From videoconferencing, to shopping for airfare bargains, to booking far in advance - here are some helpful tips to reduce all your travel-related expenses.
A lot has changed since traveling salesman jokes were as common as the cross-country peddlers themselves. Mass advertising, TV and radio, and now the Internet and Web conferencing technologies have given businesses new ways to get their message out and drum up sales. That's not to say that businesses today don't have to contend with travel expenses for staff. There are still plenty of client meetings, personal sales calls, and trade shows to attend, but there are better ways than ever to better manage travel expenses so that you can impact the bottom line.
"Managing your travel expenses is an important way to cut your company's costs," says Owen N. Wild, marketing director for Amadeus North America, a technology supplier to the travel industry. "Managing those expenses well is also important in ensuring that you get reimbursed fully and promptly."
The following pages will detail technologies that can help businesses avoid travel, how to save money when you have to hit the road, and tips for filing expenses.
Tools to Help Cut Down on Travel
With air travel and gas prices still sky high and growing concern about the impact travel has on the environment, more small and mid-sized businesses are using videoconferencing and online meetings in place of in-person visits. In fact, 42 percent of 610 business travelers and corporate travel managers responding to a 2008 poll by Business Traveler Magazine said they were exploring alternatives to business trips, including video- or Web conferences.
When videoconference systems debuted in the early 1990s they promised to revolutionize how companies conducted business. Things didn't exactly work out that way. Hardware in those early systems was full of glitches and transmissions traveling over too-slow computer networks resulted in choppy pictures that lagged behind audio feeds. Thanks to high-quality graphics, high-speed Internet connections, webcams and voice over IP (VoIP), videoconference systems, and Web-based online meeting services are miles ahead of where they used to be. Add to that companies looking to cut travel budgets -- and lower their carbon footprint -- and you have the perfect combination of factors pushing online meetings into widespread use.
"Videoconferencing is a whole different experience today than it was a few years ago, and it's more affordable, which is driving it down" to smaller companies, says Brett Shockley, CEO at Spanlink Communications, a Minneapolis communications reseller that markets videoconferencing and other communications networks to small and mid-sized businesses.
While some high-end videoconferencing systems run well into six figures, services exist for just about any budget. At the lowest end are services such as DimDim, a free, open-source, Web-based online meeting tool that lets up to 20 people share PowerPoint presentations, files and video without having to download software onto their desktop. Meatier versions of DimDim's software cost $99 a year for online meetings of up to 100 people and $1,999 a year for up to 1,000 people.
Even mid-sized companies are remodeling conference rooms to include expensive telepresence systems featuring wrap-around-style screens and HD-quality video from companies such Cisco and HP to avoid flying salespeople and managers to face-to-face meetings, says Spanlink's Shockley. Road warriors and companies that don't want to take on the burden of buying videoconferencing equipment themselves can rent videoconferencing rooms by the hour at FedEx Office, formerly known as FedEx Kinko's. The shipping and business services company has videoconferencing systems in 122 locations around the country, starting at $225 an hour.
Videoconference and Online Meeting Vendors
Here are some videoconference and online meeting services suited to small businesses:
• Adobe Connect Pro -- The Meetings module included in this recently upgraded Web conference and e-learning lets a user customize the look of their online meeting space, among other features. Connect Pro also has modules for presentations, training and events.
• GoToMeeting.com -- Citrix's videoconference service for small businesses was recently upgraded to include free VoIP and audio conferencing for PCs and Macs.
• IBM Lotus -- The venerable communications and productivity program includes features people can use to simultaneously send instant messages, share documents and launch Web confernces.
• Microsoft Live Meeting -- The Microsoft service lets people schedule, start or join audio or video online meetings from Outlook.
• WebEx -- Cisco purchased this online meeting pioneer in May 2007 and six months later introduced a version of the service for sole proprietors called MeetMeNow that's $49 a month and includes personal video conferencing and Web meetings that can be launched from Microsoft Office programs.
Cutting Costs When You Have to Travel
There are times when travel for business is unavoidable. In this case, there are several ways to cut down on travel expenses. Before you book any travel, know your company's policy on reimbursements, Wild advises. Having a good grasp of the policies at the outset will enable you to streamline your expense report process. Know up front what your annual travel budget is. That way you can pace your spending and not run out of travel dollars before the fiscal year ends.
The following are several ways that Wild suggests businesses can travel on the cheap:
Book in Advance. This is perhaps the most obvious and yet most commonly ignored piece of advice on managing your travel costs intelligently. Often hotels and airlines offer discounts for booking at least two weeks in advance; costs generally rise for last-minute arrangements. One caveat to this rule is if you think you may need to make last-minute changes to your flight, Wild says. You need to balance the price of a low fare ticket with the risk of having your travel plans change and possibly paying a higher airfare and/or change fee penalties. Another benefit to booking in advance is that you can avoid traveling during peak holiday times -- such as spring break or school holidays -- when everything costs more.
Shop for airfare bargains. There are many ways to find better airfares, but here are some that Wild recommends:
• Use the less obvious airport. "If you have the choice, you may be able to cut costs by using the "less obvious" airport," Wild says. For example, in Chicago try Midway vs. O'Hare. "Just remember that the airfare isn't your trip's only major cost -- factor in the cost of a rental car or taxi to get you to the airport."
• Surf the Internet. A number of websites -- such as Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity -- allow you to compare fares between airlines and pick the best deal that fits your travel needs.
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