A Lodging Balancing Act: How Flexibility and Duty of Care Factor in Hotel Programs

KW_8810_RTBy Katharine Williams, Director of Marketing & Communications

Recently, Business Travel Executive featured a great article on the future of the lodging landscape, The Stay After Tomorrow. The entire piece deserves a read, but in the first few paragraphs the prevailing theme was “flexibility is key.” Especially in light of changing norms and expectations as more Millennials take over the majority of business travel, I feel this is going to be increasingly true. The challenges oft-cited for traveler managers, however, are many – with Duty of Care concerns topping the list. So, what are the best ways to balance these, often competing, prerogatives? Let’s take a closer look at both sides of the “flexibility coin.”

Advantages of Flexibility
Current instability in the industry has forced flexibility on both sides of the equation. Buyers are finding that certain markets are tight on supply, even during mid-week stays, while suppliers are grappling with increased competition and inconsistent demand. Although this atmosphere has certainly resulted in heartburn on both sides, it has necessitated changes that could become advantages. Here are a few that could result from a more flexible approach:

  • Traveler Satisfaction – Generally, more flexibility in a travel policy results in increased traveler satisfaction. No travel manager is a stranger to the allure of loyalty points, and allowing the traveler to book with their preferred supplier undoubtedly bolsters this area. Although the benefits of traveler satisfaction have been extensively covered, among them decreased employee burnout and turnover, measurement has remained difficult. Taking into consideration company priorities and culture in determining how much flexibility to give travelers remains important in addressing this area.
  • Recruiting Benefits – This advantage of flexibility is being discussed with renewed interest in the industry. With the overall job market heating up and competition for talent increasing, more focus has recently been dedicated to travel programs as a recruiting tool. Allowing flexibility in where and how travelers can book accommodations could serve as an advantage that helps attract top talent. As more Millennial travelers advance in their careers and bring with them travel preferences and norms, it will be interesting to watch this area progress.
  • Company Culture Reinforcement – It has been widely publicized that the majority of the Millennial workforce wants to work in a job they love, even if it means accepting a lower salary. They also identify more personally and emotionally with brands than generations past. The confluence of these two trends, along with the fact that Millennials are overall more skeptical of institutions, necessitates increased focus on company culture and its consistency throughout an organization… all the way down to the travel policy. If done correctly, this can be seen as a major advantage, reinforcing the impression that the company “walks the walk” and increasing employee affinity. Applied inconsistently, however – for example, espousing employee trust while nitpicking travel decisions – could result in the opposite effect.

Disadvantages of Flexibility
While the above benefits are certainly exciting for travel managers to consider, there are some decided drawbacks in increasing flexibility. Here are a few areas to take into consideration when debating flexibility:

  • Traveler Tracking – No surprise here, booking direct presents problems for travel managers if and when an incident occurs that necessitates traveler tracking. Although some traveler tracking services are available to assist in this area, knowing the hotel location and general whereabouts of travelers can significantly cut down on the amount of time and apprehension spent accounting for personnel. Booking through the appropriate channels is one way to ensure traveler tracking is taking place; remove that requirement, and something should be put in its stead to ensure proper duty of care measures.
  • Risk Management Concerns – Allowing travelers the freedom to book their preferred lodging option can result in many of the benefits above; however, risk management concerns, like property security standards, should be addressed in any discussion of policy revision. Does a property have secured access? What kind of room key does it use? Are there functioning fire detectors? What about a carbon monoxide detector? All of these questions should be addressed in discussing changes to travel policy.
  • Duty of Care Concerns – Beyond traveler tracking with regards to incidents in the local area, personal incidents are of concern as well. Communication of appropriate information for medical or evacuation situations could become difficult if the whereabouts of the traveler are unknown, particularly in a situation where traditional communications channels are compromised. Again, booking through the appropriate channels or utilizing traveler tracking services can help alleviate some of the concerns in this area.
  • Abuse of Trust – Something that unfortunately must be considered in any travel program is abuse of trust by travelers. Given flexibility in where and how to book, there may be those that take advantage of the system. Monitoring bookings for outliers and addressing the situation directly and early can help curb this phenomenon.

In summary, program flexibility is becoming more important as widespread market instability and overall priorities of travelers shift as Millennials take over the majority of business travelers. Careful consideration of the areas above, along with open communication and traveler/stakeholder education will continue to be key moving forward.

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