Skift Take

It’s time for finance leaders to embrace a modern approach to travel and expense management that can control costs while doing what every company needs to do right now: keep employees happy.

As companies focus on reconnecting with clients, vendors, partners, and even employees they haven’t seen face-to-face in two years, business travel is coming back in a big way. For travel managers, though, the return may include a bumpy — and more expensive — ride.

A big reason: The time spent reviewing and managing employee expenses has risen dramatically over the last few years, but for many companies, the travel expense submission and approval process remains overly cumbersome and antiquated. This is especially true as digital and contactless payments move into the mainstream.

“Before the pandemic, I would get maybe two daily alerts when travelers were booking rates that exceeded policy limits,” Holly Bemrose, travel manager, RWE Group UK, Ireland and Asia, told Skift. “I’m getting about 20 each day now.”

Bemrose said the company has approximately 2,000 regular travelers, and she expects its global travel spend to be somewhere between $19.5 million (£15 million) and $26.1 million (£20 million) this year. Those alerts she has been receiving point toward the higher end of that estimate. For example, one UK hotel that RWE’s travelers frequent used to average $119 (£91) per night. Now, that average is closer to $156 (£120) per night.

“I’m definitely seeing that suppliers are trying to reap back some of the money they lost,” Bemrose said. “I understand why. It’s happening across the entire travel industry.”

The increase in costs is about to make a hard job even harder for Bemrose’s peers in the corporate travel landscape, which TripActions explores in a new report, “How Businesses Can Scale Travel & Expense Policy.” As stated in the report, a recent survey of finance leaders conducted by TripActions shows that travel and entertainment is the sixth-largest category of spend for companies — yet it’s the most difficult category to manage.

What’s the secret to making this hard job easier?

“We hear a lot of frustration from companies that have cobbled together separate systems for travel booking, corporate cards, and expense management,” Kate McCarthy, vice president of user experience at TripActions, told Skift. “They’ve made it work, but not without endless headaches. One problem is that travelers don’t always know what’s in-policy for them. This means that finance teams have to spend a lot of time reviewing expense reports and may end up rejecting some expenses, which is a frustrating experience for everyone involved.”

Keeping Employees Happy

Managing travel expenses isn’t just about the bottom line. In the midst of “The Great Resignation,” it’s also a crucial way to create a more positive experience for employees who are tired of the inevitable paperwork trail that follows their work travels.

“One of our biggest [historical] complaints was the process of submitting expenses,” Bemrose said. “These employees had to spend time away from their friends and family, and then, they had to come into the office and scan their receipts within a certain time frame. Sometimes, the trip didn’t feel worth it because they would spend so much time completing their expense reports.”

Of course, streamlining spend for travelers is just part of the struggle — finance teams then have to reconcile incurred expenses, which can take significant time.

“No one wants more paperwork or busywork,” McCarthy said. “Not travelers, and not the finance team that has to process the expenses. Any time you can reduce annoyances for employees, the happier they’re going to be. And right now, in this competitive hiring environment, companies need every advantage they can get to attract and retain talent.”

Yet despite the need to reduce inefficiencies and eliminate cumbersome processes, many companies have failed to prioritize that reduction of annoyances. As a result, plenty of finance leaders are still using an outdated approach to travel and expense, including line-by-line reviews of costs and an equally lengthy waiting period for employees who need to be reimbursed — and it’s holding back their business.

Listening to Travelers and Adopting New Solutions for Travel, Corporate Card, and Expense Management

So what’s the trick to increasing those satisfaction levels? It starts with something simple: Listening, which is something that Bemrose has been able to do during the past two years of uncertainties.

“Before the pandemic, travel was a system,” she said. “When it worked, it worked. When it didn’t, our travelers would shout about it. During the pandemic, I was suddenly talking to them and spending time on the phone with them. It created a really good relationship with my frequent travelers. Rather than just looking at booking travel and submitting expenses from a strategic, data-focused level, I’ve been able to learn about individual pain points and how to make life easier for them.”

In addition to listening, companies can also increase happiness with travel management by helping get rid of the need for any extra back-and-forth communication. And reaching that goal begins with policy enforcement. As McCarthy said, travelers don’t always know what’s in-policy for them, which can cause a spike in out-of-policy spend, like the one Bemrose has seen.

Enforcing policy, in turn, makes it easier for the finance team to do their job. And even though many companies are not yet taking advantage, there is a way to make enforcing policy seamless.

Consider IoT company Relayr, a TripActions customer that, said McCarthy, can approve 98 percent of its booking expenses with no back-and-forth, no alerts, and no reimbursement forms. “Their travelers don’t have to worry about after-the-fact rejections, and their finance team doesn’t have to go line-by-line to approve expenses anymore,” McCarthy said. “It’s truly a win-win.”

What’s the key to streamlining travel and expense processes — and how can that give you a jump on the competition?

This content was created collaboratively by TripActions and Skift’s branded content studio, SkiftX.

Tags: business travel, corporate travel, corporate travel management, expense management, SkiftX Showcase: Technology, tripactions