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In our annual look at the world of travel management companies, Dinah Hatch asks how this sector has fared during the economic recession and what buyers are now demanding from them

AT the end of last year, the UK government ended a 15-year deal with major business travel agency Carlson Wagonlit Travel to handle its TMC requirements and handed a billion pound plus account to a small Yorkshire-based company called Redfern Travel. Redfern will handle the government's domestic needs while HRG will shoulder Whitehall’s international travel requirements. Never has it been clearer that TMCs must stay

on their toes and continue to evolve in order to hold onto business. But travel agents are no strangers to reinvention. Ever since Thomas Cook adapted his business plan after noting his excited Leicester clients wanted to travel further afield than Loughborough, agents have known the importance of evolving with the times. And over the last few years, this has manifested

itself in many TMCs ending their act as arms- length travel brokers and instead develop a more equitable union with their clients. This is in response to demand from companies

who are looking to TMCs less to simply organise their travel within budget and policy, and more to act as a hand-holding expert. Now a company expects its TMC account manager to act closely with it on every detail of the booking and fulfilment journey and come up with solutions together. Corporate managing director at Flight Centre – parent company of FCm Travel Solutions – Steve Norris, says: “TMCs certainly play more of a partnership role with clients nowadays. Clients have become more cost conscious and TMCs have needed to find ways of proving their value and retaining business. “Both FCm and Corporate Traveller (its SME- focused business) account managers and client relationship managers respectively work closely with clients on every aspect of their travel programme in order to constantly evaluate processes and systems, benchmark performance, negotiate sharper rates with

suppliers, analyse management information, and drive down costs,“ he says. “Our philosophy in respect to relationship management is to act as an advocate and consultant to our clients by consistently creating value, understanding their business, proactively monitoring expenditure and policy, and identifying measurable travel savings.” Keith Mullineux, travel manager at GE, perfectly illustrates this more modern approach to buying TMC services when he explains how his company works with CWT. He explains: “When there is a traveller tracking issue, we don’t rely on CWT exclusively. We have a relationship with Sabre and we get Prism data from them and we use this to locate employees. “We could get data from CWT

but we use the information not just for the purpose of tracking, but also to negotiate with airlines as the airlines do not have respect for the TMC data because there can be discrepancies about flown in and ticketed revenue.” Mullineux continues, “If you use Prism data, it’s definitive. We also use ISOS for traveller tracking. That said, when there is an incident CWT will have a report on my desk within 20 minutes, which is pretty impressive. They are part of the tracking process and we work well together but we use other methods too.” All the TMCs that we spoke to echoed the prevalence of this partnership approach, though some believe it’s been there all along and now it’s just something that’s being underlined in the rush to gain new business. ATPI’s group sales director, Adam Knight, thinks it’s all so much smoke and mirrors. He explains: “I personally think the good TMCs always have been in partnership. There is a lot of branding, positioning and talk of this, but that

is probably only to properly differentiate the charges made. To be honest, the relationship is more contingent on how the customer manages travel internally. “So, some companies outsource the management of travel to us and literally just audit us every year. That means that we have a far more dominant role in the relationship with the travellers and the company. It doesn’t mean it is better or worse, just different.“ He continues, “Other companies that have a

“Clients have been heard to express their disapproval about a new trend setting in for TMCs to siphon off the provision of MI to consultancy arms”

travel manager may see their role as more of a management role to the TMC and therefore treat you as a supplier to be managed. In these circumstances one tends to provide support through data and analysis on their initiatives and requests, although this of course varies according to the individual travel manager.” Director of global travel services at contractor Serco Group, Margaret Birse, says her company’s relationship with its TMC Business Travel Direct is very strongly rooted in the partnership approach but in recent months has moved a stage further. “Due to the size and

diversity of our business, we have for the last few months been calling on them to help us shape the travel solution, acting as industry advisors especially in technology and reporting,” says Birse. While the partnership approach has been getting the thumbs up from clients, there are other changes that companies are not quite so enamoured with. Clients have been heard to express their disapproval about a new trend setting in for TMCs to siphon off the provision of management information to consultancy arms, charging extra for the privilege.


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