The Australian - The Deal - - Executive Travel - BY DAVID CAR­ROLL

TRACK­ING TRAVEL EX­PENSES has never been a more tax­ing task. To­day’s busi­ness­peo­ple tend to book the dif­fer­ent el­e­ments of their trip through sev­eral chan­nels – in­clud­ing tra­di­tional travel agents, web­sites and di­rectly with air­lines or ho­tels. Once on the road, they are also likely to make use of mul­ti­ple pay­ment meth­ods.

If you work for a large com­pany, there is a good chance a cor­po­rate travel agency and a so­phis­ti­cated ex­pense-man­age­ment so­lu­tion help keep tabs on your com­plex travel pay­ments. It’s also likely that a clear travel pol­icy, one with pro­cesses in place to en­force it, helps keep your em­ployer’s costs un­der con­trol.

Em­ploy­ees work­ing for Aus­tralia’s small and medium-sized busi­nesses (SMBs) are not al­ways so lucky. For a start, a re­cent study by travel and en­ter­tain­ment ex­pense man­age­ment spe­cial­ist Con­cur found that only 42 per cent of Aus­tralian SMBs used a cor­po­rate travel agency. One of the rea­sons was that SMBs feared a travel pro­fes­sional would drive up costs, rather than help man­age them.

Phil Hoff­mann, manag­ing di­rec­tor of Hoff­mann Travel, says there is also a per­cep­tion that cheaper fares can al­ways be found on­line. “So in­stead of us­ing an agent, they have a highly paid PA spend hours book­ing ho­tels and look­ing for air­fare deals,” he says. “I’ve even seen CEOs try­ing to fig­ure out the best ways to use fre­quent flyer points, in­stead of run­ning the com­pany.

“It’s a false econ­omy, be­cause a travel agent will take five min­utes, find a bet­ter so­lu­tion and en­sure you’re not stung by hid­den costs. They will also of­fer back-up, which is why we have seen busi­nesses swing back to agents af­ter dis­rup­tions such as the vol­canic ash cloud in Europe. The grow­ing aware­ness of an em­ployer’s duty of care to their cor­po­rate trav­ellers is an­other fac­tor.”

En­cour­ag­ingly, Con­cur’s study re­ported that a ma­jor­ity of SMBs claimed to have guide­lines for staff travel. How­ever, Michael Eber­hard, Con­cur’s Asia-Pa­cific gen­eral man­ager, says this of­ten means only that staff know they can’t fly first class. “Only a rel­a­tively small pro­por­tion of SMBs have a true travel pol­icy, so their abil­ity to en­force or drive be­hav­iour is pretty lim­ited,” he says.

Es­chew­ing cor­po­rate travel agents and smart travel poli­cies may well hurt a com­pany’s bot­tom line, but one find­ing in the study sug­gests the real pain is be­ing felt by busi­ness trav­ellers them­selves: 55 per cent of SMBs ad­mit­ted that their staff still used man­ual pro­cesses to re­port ex­penses.

That means cor­po­rate trav­ellers are told to gather hard copies of re­ceipts for all transactions, half of which will be un­read­able by the time they are sta­pled to an ex­pense form and sent up the line.

It’s an in­ef­fi­cient and er­ror­prone pro­ce­dure com­pared to au­to­mated so­lu­tions that bring to­gether trav­ellers’ costs, elim­i­nate the need for re­ceipts, speed up the ap­proval process and en­sure com­pli­ance.

So why are a ma­jor­ity of SMBs still re­ly­ing on pieces of pa­per stuffed into en­velopes? Eber­hard sug­gests one rea­son is that they fail to au­to­mate pro­cesses that in the past were com­fort­ably man­aged by in­di­vid­ual staff. “In­stead, they em­ploy more peo­ple to fix prob­lems that only ex­ist be­cause they are still us­ing a man­ual process.”

At the same time, there is a per­cep­tion that tech­nol­ogy so­lu­tions are of­ten com­plex and that im­ple­ment­ing them will be ex­pen­sive, with IT sup­port and ex­ten­sive train­ing re­quire­ments.

Eber­hard claims those days are gone. “We re­cently in­tro­duced a travel and ex­pense-man­age­ment so­lu­tion specif­i­cally de­signed for Aus­tralian SMBs. It uses cloud com­put­ing and a se­ries of wizards that al­low cus­tomers to con­fig­ure 90 per cent of com­po­nents them­selves. So SMBs can usu­ally go live in about two and a half weeks and, in gen­eral, they are able to pay for the sys­tem within six to nine months.”

Con­cur’s so­lu­tion ag­gre­gates in­for­ma­tion from all the book­ing chan­nels busi­ness trav­ellers might use and in­te­grates data from per­sonal and cor­po­rate credit cards. Once on the road, trav­ellers can use their phones to take pho­tos of each re­ceipt, add the trans­ac­tion amounts into their mo­bile de­vice and lodge them. “The man­ager can log on and see the re­ceipt and ap­prove it, so it’s much faster, there’s more de­tail and it’s much eas­ier to process in the back of­fice,” Eber­hard says. Once the trip is com­plete, a va­ri­ety of re­ports can be au­to­mat­i­cally gen­er­ated, help­ing the com­pany un­der­stand and man­age its travel spend.

Other so­lu­tions in the mar­ket­place will help SMBs cre­ate and ap­ply travel poli­cies, as well as un­der­stand and mon­i­tor travel and en­ter­tain­ment costs. If you are not us­ing one, you are es­sen­tially fly­ing blind.

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