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Please Sir, I Want To Take A Business Trip | How the tedium of approval stresses travelers out – and inflates costs

August 03, 2018

People often have a romantic view of business travel – flying business class, five-star hotels, lobster dinners, piling up the points, cutting epic deals. And sure, it has its perks! But ask anyone who travels more than three or four times a year, and they’ll tell you it can be stressful too.

For many travelers, the stress begins long before they board the plane. Getting approvals, for example, can be a soul-cleaving experience.

Most companies demand employees seek approval before booking. And in theory, this makes sense. Companies don’t want employees booking trips willy-nilly, racking up costs.

But pre-trip approval processes have become so onerous that the booking experience is about as streamlined as a Lego bulldozer.

This applies across Asia. In India and China, travelers can require four or five levels of approval before booking. Even in Singapore, that beacon of efficiency, travelers may require two or three. So, they typically wait around three days – sometimes even a week – before booking.

As mortals wait, airfares rise.

In Asia, business trips are usually booked two to four weeks in advance. Waiting three days bumps airfares up four per cent on average. A week? Seven per cent.

Worse, if the fare goes up in the interim, it can be back to square one – the company’s travel policy might require the traveler to restart the entire approval process all over again.

You might ask: “Isn’t the ability to hold a booking one of the benefits of using a travel management company?”

And the answer is yes – but only for certain fares. It doesn’t apply to cheaper fares, which are ticketed instantly. Consider China, where approximately half of all airline seats are ticketed instantly, and these are around 30 per cent cheaper than the flexible seats.

It seems absurd to waste your travelers’ time – while costing the company money. Particularly since a whopping 98 per cent of trips are approved in the end. For domestic travel, approval rates are even higher.

What to do?

Start by identifying which trips require approval. Then set thresholds. For example, you can modify your policy to auto-approve any flights under US$500. And for flights over US$500, if fares increase only 10-12 per cent while you’re waiting for approval, you’re good to go.

Next, consider post-trip instead of pre-trip travel approval. Since almost all trips get approved anyway, just trust your employees to do the right thing. Deal with issues when they file their expenses after the trip.

And of course, use technology. Some apps send push notifications when a trip needs approval. This can cuts approval times massively (emails tend to molder in inboxes). Technology can also auto-approve trips if the approver doesn’t approve them in time.

We’ve worked with our clients to find savings of up to five per cent. That might seem piffling, but when you’re spending US$5 million a year on flights – not uncommon for mid-to-large sized companies in Asia – that’s a quarter of a million dollars. Plus you have happier and more productive travelers. Result!


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