Almost a year has passed since business travel recovery began in earnest, so why are some TMCs still struggling with staffing and service levels, and is buyers' patience running out?

By Lauren Arena, published 27 February 2023

STAFF SHORTAGES have dogged the travel industry ever since last summer’s faster-than-expected return to the skies. Critical understaffing at travel management companies, in particular, resulted in unanswered traveller enquiries and corporate travel managers buckling under internal pressure as service levels suffered. While some gaps have been plugged, challenges persist.

One European travel manager told BTN Europe this month that their agreed SLA of 75 per cent of calls to their TMC being answered within 30 seconds “is absolutely not happening right now”. It is not an isolated example.

Emma Gregory, director of UK-based Urbanberry Recruitment, says: “TMCs are getting close to where they need to be, but the problem is that they're still winning business and not accounting for natural attrition.

“They’re getting new contracts that they can’t service because they don’t have adequate staff, so this puts continual pressure on existing staff who then leave. We're stuck in this cycle and it just creates panic recruitment,” she says.

Adding fuel to the fire, Gregory says many travel consultants have left the industry “for good” and there simply aren’t enough candidates to fill vacancies at TMCs, some of which had to cut headcount by up to 80 per cent during the pandemic.

According to a January poll conducted by the Global Business Travel Association, almost half of travel supplier and TMC employees (47 per cent) said their company’s staff size is smaller now than it was before the pandemic.

GBTA Business Travel Outlook Poll Q1 Results January 31, 2023

GBTA Business Travel Outlook Poll Q1 Results January 31, 2023

However, two in three travel suppliers (65 per cent) expect staffing will increase “a lot” or “somewhat” in 2023 compared to 2022, while 26 per cent expect no change.

Although 85 per cent of TMC executives responding to a recent BTN Europe poll (full results will be published in March) said they believe their organisation is sufficiently staffed, Barbara Kolosinska, managing director at UK-based C&M Travel Recruitment, believes just 20 per cent of large TMCs are currently at their desired staffing levels.

“Some smaller TMCs will be at their optimum headcount, but the vast majority of companies are currently either recruiting for permanent roles or are looking to take on temporary employees as a shorter-term fix,” says Kolosinska.

This trend extends across Europe. Business travel associations in Spain, Germany and Italy all confirmed a “noticeable” and “critical” shortage of skilled travel consultants, which has led to concerns about service quality and account management. In the UK, the Business Travel Association says the majority of its members are at around 90 per cent of pre-pandemic staffing levels and that recruiting continues.

“The processing time leaves a lot to be desired,” says VDR vice president Inge Pirner, who adds, “during the pandemic, little was invested in [tech] innovation. We are feeling these effects now and the employees who migrated to other sectors are not coming back.”

In Spain, the situation has markedly improved in the last six months, according to Marcel Forns, general manager of TMC association GEBTA, but servicing problems persist because recruitment levels were “out of sync” with the spike in post-pandemic travel demand.

“This comes in addition to the fact that today transactions are more complex and need more time and manual intervention than before the pandemic,” he says.

Meanwhile, the president of Italy’s association for travel and mobility managers (AITMM), Paolo Tedesco, has seen TMC service shortcomings lead to “general discontent” among travellers and added internal pressure for travel managers. “[This] often translates into higher internal operational management costs as services have to be reviewed multiple times,” he says.

Adding insult to injury, Tedesco says the role of the travel manager – and by extension the TMC – is still not valued as a strategic position in many Italian companies. Therefore, service fees in Italy are “too low” when compared to other countries in Europe.

"We recognised that calls to the agency were taking longer and people were more nervous about travel, so we built our own service team to deal with traveller queries"
Karen Hutchings, EY

“If you want to focus on the quality of the service, this cannot be separated from adequate financial recognition,” he says, adding that improved remuneration could help attract more talent.

The UK’s Institute of Travel Management (ITM) has also noted ongoing challenges as TMCs scramble to get new starters up to speed to deal with enquiries.

“Some buyers are looking to train their travellers to use alternative reference information,” said ITM head of programme, Kerry Douglas. But with widespread staff shortages, there’s no quick fix and, according to Douglas, initiating an RFP is “unlikely to improve the situation”.

In fact, only 12 per cent of ITM’s buyer members said they plan to go to a full RFP with their TMC this year, according to recent research from the association. Interestingly, however, Douglas has seen “some change within agreements” and “shared responsibility in supporting service levels”.

That’s the approach EY’s global head of travel, meetings and events, Karen Hutchings, took last year. The company established its own service centre after it realised the challenges TMCs faced in recruiting travel consultants. Rather than wait for the service to improve they worked together to set up a support model as it was easier for EY to hire people at a time when the travel industry was not a popular proposition for new recruits.

“We recognised that calls to the agency were taking longer and people were more nervous about travel, so we built our own service team to deal with traveller queries,” Hutchings explains.

The nine-person team now handles non-booking-related enquiries from 15 countries across Europe and Asia, with plans to extend the service into the US.

“Whenever someone calls travel services it's our team that answers questions. The call gets triaged by us and only punched back to the agency if they want to make a reservation,” says Hutchings. “The main reason behind it is that it was easier for us to hire people – and it's still easier for us to hire people.”

For some travel managers, however, the ongoing operational issues caused by TMC shortages are simply too much to bare. “We are trying to be patient,” one travel manager told BTN Europe. “However, the situation has helped justifying going to RFP this year.”

"The number of mistakes we are seeing is much higher… this is making our job much harder as the traveller doesn’t trust that we have a good working partner"
A European travel manager

The Europe-based buyer, who wished to remain anonymous, has been with their current TMC for almost nine years and says that, while new staff had been hired, the onboarding process leaves little to be desired.

“The new staff struggle to keep up with volumes and to integrate corporate polices,” they said. “Unfortunately, the number of mistakes is much higher, causing an increase in complaints… this is making our job much harder as the traveller doesn’t trust that we have a good working partner.”

While frustration was initially caused by unanswered enquiries, the travel manager said this has shifted in recent months to the quality of the service being delivered, and that some services, such as a VIP phone line, had been suspended due to staff shortages.

Another corporate travel manager, who also spoke to BTN Europe under the guise of anonymity, described a similar situation with their TMC. They said the absence of experienced staff is having a “knock-on effect globally”, with some markets still lagging.

On top of this, technology that was used to provide further self-service solutions were taken offline as the staff needed to support these functions were put on to the general response teams. “These have been slow to recover as well,” they said.

Elisabetta Gibertoni, global travel and events manager at medical device company, LivaNova, also highlights the need to improve online booking tools to relieve some of the pressure and said, despite having high online adoption within the company, that the shortage of TMC personnel “has made itself felt”.

In future service agreements, Gibertoni, who is also the Emilia Romagna regional representative at AITMM, says she’d like to see “more detail on the achievement of SLAs with penalties in case of non-achievement, supported by clear and reliable reporting” as well as “greater attention” to traveller enquiries.

Along with frontline travel consultants, account managers are in hot demand, with the best candidates receiving multiple offers and “creating bidding wars”, says C&M Travel Recruitment’s Kolosinska. Once a candidate is secured, keeping them in the job is the next hurdle.

“Attracting new talent and meeting candidates’ workstyle requirements remains a critical issue to contend with,” says Clive Wratten, chief executive of The Business Travel Association.

And the issue isn’t limited to ‘legacy’ TMCs, with Wratten insisting that tech-based companies “still need staff to service clients regardless of levels of interaction”. He adds: “Tech-based TMCs also have a bigger dependency on technical staff with a wider variety of [employment] options which many may perceive to be more lucrative.”

Nevertheless, TravelPerk reported a 71 per cent increase in employee headcount in 2022, a trend that the company’s chief people officer Sally Sourbron says has continued over the last six months.

“The company culture and our commitment to its values have been a strong pull,” she explains. “We’ve also partnered with organisations such as CodeFirstGirls [in the UK] and All Women [in Spain] to attract a more diverse talent pool.”

"If we are not an industry that can cater for people’s changing lives, we won’t succeed in attracting people to work in it"
Emma Gregory, Urbanberry Recruitment

The TMC also flies newcomers to its Barcelona HQ for an “intensive” onboarding session. “We set them up with a ‘buddy‘ to help them through anything that is not covered during the onboarding sessions,” Sourbron adds.

Both Gregory and Kolosinska believe TMCs need to “look outside of the box” for candidates and offer greater workplace flexibility to retain talent.

“If we are not an industry that can cater for people’s changing lives, we won’t succeed in attracting people to work in it,” says Gregory. “No one wants to build up a career in an industry to then be forced out because their lives have evolved and it can’t be accommodated.”

Meanwhile, associations like VDR and AITMM are working to encourage dialogue between TMCs and travel managers to ensure service levels are up to par. “Today, a good self-booking tool is not enough to manage reservations,” says AITMM’s Tedesco. “The business processes of a travel agency need to be more evolved and fluid.”