Ask a longtime travel buyer about the relationship between the travel and finance departments, and many will think back to the 1990s demise of base airline commissions, which transformed corporate travel from a revenue generator to a cost center and, in effect, to a commodity subject to the same cost scrutiny as office supplies and other durable goods.
They might also call to memory the Great Recession of 2008, when travel took center stage as a primary scapegoat of wasteful spending in tough economic times. “Businesses worldwide responded quickly with sweeping cuts and drastic policies targeting T&E budgets,” recalled a 2019 Harvard Business Review report, Safeguarding Travel Culture Through Data-Driven Insights. “Business travel slowed, client dinners were de-emphasized and customer outings diminished.”
Since those days, however, changes have been brewing. Some of that is due to increased efforts for collaboration and awareness from the travel industry. At the same time, the finance field is undergoing its own shift, which could mean a less antagonistic relationship between travel and finance when the next recession inevitably arrives.
Priorities Beyond Savings
Cost isn’t always the first word out of finance executives’ mouths when asked about their biggest travel program concerns. “Safety and compliance are the two main areas,” said Brett Cragun, finance manager for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is among the BTN Corporate Travel 100 largest programs in terms of U.S.-booked air volume. “When you look from a finance perspective, we want to ensure people are traveling within policy and within the guidelines that are set for using approved vendors and going through our system so they can be booked through our contracts.”
Steve Isom—VP of finance at software firm Flywheel, which has a much smaller travel program and about 215 total employees—said experience is a bigger focus than savings. “I want travel to be as good of an experience for the employee as possible. We spend quite a bit of money to fly all of these people into town for all company events, and it’s a major expense, so we want to make sure that we are getting the credit for what we are doing.”
Before Isom became more directly involved with travel, he saw the goal more as “keeping expenses as low as possible.” He also thought incentivizing employees by passing some savings back—if they take cheaper, indirect flights, for example—was a good path. Over time, he thought more about overall service to employees. A company wouldn’t issue employees the cheapest available laptops or monitors, for example, but rather models that fulfill their needs.