With entries for the Business Travel Awards 2015 now open, Bob Papworth talks to awards judge Deborah Short, global travel manager at insurance giant Willis
What does the travel management role at Willis entail?
My current role includes all travel areas – air, hotel, car, rail, agency and corporate jets – corporate cards, venue sourcing, travel technology, expense reporting, procurement analytics and communications.
Willis has 18,000 travellers in all, of whom 12,000 are regular travellers. We fly globally to most of the major cities in the world, in all classes. Our average duration of trip is two-and-a-half days.
How did you get into the travelbuying/management sector? And what do you like most – and least – about your job?
I got into travel by accident, when I was asked to manage a European meetings project, implementing technology and formalising relationships. I then became the business manager for travel and meetings in the EMEA region, and was subsequently asked to manage EMEA travel in more than 40 countries.
For me, working with different countries, nationalities and cultures brings great variety – and the biggest challenges. Having to wear such a variety of hats on a daily basis keeps me on my toes, and ensures that I remain motivated.
The interaction between supplier and corporate to deliver the optimum solution can be very rewarding – if it’s managed correctly. On the downside, my biggest frustration is the assimilation and accurate analysis of travel data on a global basis.
In your current role, what has been your biggest challenge, and how have you met it?
My biggest challenge to date has been the implementation of rolling out the travel agency function globally – and getting buy-in for it. This has been met with different approaches in each country, so you need to ensure you’re aware of the nuances, and engage at different levels within the business.
What advice would you give to someone starting out in a travel buyer manager role?
First, a travel manager needs to understand the company’s business requirements, at all levels. Second, my advice would be to challenge the boundaries – the ‘accepted wisdom’ may be accepted, but it isn’t necessarily wisdom, so think differently about things.
The recession may be almost over, but cost control remains top of the agenda. Is there a danger that ‘austerity’ can go too far?
In my view, travel has to be seen as an investment, a means to an end. Travel is a business tool – obviously it should be in line with the profit margins and revenues, but one has to balance that cost against the commercial return.
Travel technology is becoming ‘smarter’ by the minute, but do travellers want super-efficient automation? Is the personal touch still important?
This depends on the seniority and age of your travellers. I have found that the older generation of travellers and travel bookers prefer that personal touch. When we mandated online bookings for all point-to-point travel, it was six months before we stopped being asked to move back to a classic environment.
To what extent do ‘green’ issues influence your travel programme? Do you think the travel industry should do more to minimise its environmental impact?
We don’t have a ‘green’ policy as such. We are only too aware that travel does have an environmental impact, and we try to minimise that by travelling efficiently and effectively.
Can you tell us about being a judge at the Business Travel Awards?
I find being part of the judging process a real privilege. I feel it’s one of the ways in which I can give something back to the industry. It is time-consuming, but the effort involved gets its reward from seeing the winners receiving their awards on the big night. If the opportunity to become a judge arises, I would recommend it.
As a judge, what do you look for when considering the entries? Is ‘making a contribution to the industry’ a top priority?
In my view, making a contribution to the industry is very important – it’s right up there with innovation and positive customer feedback. Obviously, there always has to be a very high level of professional competence, but the standard of the entries is such that candidates need to demonstrate that they have gone that extra mile.
Why should people enter the Awards? What’s the value?
People – and companies – should enter because it’s a way to share what you have achieved, and show the boundaries that you have pushed. It all helps to move the industry forward – and of course it will boost your CV.
When the working week has come to an end, how do you relax?
The weekend is here and, as for most people, my office work turns into housework – the washing and ironing doesn’t do itself. That said, when a socialising opportunity arises, housework can always take a back seat – in terms of relaxation, you can’t beat the odd glass of white grape juice.
Willis Group Holdings plc is a global risk advisor, insurance and reinsurance broker. With roots dating back to 1828, Willis operates today on every continent with more than 18,000 employees in more than 400 offices. Led from headquarters in New York and the City of London, and with service centres in Ipswich, Nashville and Mumbai, the company is among the leading brokers in many countries, including China, where it has offices in 20 cities.