More Than Cutting Costs: Travel Managers Now Consider Employee Comfort

Corporate managers used to focus on one thing when it came to employee travel: saving money.

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More Than Cutting Costs: Travel Managers Now Consider Employee Comfort
Julie Weed
, New York Times

Corporate managers used to focus on one thing when it came to employee travel: saving money.

But now, given the nature of travel — crowded planes, tighter seats, security hassles — corporate managers are considering employee comfort as part of the deal.

A plane trip that includes layovers might save money, said Andrew Sheivachman, business travel editor at Skift, a travel industry news and research site. “But if that person emerges from the plane too tired to work, or ends up burned out on corporate travel, it’s not worth the trade-off.”

Cost continued to be the most important factor in airline contracts, according to a 2016 research report, “The Evolution of Airline Agreements,” by the Association of Corporate Travel Executives. But more than half of respondents expected traveler comfort to become more important in future agreements with airlines. “Experiences matter,” Sheivachman said. “You’re not just looking at the dollars, you’re empowering your employees to do a good job.”

Aside from seat comfort, meal service and faster Wi-Fi, there isn’t much room to innovate the offerings inside the aircraft, Sheivachman said. But beyond the plane, airlines can offer perks like matching frequent-flyer status earned on another airline and offering access to airport lounges, early boarding, seat upgrades and priority help with requests like midtrip ticket changes.

“If you are sending someone around the world and they aren’t well taken care of, that reflects badly on the company and the corporate culture,” Sheivachman said.

These are more than VIP perks, said Mary Huddleston Tabacchi, professor emerita at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration. “Ideally, a corporate flyer needs to arrive well rested to do business for their employer.”

Chris Sabby, a director of CWT Solutions Group, which helps companies analyze their travel spending, including modeling changes to their travel policies, noted that business travel is an important part of employee retention. If a company is deciding how long a flight must be before an employee can purchase a business class seat, or how to dole out lounge access to its traveling employees, Sabby said his group, which is part of Carlson Wagonlit Travel, will offer information on costs, as well as a more subjective analysis on how the change will affect the business travel experience.

According to a study released last fall by the Global Business Travel Association, 79 percent of all business travelers, and 88 percent of millennial business travelers, said their job-related travel experience affected their overall job satisfaction.

The travel association’s convention this month in San Diego will feature multiple sessions discussing traveler stress, wellness and how travel policies can affect the workplace.

The perks do have costs, so it’s up to the corporate travel managers to establish policies determining who receives the benefits. “It might be the executives, it might be the road warriors who travel the most, and it might be travelers in the divisions that bring in the most money,” Sabby said.

Dan Landson, a spokesman for Southwest Airlines, said the airline had increased its focus on corporate travel. Its team that works with corporations to analyze their business travel and offer individualized plans has grown to more than 80 people from 30 in the last year and a half. The team can, for example, offer discounted fares or match a passenger’s status with other frequent flyer programs.

Direct nonstop travel, minimizing total trip time, is as important as any perk, Landson said. Before Southwest started operating flights from the Cincinnati airport in June 2017, it spoke with travel managers from several Fortune 500 companies in the area, as well as other businesses to learn when and where their employees traveled most.

There’s untapped potential in helping corporations of all sizes improve their travel, Landson said. California, for example, has thousands of companies whose employees want to make day trips within the state and get back home that night. Southwest takes those factors into account when planning its flights, he said. David Oppenheim, vice president of sales at Alaska Airlines, said corporate travel managers were looking for three main things — “flight schedules to take them where they want to go at the right time, great value for their company that pairs with a great experience for their travelers as well as special benefits for their corporate travelers that take some of the hassle out of flying.”

Alaska Airlines has had a special check-in line for Microsoft employees at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport for three years and added a lane for Amazon employees in the last few months.

“Airlines are more interested in being creative and entertaining unique requests,” Sabby said. An airline, for example, might offer more intrastate upgrades for flyers in a competitive marketplace like Los Angeles.

Companies are surveying their employees to see if they feel as if they are being cared for on the road, said Mike McCormick, executive director of the Global Business Travel Group. Business Travel News, an organization that focuses on the managed corporate travel industry, created a free tool called the Traveler Happiness Index about 18 months ago that companies can use to see how their travelers are feeling about their business trips. So far, about 1,000 travelers have answered the questionnaire on what is important to them in their business travel, and how their employer is delivering on those areas. Each company can see the details from its own employees and compare results to the entire group that answered.

While the tool was intended for companies to use directly, “We’ve also seen an increase in interest in this tool from travel management companies and consultants to use with their clients,” said Elizabeth West, editor-in-chief of Business Travel News.

The focus on cost savings ebbs and flows, largely with the strength of the economy, West said, but there is value in having happy, productive business travelers.

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