How to manage staff travel and expenses in the age of mobile apps

30 December 2015 -


Business travel is a pain for line managers: how do you ensure the personal security of travellers, let alone keep tabs on their travel expenses? Having caused many of these problems, technology is now coming up with some of the answers…

Guest blogger Dean Forbes

Right now, you are in the middle of a war for control of any employee who travels as part of their work. It’s being fought inside their mobile smartphones and tablets. On one side is anyone whose job is to manage; on the other are the airlines, hotel companies, online booking agents and new players such as Airbnb.

Traditionally, corporations have set policies telling their business travellers what they can book, which channels they should book through and how much they can spend. But suppliers have begun to tempt those travellers to ignore policy and book directly through seductive mobile apps – and enjoy personalised promotions. Business travellers are also increasingly using their own personal devices while on the move - the whole management challenge around “bring your own device” (BYOD).

So how can you regain control over your travelling employees?

There are two main reasons why corporations consider managing their travel programme important: controlling costs and controlling risks. The first is self-explanatory. The second covers a wide array of risks. You need to know what your employees are booking and where they are. It’s your duty of to ensure employees aren’t entertaining potential customers in sleazy night clubs.

Consider this example: an employee books an apartment through a private accommodation website. She may think she has helped the company by saving money, but she may actually be paying more than if she checked into a hotel where your company has a preferred rate. What’s more, her taking your business elsewhere damages your ability to negotiate a better hotel deal in future. On the risk side, you wouldn’t know where to find her in an emergency and you could be liable if something serious happens to her on company time.

While technology created this problem, it also offers two solutions: corporate online booking tools and automated expense management.

Corporate booking tools have been around for two decades. Employees book flights and hotels from online selections in line with company travel policy, while their employer receives all the transaction management information at the back end. The problem in recent years has been that corporate booking tools have failed to keep pace with advances in consumer technology, especially mobile.

Fortunately, a handful of booking tool providers have updated their offerings. Travellers simply input when and where their business meeting is. Within seconds the application proposes a bookable, cohesive, policy-compliant itinerary (taxi, flight, hotel, etc) presented as a “door-to-door” timeline to their meeting.

EF Education First uses such a door-to-door platform for its 40,000 employees. The instant itineraries become the basis of an automated expense report before the trip even starts. Line managers can understand the likely full cost of what they are approving. Travellers are persuaded to use the corporate booking tool - and stay within policy – not because they have to, but because they want to.

We recently surveyed 1,235 UK white-collar workers and discovered that one in five were fiddling their expenses. Expense tools have built-in controls, including mileage calculators and automated flags for line items that breach spending policy rules. The research also showed that, using such tools, it takes less time to fill in a claim and get reimbursed. Leoni, a German cabling company, saw a 25% decrease in air spend, largely because the tool uses ‘visual guilt’ techniques to encourage travellers to optimise their itinerary. Carlsberg is another convert, as is Octapharma.

Despite this evidence, our survey revealed that only 42% of companies use automated expense tools. Another 48% use passive spreadsheets with no policy controls, no automated links to booking tools and no automated uploads into ERP systems. Not exactly cutting-edge management.

Dean Forbes is CEO of KDS, a provider of corporate travel and expense management solutions to organisations around the world

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