Many companies think they're managing their travel "spend" very well, but really aren't. The reality for many is that "managed travel" often isn't because it is managed so lightly as to be nearly invisible (and certainly ineffectual).

But actual managed travel actually creates a better buying experience for road warriors by reducing wasted time, slashing stress, and cutting company costs.

If there is little complexity to your travel bookings -- if you're just flying simple round trips -- there may not be much need for a closely managed travel policy.

Still, smaller companies can benefit from a managed travel program, particularly those companies whose road warriors frequent a particular airline, hotel, or city, Especially attractive to small companies are the preferred deals, enhanced reporting, and greater access to supplier content (e.g., airlines, hotels, and car rental companies) that comes with a managed program.

Managed travel programs can be divided, roughly speaking, into those that are either lightly managed or those that are heavily managed; here's the difference:

  • Lightly managed keeps things simple. Where heavily managed would apply different sets of rules to different divisions (factoring in variables like travel history and geography), lightly managed applies the same rules to all of your colleagues. That translates to a limited ability for a company to govern what's allowed and what's not. But freedom is a double-edged sword: keeping it simple short-term may preclude opportunities to save money in the long haul.
  • Heavily managed is dominated by what I'd term a "hierarchical" bookings management policy. This hierarchy applies a specific set of rules to specific groups of travelers to achieve the twin goals of (1) saving on travel costs and (2) improving ROI. Such programs also make specific suppliers more prominent than others -- and even eliminate some from your menu of choices. The overarching reason is to maximize your company's purchasing power, i.e., the more your employees use a preferred provider, the lower your rates.

A well-managed program gives options to occasionally go outside that policy.

At least theoretically.

The bugaboo that has dogged heavily managed programs since the dawn of recorded history is the same one that drives Windows users screaming into the night: Ease of use. Now, I'm not advocating you run out and buy a Mac. What I am saying is that heavily managed programs need to get friendlier before user "adoption" rates will indicate a company is gaining savings and productivity.

Thought, suddenly, heavily managed programs are becoming more user-friendly. What's motivating that change and what's underscoring the drive for improved employee adoption, is the competition posed by consumer sites like Travelocity, Expedia, and Orbitz. The only way managed programs work is if employees use them, hence the importance of features like faring displays--allowing the user to compare various ticket prices at a glance.

Lufthansa and Air Canada have popular consumer direct-booking sites that boast one-way combinable fares and family fare features. Their online calendars enable you to perform low-fare searches within a given date range. Not surprisingly, calendar-based displays are becoming a real differentiator in the world of corporate travel.

Users are demanding a better buying experience. If, for instance, your managed travel program doesn't offer a fare analyzer, you're behind the curve. Another developing trend is users' desire to more easily get refunds or make exchanges. While this capability is common in the online consumer experience, it's actually a fairly sophisticated concept just beginning to emerge on corporate travel sites. But service providers -- such as my firm, Amadeus -- are working to deliver that exchange capability.

A good corporate website lets you do a number of different types of bookings. Users find such a one-site-fits-all capability easy and convenient. This type of site design illustrates what managed travel programs need to learn: Users tend to linger at sites that do more than one thing well.

Bottom line: Whether your company is lightly or heavily managed, no system is going to work if you, the road warrior, travel around it.