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Some battles just can’t be won, and two companies are seemingly throwing in the towel when it comes to policing employees who fail to book travel the official way.

Both ZS Associates, a consultancy based in Illinois, and Canadian industrial machinery firm Ritchie Bros Auctioneers are among the first wave of companies trialling “hybrid” travel programs.

This means certain staff will be given free rein to book the hotels or flights they want, using the channels they prefer, rather than stick to a company policy that dictates which online booking tool or corporate travel agency to use.

This kind of “open booking” was pioneered by Google, so the story goes, but few larger companies have taken the same route. Until now.

“We have a couple of meetings to understand the risks or challenges in a pilot,” Michelle Grant, travel administration manager at Ritchie Bros, said. ”It’s going to start small, maybe two dozen travelers. We’re going to look at the folks already booking outside. This isn’t going to be a ‘who wants to sign up for this,’ it’s about who’s already doing this.”

Grant, who was speaking at a webinar on Tuesday, said there would be feedback and two-way conversations with the rogue travelers. “They need to understand, which they’re probably already aware of, is that when you’re booking direct you don’t get the support from the travel management company. Are they comfortable with that? There’s lots to talk about.”

What’s at Stake?

Apart from potentially losing that support when things go wrong when on a business trip, companies may not even know where travelers are. Those travelers would also lose the benefit of special rates or perks that the company would have worked hard to negotiate with preferred suppliers. Capturing that data also helps company travel managers negotiate contracts with hotels, or airlines, in the future.

But there are clear benefits when staff are left to their own devices.

“We’ve seen decreased transaction fees to the travel management company, and happier and more productive travelers,” said Suzanne Boyan, meetings and travel manager at ZS Associates, told Skift.

Keeping track of where travelers choose to stay, or who to fly with, can also lead to new opportunities with different suppliers — and that chance to negotiate rates.

The hybrid program wasn’t switched on overnight, as Boyan said she visited every office in person to ensure employees knew they had a part to play in the program. “If they want better benefits, they must book within the program so I can have the data required for negotiations,” she said.

Grant plans to follow a similar process. “Slow and methodical. The pilot will help us determine the best way to address a roll-out. We also want to ensure we are able to track unused tickets and that we are able to provide timely and accurate travel and destination information; government regulations, restrictions and so on.”

Boyan was also speaking at the webinar, which was organzied by Traxo, which asked “What’s Next for Program Compliance?” She said hearing Grant reveal her intention to launch the hybrid travel pilot was an “early Christmas gift…I’m not alone anymore!”

But is this a case of two travel managers simply giving up?

“No. For Suzanne, it can be a strategic recruiting tool,” said Traxo founder and CEO Andres Fabris. “She has consultants that spend 60 or 70 percent of their time on the road. The case now is that somebody going into that type of role, they’re evaluating the travel policy in the same way somebody might evaluate health benefits. They might highly value a company that gives them additional freedom.”

Traxo also has skin in the game. Its platform helps those companies track out-of-channel bookings, and to some extent is helping the pair monitor the whereabouts of those travelers, and how much they spend.

Traxo argues a hybrid, or omni-channel model, can also provide travelers more booking flexibility, and demonstrates companies respect and trust their employees to make smart decisions.

It doesn’t spell the end for the travel management company either. In Boyan’s case, she was open and honest with her agency Luxe, which Frosch recently acquired. “They’re open to this and embrace it as an opportunity for them to dabble in something that hasn’t been done before,” she said. “Luxe has actually found a way to pull in the data from our direct bookings and then provide service to our travelers, which we’ll roll out once we’re back on the road.”

Grant said she’d equally be open with her agency. “We would want to have open dialogue about what this could look like and how they can support us. We would still have travelers needing, and quite frankly, wanting to book with the agency,” she said.

However, not all agencies are willing to entertain such models, Fabris warned.

It’s hard to imagine many companies would offer such freedom when booking initially next year, due to the need for vetted hotels with strict hygiene procedures. But at a time when transaction fees are being re-evaluated, agencies have a chance to step in and offer more consultancy services around hybrid programs.

And anything that makes the traveler feel more comfortable, and in control, for their first post-pandemic business trip should be welcomed.

Photo Credit: Rogue travelers, who have always been a hot topic in travel management, may get their own way in 2021. Alex Block / Unsplash