As companies grow, they deploy more road warriors onto the battlefield and hire travel management companies (or TMCs) to help. Here's what to ask to make sure you end up with first-class treatment--and not the service equivalent of steerage.
How much of your business is corporate? If a TMC doesn't get at least 30 percent of its business from business customers, it may not understand your needs, says Kristi Long of the National Business Travel Association, in Alexandria, Virginia.
How do you define "transaction"? Many TMCs charge per transaction, and all transactions are not created equal. For some agents, booking an entire trip counts as one transaction. For others, buying an airline ticket is one transaction--and exchanging it is another, and canceling it is another…
Can you help us create a travel policy? If you haven't created companywide travel guidelines, a good TMC can act as consultant. "I would want someone willing to come into my office or at least spend real time on the phone," says Long. "They should ask questions like, 'How many travelers do you have? How often do they travel? Do vice presidents travel differently from the sales force? Why do you travel: to sign contracts or to support your customers?"
Who will be our primary travel planner? "Knowing the individual who handles your arrangements is more important than is normally understood," says Mike Weingart, president and managing director of Carlson Wagonlit Travel/World Travel Agency in Houston. Request a seasoned agent who keeps up with the trades and knows, for example, when a car-rental company tacks on a new surcharge in response to rising fuel costs. Also, "you want someone with a good knowledge of geography," says Weingart. "If your employee thinks he's going to Charleston, South Carolina, and it's really Charleston, West Virginia, the agent should catch that."
Do you offer online as well as personal service? Some TMCs let clients save money by arranging simple trips online through sites such as Orbitz, Expedia, or Travelocity. If an employee flouts company policies, the site alerts the TMC, which resolves the problem.
Do you have relationships with any airlines, hotels, or car-rental companies? Well-connected TMCs often get better airline seats or can secure the same car-rental rate as a Fortune 500 company. Ask, too, about such airport perks as discounted parking, express check-in at car-rental counters, and guest passes for VIP clubs.
Will you help us cozy up to a local hotel? If your employees travel chiefly to one city, or if you often host visitors to headquarters, it pays to deal with one specific hotel. Some TMCs will solicit bids and negotiate amenities such as free breakfasts and wireless Internet connections.
Do you arrange incentive or reward programs? Trips are a popular way to recognize employee achievement or customer loyalty, and some TMCs will customize such programs, says Weingart. Companies may also help you arrange meeting venues or book your employees' leisure travel at no additional cost.
LEIGH BUCHANAN is an editor at large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture. @LeighEBuchanan