As business travel expenses nose upward, companies are realizing that better cost-management techniques can make a difference
US. corporate travel expenses rocketed to more than $143 billion in 1994, according to American Express' most recent survey on business travel management. Private-sector employers spend an estimated $2,484 per employee on travel and entertainment, a 17 percent increase over the past four years.
Corporate T&E costs, now the third-largest controllable expense behind sales and data-processing costs, are under new scrutiny. Corporations are realizing that even a savings of 1 percent or 2 percent can translate into millions of dollars added to their bottom line.
Savings of that order are sure to get management's attention, which is a requirement for this type of project. Involvement begins with understanding and evaluating the components of T&E management in order to control and monitor it more effectively.
Hands-on management includes assigning responsibility for travel management, implementing a quality-measurement system for travel services used, and writing and distributing a formal travel policy. Only 64 percent of U.S. corporations have travel policies.
Even with senior management's support, the road to savings is rocky-only one in three companies has successfully instituted an internal program that will help cut travel expenses, and the myriad aspects of travel are so overwhelming, most companies don't know where to start. "The industry of travel is based on information," says Steven R. Schoen, founder and CEO of The Global Group Inc. "Until such time as a passenger actually sets foot on the plane, they've [only] been purchasing information."
If that's the case, information technology seems a viable place to hammer out those elusive, but highly sought-after, savings. "Technological innovations in the business travel industry are allowing firms to realize the potential of automation to control and reduce indirect [travel] costs," says Roger H. Ballou, president of the Travel Services Group USA of American Express. "In addition, many companies are embarking on quality programs that include sophisticated process improvement and reengineering efforts designed to substantially improve T&E management processes and reduce indirect costs."
As companies look to technology to make potential savings a reality, they can get very creative about the methods they employ.
The Great Leveler
Centralized reservation systems were long the exclusive domain of travel agents and other industry professionals. But all that changed in November 1992 when a Department of Transportation ruling allowed the general public access to systems such as Apollo and SABRE. Travel-management software, such as TripPower and TravelNet, immediately sprang up, providing corporations insight into where their T&E dollars are being spent.
The software tracks spending trends by interfacing with the corporation's database and providing access to centralized reservation systems that provide immediate reservation information to airlines, hotels and car rental agencies. These programs also allow users to generate computerized travel reports on cost savings with details on where discounts were obtained, hotel and car usage and patterns of travel between cities. Actual data gives corporations added leverage when negotiating discounts with travel suppliers.
"When you own the information, you don't have to go back to square one every time you decide to change agencies," says Mary Savovie Stephens, travel manager for biotech giant Chiron Corp.
Sybase Inc., a client/server software leader with an annual T&E budget of more than $15 million, agrees. "Software gives us unprecedented visibility into how employees are spending their travel dollars and better leverage to negotiate with travel service suppliers," says Robert Lerner, director of credit and corporate travel services for Sybase Inc. "We have better access to data, faster, in a real-time environment, which is expected to bring us big savings in T&E. Now we have control over our travel information and no longer have to depend exclusively on the agencies and airlines."
The cost for this privilege depends on the volume of business. One-time purchases of travel-management software can run from under $100 to more than $125,000. Some software providers will accommodate smaller users by selling software piecemeal for $5 to $12 per booked trip, still a significant savings from the $50 industry norm per transaction.
No More Tickets
Paperless travel is catching on faster than the paperless office ever did as both service providers and consumers work together to reduce ticket prices for business travelers. Perhaps the most cutting-edge of the advances is "ticketless" travel, which almost all major airlines are testing.
In the meantime, travel providers and agencies are experimenting with new technologies to enable travelers to book travel services via the Internet, e-mail and unattended ticketing kiosks. Best Western International, Hyatt Hotels and several other major hotel chains market on the Internet. These services reduce the need for paper and offer better service and such peripheral benefits as increased efficiency, improved tracking of travel expenses and trends, and cost reduction.
Dennis Egolf, CFO of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Louisville, Ky., realized that the medical center's decentralized location, a quarter-mile from the hospital, made efficiency difficult. "We were losing production time and things got lost," he says. "Every memo had to be hand-carried for approval, and we required seven different copies of each travel order." As a result, Egolf tried an off-the-shelf, paper-reduction software package designed for the federal government.
The software allows the hospital to manage travel on-line, from tracking per-diem allowances and calculating expenses to generating cash advance forms and authorizing reimbursement vouchers. The software also lets the hospital keep a running account of its travel expenses and its remaining travel budget.