11 May 2017 13:25 IST

Tripping up on business trips

Is it time to change archaic corporate travel policies

Kshitij Sharma, a young executive in charge of business development for his mid-sized IT services firm, travels on work frequently – at least 10 days a month. As somebody who combines business travel with pleasure and wants new experiences, he has been pestering his company to allow him to stay at an Airbnb of his choice, but hits a wall. His company has a strict travel policy wired to employee safety, secure wifi, health risks and designated hotels that meet these.

There is a clear mismatch between how Sharma would like to travel and how his company allows him to. Last year, Egencia, the corporate travel brand of the Expedia group, conducted a global survey of business travellers. It found only 38 per cent of employees were happy with their company’s travel policies.

So what exactly do they want? Flexiblity, more control of decisions, and ability to change plans quickly. Often, when meetings do not stick to schedule and a stay gets prolonged, employees chafe at the delay caused by having to route the flight change request to their office which in turn will get in touch with the travel management company (TMC).

They also want a ‘bleisure’ component. A survey by BridgeStreet Hospitality, a service apartment provider in the US, showed that 83 per cent of respondents used time on business trips to explore the city they were in, and 46 per cent stayed an extra day to do some sightseeing. Most companies turn a blind eye to this aspect.

Technology, of course, is solving the problem of flexibility and control. Giant corporations such as IBM, whose employees are estimated to stay 4 million room nights in hotels around the world, have self-booking solutions that comply with their policy. A lot of TMCs now offer these solutions.

Says Indiver Rastogi, President, Global Business Travel, Thomas Cook, India. “Over 90 per cent of our corporates have made a clear shift with adoption of our self-booking online tool ‘click2book’.” The tool allows the corporate house to define set parameters depending on their budget, class of travel, and such. It also allows direct payment with a corporate card.

Niharika Singh, Director, B2B and OTA Sales of budget hotel aggregator Treebo which has launched a booking tool called Treebo for Business, too says there is growing adoption with 10 per cent of their 500-strong corporate clients shifting to the tool. However, barely two to three per cent of corporate employees can do end-to-end booking themselves. “That would be our next extension in the tools we offer corporates,” she says.

But while the tech solutions are coming in, it’s at the policy level corporates are not responding. In fact, policies are tightening, says Rakshit Desai, MD, FCM Travel solutions. And while globally some far-sighted corporates are even mulling introducing bleisure policies as perks to engage employees while on trips, in India, there is increasing focus on compliance. Contrast this with the vendors, who are keeping a watch on global trends and planning new solutions.

For instance, at a FICCI event on corporate travel, a host of TMCs engaged in a panel discussion on how their businesses could get affected if HR departments embraced new travel policies. Among other things, they discussed Airbnb and what the impact would be if more companies went the per diem route. A cheaper room in a bigger city may be more wholesome than a more expensive one in a smaller town, and Airbnb type of accommodations can help, says a travel agent.

Also with so many startups in the Indian landscape, a different set of corporate customer has emerged. As Suchi Mukherjee, CEO and Founder, LimeRoad, says, “Culturally, tech start-ups have a very different approach to most things. This includes travel policies as well.”

This is why Thomas Cook tied up with Airbnb last year as an experiment, although in India, only startups allow employees to stay there. “While we have seen an uptake for long stays, Airbnb accommodation has not really been seen as a viable option in the enterprise arena unless channelled through the TMC selling space,” says Rastogi. “Large enterprise customers need to have data, control, safety and compliances met, while Airbnb as a product/concept is primarily B2C and not an enterprise-level business model in the India context,” he explains.

Cost, convenience or compliance?

According to Rastogi, there is some focus on convenience these days. He says, “We have witnessed our corporate houses are moving from cost criteria to employee convenience within a governed environment. It is no longer the cheapest airline/ hotel, but rather the most efficient logical option gaining momentum.” Rahul Pandit, MD & CEO of Roots Corporation which runs the Ginger group of hotels and has a large number of business travellers as its guests, observes that companies look at work trips in productivity terms. Good sleep, shower, security are all conducive to higher productivity and so prefer hotels that can assure these.

Costs are not ignored either. Desai of FCM says, “Companies used to ignore hotel costs, as air fares made up the majority of the travel cost. However, now corporates have realised the concept of ‘cost per trip’. The entire cost of a trip is being looked at, not just hotels or airfare.”

Startups too are cost-conscious. At LimeRoad, Mukherjee says they have a blush test in place. “We ask our people what they would do if they were spending their own money invested in a business.” Would they have reason to “blush” if their manager were to question their expense? “They automatically take the right decisions saving costs, maximising time, or the tasks at hand.”

Talking to employees, vendors and corporates, it emerges that all three have disparate approaches to business travel. As Niharika Singh says, “Corporate travel is ripe for a technology-led disruption similar to B2C travel a decade ago.” Also needed, perhaps, is disruption and simplification of travel policies that in some firms run into 60 pages.


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