Efforts by travel companies to encourage direct bookings are forcing travel managers to re-think policies and find new ways to account for travelers who bypass traditional methods.

According to a new report from the education and research arm of the Global Business Travel Association, about 60 percent of travel managers who took part in the study said their policy sometimes allowed direct bookings. Another 4 percent said travelers were always allowed to book directly with a hotel, airline, or other supplier rather than use a company-sanctioned travel agent or online booking tool.

The GBTA Foundation conducted the report — which includes a survey of 84 U.S. travel managers and in-depth interviews with 11 in the U.S. and Europe — in partnership with travel and expense management company Concur. Concur has a product, TripLink, that captures bookings made outside of official company channels.

While direct bookings make up a minority of corporate travel transactions, the numbers of those who book direct are expected to grow, the report says. That’s in part because companies — especially hotels — are making concerted efforts to cut out middlemen.

“More and more suppliers are relaunching their loyalty programs and adding incentives for business travelers to book directly,” the report says. “Many hotel chains are offering lower rates and ancillary benefits like free Wi-Fi exclusively to loyalty members for booking made directly at the supplier site.”

Another trend that concerns travel managers is the increasing desire of business travelers to handle their own booking processes. An earlier GBTA study showed that 78 percent of U.S. business travelers would rather use self-service tools to plan their trips than work with an internal travel department or corporate travel agent. Corporate booking tools are often less functional than leisure sites, making them less attractive to travelers.

Travel managers want employees to book with agents or online booking tools so they choose preferred suppliers and take advantage of negotiated rates and perks.  The booking data is also used for future negotiations. But the biggest concern with direct booking is safety: Travelers who don’t use corporate tools and fail to tell anyone their plans are difficult to find in an emergency.

According to the report, 68 percent of travel managers agreed or strongly agreed that traditional corporate travel management tools aren’t able to locate travelers in a crisis if they booked directly with a supplier.

“We’d better know where our travelers are,” said Monica Sanchez, director of research for the GBTA Foundation. “Maybe [travel managers are] not going to go out and say, ‘We’re going to change our programs and everything’s direct booking.’…We do have to pay attention to the travelers that do it this way.”

According to the report, travel managers are trying to address the issue by using automated data capture systems, expense reporting data, and tools that make it easier for travelers to share information about direct bookings. Some also ask travelers to join loyalty programs and use their employers’ name when booking direct so the supplier can pass that information back. None of the solutions are ideal yet, but the report says travel managers realize they have to come up with options rather than try to forbid direct booking at all.

“Companies that continue to limit the scope of their travel management program to the traditional channel have almost certainly lost visibility, savings, and control over spending in the nontraditional channels,” Mike Koetting, executive vice president of supplier and travel management company services for Concur, said in a statement. “Capturing and managing travel, no matter where it was purchased, is no longer optional for a well-managed travel program.”

Photo Credit: Travel managers are trying to find the best way to deal with travelers who book direct. Here, a woman is shown by the Westin hotel in Philadelphia. Matt Rourke / Associated Press