Debi Scholar: Optimizing the TMC-Corporate Relationship
by Michael Billig /

Debi Scholar knows a thing or two about corporate travel. She has  led numerous projects for global organizations, entertainment venues and government agencies and worked for 13 years as PricewaterhouseCoopers' (PwC) Lead for Travel and Entertainment Expenses strategic management. These days, as principal of The Scholar Consulting Group, she often consults with Fortune 1000 and mid-size companies on supply-chain and expense-management categories, such as airlines, hotels, meetings, ground transportation, corporate-card programs, travel-management companies, and entertainment assets like country-club memberships, venue suites, boxes and tickets.

Scholar participated on the National Business Travel Association (NBTA) Foundation Board of Trustees for two years and served as the co-chair of the NBTA Groups & Meetings Committee for four years, giving her a broad handle on setting and implementing corporate travel policy. Below, she shares her views on the key factors in optimizing the relationship between a corporation and its travel management company.

Involve Your TMC in Policy

Her advice to corporations on when to bring their travel management companies into the picture when creating corporate travel policy is “It's never too soon!”

She said, “An organization will benefit by involving a travel management company early in the process to help the organization identify opportunities to save costs, gain efficiencies and improve service.” She added, “Because the travel management company (TMC) produces reports on the organization's travel behaviors, the TMC is in the best position to offer protocol and procedural support in the early stages of an organization's policy development.”

Work Together

Asked which side should have the most input on the content of the travel policy — the agent or the in-house travel manager /company executives — Scholar stressed that that this should not constitute an “either/or” stance.

“The agency's consultancy position complements the organization's ownership and accountability role in supporting the policy development,” she explained. “Because an organization's leadership has regulatory and legal requirements that must be managed and reported, the TMC should provide information that helps the organization create a travel and meeting policy that best meets the company requirements.”

Be Specific

“Policies are one of the numerous components that make up a corporate culture. Every corporate culture is different; (they) are usually flexible, discretionary and dynamic, or stable, orderly and controlled,” Scholar said. “The organization, the TMC and the traveler all have responsibilities before and after expenses are incurred. When policies are vague, travelers have difficulty understanding their barriers and many people may perceive the policy differently. (As such) the organization must provide a comprehensive set of guidelines and expectations; the TMC must offer the negotiated prices and booking methods; and the travelers must take responsibility to learn the guidelines and stay within those boundaries when traveling.

“After the expenses are incurred, the traveler must use approved expense-management procedures; the TMC must provide comprehensive reporting that helps the organization manage the travel behaviors; and the organization must monitor compliance to the policy and determine if non-compliant consequences are applicable based on the circumstances,” she said, emphasizing that “proactive controls and procedures by the organization, the TMC and the traveler all contribute to a comprehensive travel management program.”

Be Comprehensive

“Most organizations fail to structure their travel policies to include everything required. For example, when I help my clients create or modify a policy, I ensure that it is comprehensive of meetings, events, entertainment, payment methods, and food and beverage,” she said.

According to Scholar, a good travel policy defines the following:

o  Whom it affects (All employees? Or only those who regularly travel? Are VIPs included?); 
o  What it covers (Business travel? Meetings? Incentives?);
o  Where it is applicable (U.S. only? International?);
o  How strictly it is adhered to (Is the policy a guideline or mandated?);
o  Why it is used (to manage travel, help employees during times of crisis, save money, and so on);
o  Which suppliers should be used (e.g. preferred airlines, hotels, rentals, and so on);
o  Which level of service should be used (e.g. coach, business class, and so on);
o  With whom to book travel and/or meetings (travel management company, meeting management company);
o  How to book travel and/or meetings (on-line booking tool, through agents, through meeting management tool, and so on);
o  How much lead time is suggested (e.g. book travel 21 days or more in advance, and so on); 
o  How control and compliance will be monitored (e.g., through expense report audits, travel management company reports, and so on).

On-site vs. Off-site TMC

Scholar concluded that many clients mistakenly believe that travel policy will be better enforced by on-site agents. “The TMC can be held accountable by use of service level agreements, reports and monthly or quarterly meetings with the client rather than strictly considering agent proximity. When I help my clients determine the right configuration, I analyze factors such as agent services, space availability, cost/efficiency, and client culture.”