Travelers not booking within company policy. Hotel and airline costs that stretch beyond a firm’s comfort zone. Dissatisfaction among employees regularly on the road. These are challenges any travel manager faces — but even more so for those employed at middle market companies, which do not have the massive resources like large, multinational corporations do.

During a webinar panel discussion hosted by ACTE and American Express Global Business Travel (GBT) on March 31, several experienced professionals weighed in on these issues and demonstrated how transparency — on a couple of levels — often can be a key solution, helping to drive smarter decisions.

According to Colin Temple, vice president and general manager of American Express GBT and the moderator of the panel that day, mid-size companies should strive for visibility in three main areas: travel costs, benefits from suppliers and traveler satisfaction. When you have a full picture of what’s going on in these three domains, you can obtain greater control of your program.

“The end goal is really to identify areas of improvement,” he said, noting, “Insights can be used to inform travel program owners or managers of any changes or course corrections that may be required along the way as the business model or the travel program actually evolves.”

So how can middle market companies achieve transparency? It all starts with the data — getting a crystal-clear picture of what’s going on within the program.

Why is data so important?

It’s like a roadmap, showing you where you need to go. But because there is so much data available these days, the important thing is to analyze the most pertinent information for whatever goal you’re trying to achieve, said panelist Michelle Grant, travel administration manager with Ritchie Bros. Auctioneers™.

For instance, her travel department recently was trying to reduce spend without reducing travel. She said, “We had to look at our overall travel plan and we identified about a dozen different areas of opportunity and prioritized them.”

By doing so, a couple of cost-savings opportunities quickly surfaced.

First, she said, her team began nudging travelers not to procrastinate and instead book itineraries in advance.

They also started using a fare tracker from their travel management company (TMC) that monitored airfares for 24 hours after a booking was made. When a lower price is found for the same flight, the tool automatically rebooks it at the better fare. Grant said the airfare tracker has saved the company over $5,000 within the first few months alone.

Analyzing airline data also helped Grant gain clarity into a problem she knew was occurring but didn’t realize just how severe it was: travelers booking flights out of policy because they believe they can find the best deal on the web.

Grant was stunned after seeing the data captured by the company’s TMC.

“Basically, we discovered that about 50 percent of what was being booked with a particular supplier was being booked direct,” she said.

It led to a quick fix. To drive compliance back into the travel program, she communicated to their employees about the value of booking within the policy’s parameters.

Cheryl Benjamin, a travel manager with Dart Container Corporation™ who said she relies on data to negotiate better deals with suppliers and improve the traveler experience, explained that her firm is now looking at “dashboard opportunities where we can pull reservation data in along with expense data.”

“It’s easier and it’s transparent,” she explained, “so that at a drop of a hat, I can let our executive team leadership know where we stand.”

Another type of transparency: communication

Communicating why you have certain travel rules and procedures established and why you are using certain vendors can help drive policy compliance among travelers.

“It does help being transparent and letting them know that it’s not just an arbitrary decision,” said Ed Brandt, purchasing director of the U.S. Tennis Association™. “They do get it once it’s explained that there are discounts in place, or that you get the free breakfast at a hotel or upgrades at a certain airline because you’re directing some spend that way.”

So what is the best way to communicate with travelers? For a full guide, click here.

But in reality, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. For instance, because Dart is a pretty tight-knit private company, Benjamin is very accessible to her travelers — they even have her cell phone number and text her at all times of the day. She also said having the support of senior management to push critical messages is key. She just launched an initiative demonstrating the importance of booking in policy that ties into the company’s duty of care obligations. It has the full backing of Dart’s top leaders and is being promoted by the HR department.

Grant, on the other hand, relies on a chatter group to disseminate information to Ritchie Bros. Auctioneers’ jet-setters. She mixes up the content with both relevant travel information and fun trivia and contests in order to engage them. She also hosts a blog on the company’s intranet site and sends targeted messages through an automated tool by the company’s TMC that reminds them of proper booking behaviors.

Brandt says his team at the U.S. Tennis Association begins communicating with employees about the travel program as soon as they are hired.

“We explain to them the reasons for some of the preferences and the travel policies, why we’re guiding travel spend to particular airlines and hotels,” he said.

He and his team also have periodic meetings with those who travel frequently to explain any new technological changes and solicit their feedback on how to improve the program.

Benjamin agrees that receiving feedback from travelers is critical — especially when something falls short of their expectations.

“We want to hear it because if they are not happy, they are going to look for other ways to book their travel and go outside the program,” she said.

Overall, though, “travelers want to do the right thing,” Grant concluded.

And they will, as long as they understand the value of the program and trust that the travel managers are there looking out after them — and it all goes back to transparency.

Want to learn more? To listen to the full webinar, click here and use the password INXPO.