrageous figure”. What is the context, the yardstick, by which she judges it outrageous? Actually, it is outrageous – outrageously low. I am sure the MoD could channel an even higher proportion of its spend through a card if it really tried.
While I am performing my Mr Grumpy routine, may I make a small plea on behalf of the English language?
Please remember ‘learning’ is a participle, not a noun. I keep encountering people in the travel industry misusing the word. Only yesterday, an interviewee offered to describe to me the “learning” of recent trends he had observed in the incentives market. We already have a perfectly serviceable noun. It is “lesson”, and if I ever hear anyone in the travel business get this wrong again, I swear I will teach them a learning they will never forget.