Business Travel Show Europe Kick Off, 23 February,
Global Travel Risk Summit Europe, April 2023,
3rd Annual Sustainable Business Travel Summit
If one is to believe everything one sees on television - and who could possibly doubt the existence of English-speaking Russian meerkats? - there is an iPhone app for just about anything.
Similarly, in what we have now learned to call the corporate travel 'space', there is also a booking tool for just about anything. Gone are the days, apparently, when one catch-all system was deemed fit for purpose.
There are now tools for hotels and tools for rail, tools for meetings and tools for self-catering apartments. Every self-respecting travel management company (TMC) has its own version; every online travel agency, to all intents and purposes, is a self-booking tool; and there is a raft of players out there who slot into no particular category, but who do tools for tools' sake.
They work and, for the most part, they work well. However, that's not the point - that's the problem.
There are obvious parallels with the past decade's trend towards globalisation. Way back when, some bright spark reckoned that if travellers in Uruguay were singing from the same policy hymn-sheet as those in Uganda and Uzbekistan, savings would go stratospheric.
In some instances, it worked. In a lot of cases, however, it didn't. Corporate cultures vary - even within the same organisation - from country to country. More importantly, technological infrastructures vary from country to country. Credit cards may be the financial instrument of choice in the US, for example, but there are vast swathes of Russia where they simply cannot be used.
As a consequence, many multinational companies are slowly dismantling their 'global' strategies in favour of a regional, or even national approach.
Similarly, the 'one-stop shop' approach to technological tools has been found wanting, and the trend of the recent past has been to adopt sector-specific tools - the single-source option almost invariably involves compromise at some level.
The systems certainly save money. Research for a recent Cranfield University study showed that using a self-booking tool (SBT) saves on average 25.6 per cent of TMC fees and 9.1 per cent on air ticket costs.
Recent US research reveals that self-bookings - as opposed to those that involve travel agency intervention - can result in savings of up to US$10 per transaction.
Add that to an expense management system, and the corporate uplands just get sunnier and sunnier. London-based GlobalExpense, to quote just one example, reckons its software can deliver a minimum saving of five per cent per annum on annual expense spend. KDS says its KDS Corporate product can slash expense processing fees to around €15 compared with the €100 cost of 'manual' processing.
The trick, of course, is to bring all these individual components together, and that's not necessarily easy - have you ever tried to build a sugar-cube?
Of course, it can be done - as TMC Reed & Mackay has recently proved with corporate law firm Eversheds. By combining the rail-centric Evolvi tool with KDS' air and hotel booking systems, R&M believes it can cut the lawyers' £3 million-plus annual travel spend by more than £1m.
The key to success, obviously, is integration. Indeed, KDS chief executive Yves Weisselberger is quoted as saying: "When client, TMC and technology partners work closely together, huge bottom-line savings are possible."
The trouble, according to business travel consulting firm Bouda's Simone Buckley, is that relatively few corporate travel managers have the skills to integrate multiple systems effectively and efficiently - which is precisely why she and techno-guru Clare Murphy decided to set up Bouda.
"If you're not a savvy buyer, there are plenty of pitfalls," Buckley warns. "Companies have to understand what they are buying, whether the suppliers they are favouring can actually deliver on their promises, whether they are paying the right price, have they missed any contractual terms and conditions, how the data is going to be aggregated - the list goes on and on."
In most cases, corporates will rely on their TMC to provide answers to all the above, but even then there are concerns. TMCs are fallible. Buckley cites a recent case where Bouda was called in to take the reins of an integration process that had already been started.
"We produced an 18-page report on 'the story so far', with the result that the client called us in to oversee the rest of the process," she says. "That client has now got the required solution - they were on the right track - but at a slightly lower price.
"Different online booking tools have different levels of functionality, largely because many of them are still growing - they're in a perpetual development stage. What you choose, and how you draw them all together, depends very much on the nature of your business.
"For example, we have a couple of clients going through this process at the moment, and both have a high level of rail transactions, a high level of domestic UK hotel bookings, and some air travel requirement. However, a third client has virtually no rail requirement, but a lot of Business Class air travel.
"In the latter case, a one-stop travel management company solution is a given, but for the other two, absolutely the best thing to do to break it up into specialist components."
The cock-up potential is heightened when 'travel' is hived off to more general procurement departments. "Procurement people are paid to buy widgets, they are not paid to understand travel," says the ever-forthright Buckley. "Faced with a complex integration process, they may well flounder."
Those hapless procurement specialits come in for further stick from Robert Daykin, senior partner with the Corporate Travel Partnership consultancy - but not before he's had a swipe at TMCs' integration capabilities.
"There is a school of thought that says you give it [integration] all to one TMC who does everything for you," he says. "The problem with that is there really isn't one TMC that can do everything for you.
"You now have procurement departments involved in the process, and I keep hearing the message that 'we need to have one contract', because procurement people tend to think in terms of contracts rather than thinking about what the customer needs - and the 'customer' in this case is not just the traveller, but the travel bookers and arrangers, budget holders, finance, human resources and so on.
"It is simple to agree a single contract for electricity, or for office consumables, but there isn't one single supplier in the travel market to cover everything. There are those who think a TMC can, but I don't think that is necessarily the right approach.
"That's coming to the conclusion that you need a one-stop shop before you have looked at what the 'customers' needs, and what the supply side can provide."
Like Bouda's Buckley, Daykin advocates a great deal of homework to understand the nature and scale of a company's particular travel requirements. By way of illustration, he uses the example of an organisation which, at one level, has a need for international air, hotel, car rental and taxi suppliers, but also has a huge requirement for bed-and-breakfasts and pubs-with-rooms for "a sizeable team of people who, without being rude, drive a van and go around the country mending things".
"These people do not need, or even want, a four-star hotel - they just wouldn't feel comfortable in that environment," he says. "At the end of a long day, they want a pie and a pint and a bed for the night, and your traditional TMC is absolutely useless at that, while a hotel booking agency is very good at it."
Even if the TMC does manage to source such accommodation, Daykin asks: "Why pay £30-£40 [in fees] to book the Dog & Duck, which probably only costs £30-£40 in the first place?"
Similarly, he questions whether a company needs to pay a TMC to book car rental if, having banned the use of private vehicles for corporate travel, that company has a large and continuing demand for hire cars. "You might end up with a hotel booking agency for hotels, a direct deal on car rental, a self-booking tool for rail, with the air requirement going through the business travel agent.," Daykin says. "You have a range of suppliers for all these different internal groups - little pockets of people doing similar things, but very different to the things people in the other little pockets are doing.
"As far as the customers are concerned, they have their own little travel programme which is simple, and provides them with excellent service from a supplier that best suits their particular and very specific requirements." This category management process - the term 'CatMan' is already entering the industry lexicon - has another big advantage. Daykin uses a very domestic analogy. "If you flip the kettle on and the lights go out, you don't have the whole house re-wired - you go to the fuse-box, take out the bit that's blown, and replace it with a new one."
When it comes to management information, the analogy is rather less savoury. "It's bit like a sewage farm," Daykin insists. "You may have a lot of little pipes carrying waste to slightly larger pipes, but it all ends up in the same place - you've still got all the MI you need, in the format that you need it."
All these disparate components - whether they're sewage pipes or fuses - do need pulling together, and the big question is whether one individual is capable of performing the entire function.
However, under the traditional travel management way of working, no one person is expected to do so - corporations use TMCs precisely because they bring to bear a range of talents and skills, from a range of people.
Under the 'category management' system, a procurement expert is not a one-stop individual who is expected to know all about travel as well; he or she is supported by a travel category manager (or a utilities category manager, or a legal category manager, or a finance category manager) who knows his or her specific stuff.
"It's a team effort," says Daykin. "You need to have good procurement skills - that's critical - but it's also critical to have an in-depth knowledge and understanding of the nuances and idiosyncrasies, not just of travel, but of the individual elements of travel. The two skill-sets combined are very powerful indeed.
"Category knowledge and expertise combined with procurement expertise can create magnificent benefits for an organisation."
Just as there is an iPhone app for just about anything, there are also travel suppliers and intermediaries - whether those intermediaries are human or technological - for just about anything. Just as the smart iPhone user for whom the kitchen is alien territory may well decide to forego Jamie Oliver's 20-minute recipe app, so the smart travel manager needs to decide which of the industry 'apps' is best suited to the corporate requirement. And that probably doesn't include anything involving English-speaking Russian meerkats.