More business travelers are taking their work trips into their own hands. A survey conducted by Expedia found that 68 percent of business travelers book accommodations outside of company-provided travel programs. It can be easy for employees to justify this, reasoning that because it's their trip, they can book it how they want. The rise of sites like Priceline and Expedia, where employees can often find comparable one-off deals and a variety of choices, can complicate matters, especially if company-provided options are known to be limiting.
While it seems like a win for employees, who may think they're saving company coin, it's bad news when looking at the big picture. The more that employees decide to book rogue, the less likely a company is to meet the quota that earns discounts for the rest of its travelers who are booking within the travel program.
In addition to seemingly better rates, employees may be compelled to book directly so they can stay at a more convenient property or at a boutique hotel that's not offered within the program. Availability can be another issue. Because the majority of hotels in corporate travel programs are usually sourced through global distribution systems, they're almost entirely chain hotels. When traveling to a smaller city or internationally, employees may find those chain hotels to be unavailable, which then sends employees to the "black market."
A deal is a deal, right?
Today's consumer wants options and control, key reasons why so many business travelers take itineraries into their own hands. The advent of Airbnb and other home-sharing sites has blown open the doors of what's possible in lodging; a standard hotel room doesn't quite stir the imagination like an actual treehouse, for example – particularly when the nightly price is comparable. On top of that, credit card companies offer rebates, points, cash-back options, and more when you book travel on your own plastic, so it's understandable why people elect to do it themselves.
Aside from risking the company rate for others, is it really so bad when employees book directly? Well, there are additional factors to consider. Take safety, for one. According to the Global Business Travel Association, 78 percent of travel managers expect safety to become a higher priority in the next several years. As it stands, many countries have laws requiring companies to protect the health and safety of employees while traveling. If an emergency occurs and travelers have booked outside the travel program, it's more difficult for the company to track the employee's location, communicate and ensure the employee is alright.
Business travelers also give up several convenience perks when they book directly. Say a business trip is canceled, extended or postponed. If you book rates through a travel management company, it's easier to rebook without penalty – a perk not extended to the general public.
Finally, and this is important, travel management companies can provide warnings about which areas aren't safe, details that employees may not know when they pick a hotel from a search result.
So how can companies attract employees to use the provided travel management tools? These tips can help.
1. Go above and beyond with incentives.
Offer additional loyalty points and incentives within your travel program. For example, in addition to the base points travelers earn for booking quick business trips, offer bonus loyalty points, airline miles or gift cards that can be used for personal or family vacations. While many travel managers rely on education for compliance, few offer incentives for employees who book within the program. In other words, make it worth their time.
2. Encourage team leads to manage travel spending and policies.
Don't expect employees to remember the travel policy from orientation or gain a full understanding of how it works just because it's in the employee handbook. You might have to be more proactive to increase engagement. Encourage managers to make sure their teams know how and where to book travel. If someone is monitoring their booking plans and regularly educating them on policies, employees will be more likely to color within the lines.
3. Communicate how rate savings work on a larger scale.
Though employees may secure a lower one-time rate by booking direct, they might think twice before they take that route if they know they are jeopardizing double-digit rate discounts for the company as a whole. Be sure to explain the team-related benefits, such as that everyone will receive the perks of booking at scale and that their participation helps reach thresholds that unlock more discounts. But don't just make it about the company. Illustrating the benefits for employees is still necessary for their engagement.
4. Highlight the additional benefits.
Aside from incentive programs, it helps to make sure employees know why it's worth booking travel through company channels. Employee safety is big. Knowing how to contact and track employees in case of emergencies and unexpected developments is crucial. Convenience is another perk. Often, travel programs can help consolidate travel expenses, something that can take employees hours to organize, cutting into their productivity. And travel delays, because of weather or changes of plans, also become a lot smoother to deal with. No more painful calls with airlines begging them to throw you a bone or find you a new connection.
5. Make it easy to book travel.
Business travelers don’t just visit online travel agencies for the choice. They also like that they're easy to use. They're fast, they have reviews, and the pictures are nice. If you want travelers to stop booking outside of your travel program, make sure your travel site and apps are as simple and easy to use as the online agencies that employees use to book vacations.
Finally, if you really want to ensure that employees engage with your company's travel program, hold them accountable when they don't. Treat it just like any other policy. Review travel bookings, and require an explanation before approving or reimbursing ones made outside of company policy. After all, travel is one of the biggest business expenses. Aside from salaries and benefits, it's the largest expense, estimated to be worth $1.6 trillion by 2020. Make sure that money is put to good use.