When assessing current travel management company performance for workforce solutions firm Alexander Mann Solutions, the answer will depend on who is asked.
For manager of global facilities Anna Pochlódka-Watorek, the TMC relationship now is in a better place than it was before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, she said during an education session at the recent Business Travel Show Europe. When travel stopped during the pandemic, Pochlódka-Watorek decided to keep the biweekly calls she had with her TMC, even though they had zero issues around travel to discuss. That gave the travel team and the TMC team a chance to get to know each other on a personal level and for both to gain deeper understandings of each other’s corporate culture.
“My TMC and my company have been through this seriously scary and difficult experience together,” Pochlódka-Watorek said. “We weathered it through together, and now we have emerged changed.”
The company’s travelers, however, are not as enthralled as they experience difficulties due to the widespread disruptions currently plaguing travel suppliers.
“The level of service has decreased, and we have quite a lot of noise internally from travelers who are experiencing challenges and are not getting the support they need from TMC,” Pochlódka-Watorek said. “While I understand the context and that it’s not the TMC’s fault, that there is a broader picture behind it, the traveler doesn’t really care.”
It’s not so much that we have a recruitment issue; we have an image issue. It’s been a difficult two years, and people who have left are looking at it and seeing these disruptions at airports, and they say, ‘Do I want to come back to that?’ [The industry] has lost a little of its sexiness.”
— Business Travel Association’s Clive Wratten
Like other supplier categories, TMCs continue to face challenges in recovering staff lost during the pandemic, but the pure numbers are only part of the story.
Business Travel Association chief executive Clive Wratten said that across his organization’s membership, staffing levels have recovered in proportion to the level of revenue recovery to meet pre-pandemic service levels, with about 80 percent of frontline staff back in place. The ratio of bookings that require assistance or changes, however, has gone from about one in every 10 bookings to one in every four. In May alone, dealing with airline cancellations took up about 5,500 man-hours of work, he said.
These difficulties compound the problem in attracting people back to the industry.
“It’s not so much that we have a recruitment issue; we have an image issue,” Wratten said. “It’s been a difficult two years, and people who have left are looking at it and seeing these disruptions at airports, and they say, ‘Do I want to come back to that?’ [The industry] has lost a little of its sexiness.”
TMCs are feeling that even more on the IT side, where skills are more transferrable to other industries than the front-office side, he added. At the same time, a lot of the updates and changes made during the pandemic with limited volumes are now facing their first stress tests, said Katharina Navarro, global category manager for travel and mobility at Capgemini.
“We can feel the fixes coming in place rather swiftly, and that’s good, but there’s a long way to go,” she said. “We have to come together to rethink our approach on technology.”
All of this should brew the perfect environment for a major shift in how companies and TMCs work together, said independent consult Bex Deadman.
“This industry has always been about smoke and mirrors,” she said. “The pandemic has opened up all of those, and now is a really good chance to start talking about those relationships in a different way.”
Industry leaders at the onset of the pandemic predicted it would light a fire under a shift from a transaction-based model to more of a subscription-fee model for TMCs. To date, that shift has not materialized. In BTN Europe’s recent report on Europe’s Leading TMCs, only 6 percent of 163 buyers surveyed said they had subscription-fee model in place, while fixed transaction fees remained the model for nearly two-thirds of buyers.
Although TMCs have made some recent moves in pushing the model—CWT, for example, in recent months started rolling out a new subscription model after a year-long pilot with a select group of clients—for many buyers it’s not simply a matter of switching over. Navarro said “archaic” back-office systems that many TMCs operate on make them hesitant to commit to large-scale changes.
Since she was unable to switch to the model on a global scale, Navarro said she instead is trying a smaller-scale trial with 200 “very senior people” operating under a subscription model in place. She will use the results to determine whether to broaden it, and “so far, so good.”
“The intention is to take the noise away,” Navarro said. “The assistants—the VIPs don’t make their own bookings—appreciate that it’s one less line in the expense tool to do, and it saves you a click.”
Deadman, who was behind Blue Cube Travel’s recent pioneering new subscription model, maintains that it is the direction TMCs should move toward.
“They’re not there just to book travel for you, and if that’s what they’re doing, there’s something seriously wrong with the value relationship,” Deadman said. “Unless you’re prepared to have that very honest conversation, on how you make money versus what the corporate needs, then you can’t move that conversation forward.”
In the meantime, buyers said one of the best ways that TMCs can help them manage through current disruptions is simply to be honest about the challenges they face. That should come with quantifiable data, Navarro said, so when travelers and administrators have issues, travel managers can use that data to at least show them that it isn’t a problem unique to them.
Pochlódka-Watorek said her company has put together training videos to inform its travelers of issues they are going to face, such as wait times at the airport, to get them better acclimated to current realities. That also should be a key function of the TMC at the moment, however, so travelers can enjoy that same feel of the improved relationship she feels personally, she said.
“I feel like there’s a disconnect between my experience as a travel manager and the experience of our travelers, who have not had the benefits of regularly, recurring meetings with a lovely person within our TMC,” Pochlódka-Watorek said. “I would expect support from our TMC to do that, in terms of communication and providing context to travelers, why they are going through such pains when trying to get from one place to another.”