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Open booking, where employees can book outside the company’s official travel program, had been steadily growing.

Part of the momentum is still down to more sophisticated technology, so direct bookings can be captured, with the likes of TripLink, part of travel and expense platform SAP Concur, and Traxo, playing a part.

However, the pandemic may be starting to impact this as Covid-19 cases still spiral in some destinations. Now, SAP Concur is exerting more control, by adding new compliance features to TripLink, which it said can help travel managers steer employees in the right direction when booking.

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TripLink enables direct bookings with airlines, hotels, and car rental companies, and while it will continue to capture travel reservations, travel managers now have the ability to deactivate suppliers, and at the same time send more messaging via the app.

“In our personal lives, we respond to these health and economic risks by being more cautious; we limit our activities, and probably spend less, too,” said Mike Koetting, senior vice president, leader of the SAP Concur Solution Area. “Most businesses and organizations are responding to the uncertainty of Covid-19 in a similar way — they want to be more cautious and work even harder to identify, avoid, and mitigate risk. In other words, in times of uncertainty, most organizations become even more focused on compliance.”

Is this taking away some element of freedom? For Suzanne Boyan, meetings and travel manager at ZS Associates, having an open booking policy was resulting in decreased transaction fees being paid to her travel management company, as well as happier and more productive travelers, she told Skift in December.

The new TripLink feature was announced on Tuesday, coinciding with its Fusion virtual event. According to the company, the new administrative controls give travel managers the options to select preferred integrated travel suppliers; provide clear messaging to employees if travel supplier direct bookings are allowed or discouraged; and inactivate integrated travel suppliers, if needed, by request.

The company has insisted this isn’t a crackdown on traveler choice, but a more education-based approach of influencing behavior.

“We’ve integrated these suppliers and over the years that’s been wildly successful,” said Brian Hace, vice president, global travel strategy at SAP Concur. “The first step was integrating the suppliers, and making the processes work. This is a step further; clients are saying I want even more control. Travel managers that weren’t sure TripLink was a good fit for their program, I think they’re going to find it feels more like the the other parts of their program.”

Hace doesn’t think the majority of travel managers would go as far to suddenly start deactivating suppliers that weren’t preferred.

“We’re trying to use education. If I look at the booking tool, almost all clients will not try to hide content, because travelers will find content if you try to take it away. But we try to educate them and direct them to the best choices for the company they work for,” he said.

The new compliance tools will be available in the second quarter of 2021, and follow other recent enhancements, including Concur Tax Assurance by VATBox, which helps organizations comply with global tax regulations.

It also launched Concur Detect by Oversight, which analyzes expenses both before and after payment to mitigate immediate risks, spot suspicious spend patterns across time, and prioritize risk to drive greater audit efficiency.

Companies will understandably initially focus on compliance to ensure travelers are safe, and booking hotels that meet the right hygiene standards. Along with ZS Associates in December, industrial machinery firm Ritchie Bros said it was ready to trial a “hybrid” travel program, but it has now delayed that for a couple of months to work out how it will communicate with employees who are caught booking off-channel.

Organizations may opt for stricter travel programs for some time yet.

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Photo Credit: An open booking policy can result in happier and more productive travelers. Jose Luis Pelaez Inc / Getty