THE PERFECT PARTNER
Ensuring you have the right TMC in place for your organisation’s needs provides the foundations for a successful travel programme, writes Mark Frary
The pandemic has changed everything, at least when it comes to what companies are looking for when they source a travel management company. The very lack of business travel that has been thrust upon most of the world has really focused minds on what a TMC should be.
When Amadeus interviewed 250 TMC executives at the end of 2021 on the challenges they and their companies were facing it found that by far the most important priority for corporations is providing health and safety information (92 per cent). Paul de Villiers, Amadeus’ senior vice president, global business travel accounts, says: “Keeping clients’ employees safe and well on business trips has long been an important part of the service that TMCs provide, but the level of support for which businesses rely on their TMCs has skyrocketed during the pandemic. With the rise in logistical challenges that now come with travel, and the high chances of disruption, this shift from unmanaged to managed business travel is one of the key changes.”
Simone Buckley of TripActions adds, “When the pandemic first hit, the first priority was duty-of-care and ensuring the safety of business travellers, making sure everyone was repatriated. Then, as travel was limited, importance was placed on pro-actively supplying the latest information on safety protocols, rules, and regulations for each country, offering a much more tailored personal service.”
At the time when few or no business travellers were on the road, many corporates used the time to “realign and reimagine” their travel programmes.
Corporates are willing to pay a subscription for technology that improves service and user experience
“The needs of the corporate and business traveller has changed so much. The pandemic has in some ways accelerated these changes with much more of a focus on the user experience and self-serve through digitalisation,” she says.
Altour UK managing director Maria Baty says that as travel restarts, corporates are increasingly focused on sustainability.
“Many companies went into the pandemic without a sustainability programme; they are coming out of it with sustainability at the top of their sourcing policies,” she says.
The rise of meeting by Zoom and Microsoft Teams over the pandemic means many are questioning the need for business travel at all and TMCs may increasingly be asked by corporates to act as gatekeepers, pushing travellers towards videoconferencing solutions if the reason for travel is not justifiable, either in cost or carbon terms.
The pandemic has also brought a closer focus on how to pay a TMC. In the middle of 2021, the Business Travel Association issued a discussion paper around TMC remuneration models saying it was time to reconsider how this worked when many TMCs had little or no income because of the lack of transactions.
The paper suggested a move towards subscription models, similar to those offered by the likes of Netflix for streaming. Has that happened? The BTA’s CEO Clive Wratten says there is a lot of conversation about the subscription model but that it hasn’t materialised to any great extent.
He believes that in reality we will probably move to a hybrid which he calls the “transcription model”, somewhere between transaction fees and a subscription package.
TripActions’ Simone Buckley says, “Corporates are willing to pay for technology that will ultimately improve the user experience and cost control. Corporates will not pay for a service with no differentiated value. Corporates are willing to pay a subscription for technology to improve service and user experience where there is added value. There is a definite desire to move away from the complex transaction-based approach.”
Baty, meanwhile, says the acceptance of management fees is increasing. “A number of clients want to be able to secure services and they are prepared to pay [for them],” explains Baty, who says that demand for what are traditionally thought of as VIP services has increased.
Research from Business Travel Show Europe last autumn showed that 28 per cent of buyers had switched travel management companies (TMCs) in the previous 12 months. “The pandemic and the lockdowns gave many enterprise companies the opportunity to reassess their travel programmes and make significant changes without disrupting day-to-day business,” says TripActions’ Buckley.
Altour’s Baty says, “A lot of people reviewed their TMC during the pandemic but I don’t know that a lot of people moved or jumped. There was so much uncertainty that in an RFP process it was difficult for our corporate customers to say exactly what their travel programmes were going to look like.”
The BTA’s Clive Wratten says that tender activity was busy at the end of 2021 but has quietened down at the start of this year. He believes an unwillingness to look at the TMC remuneration model may account for this slowdown.
With most TMCs paid on a transaction basis, there have been low or no costs for many corporates during the pandemic. Going to tender may mean the TMC wants to start a discussion about management fees or subscription-based models in which they get paid something even if travel is non-existent.
THE IMPACT OF CONSOLIDATION
Consolidation has been rife in the TMC market over the past 12 months – think Amex GBT and Egencia, TravelPerk and Click Travel, and TripActions’ purchase of Reed & Mackay and Comtravo.
This has clear implications for sourcing a TMC and demonstrates the value of carrying out proper due diligence – and sounding out industry colleagues – before making a firm decision just in case acquisition is in the pipeline.
“There is now less choice but those in the marketplace are perhaps stronger and more robust as a result,” says Buckley.
On the highly financed new entrants coming into the TMC market, the BTA’s Clive Wratten says there are still opportunities for “legacy” TMCs. “Not everyone will want that model that some of the new entrants are bringing in.”
He says companies like TripActions and TravelPerk have invested in more traditional TMC acquisitions because “they realise that one size does not fit all.”
“In the past year, we have seen consolidation in the TMC space,” says Amadeus’ de Villiers. “Our latest survey with TMC executives brought up different opinions on whether this consolidation will continue…[but] regardless of buyouts or acquisitions, TMCs across the board will remain focused on being customer centric, servicing the needs of their clients.”
Wratten is one of those who believes there will be more consolidation. JP Morgan’s recent acquisition of Frosch Travel, reported in sister publication The Beat, shows that the banks feel it is a good investment play. When that happens, further M&A is almost inevitable.
THE PERFECT TMC?
The Covid-19 crisis has demonstrated the value of a travel management partner but this partnership could go further.
Altour’s Baty says, “If you are looking to appoint a TMC, it is very important that your TMC will be your partner. See them as an extension of your company. Not something that operates outside that. If you work well with your TMC, they can really add value.”
BTA’s Wratten says corporates need to recognise that when they are sourcing a TMC they are looking for a strategic partner who becomes an intrinsic part of the business for the long term. He says, “I genuinely hope we get past the transaction and beating each other up and become much more rewards-based as a result.”
The first step in appointing a TMC – whether for the first time or to replace an existing one – is to start early. Make sure you have plenty of time, at least a year in case of switching TMCs, in order that the change, if that is what the outcome is, happens smoothly and by your target date.
Next is to know your existing travel programme inside out and how it is likely to develop in the coming months and years. Without understanding that, finding a partner to help strategise your programme will be impossible. This is where you also need to find out what your travellers want or need.
If your requirements are largely domestic then it is likely that a nationally focused TMC may be a better fit than a multinational TMC. If you think you are going to expand into new markets, a national TMC that is part of a global network can help you with international markets without having to go for a fully global set up.
Multinational organisations in many markets may want a global TMC with all the common processes and the ease of reporting that brings with it. However, the different requirements of different regions can mean that a handful of TMCs that specialise in their particular region might work to your benefit. Just check that their systems can actually work together.
How you want your travellers to be serviced is a key consideration. If all of your trips are simple point-to-point journeys – Manchester-New York, London-Edinburgh, Berlin-Rome – then a servicing model based on a TMC plus online booking tool or a combined online travel management platform may be sufficient.
Early in the sourcing process, you may want to hold a request for information (RFI) with a larger number of TMCs. Invite potential partners to tell you why they should have your business and whether they can fulfil your must-haves – discard them if they don’t.
Ask for details of their other clients and check whether they match your own profile. Always ask for references or case studies. And ask them how they envisage meeting the needs of your programme and travellers.
Once you have whittled down the longlist to a more manageable number – ideally three to five – you can then move on to the more comprehensive RFP.