Relieving the strain
Getting to grips with RFPs isn’t easy, but with the right approach Neal Baldwin finds it could be as easy as another three-letter acronym
Whisper it quietly, but there’s a secret club in the world of travel management and just one simple bit of knowledge makes you a member. ‘RFP’? Forget any notion that this much-talked-about acronym stands for ‘Request For Proposal’. Once you’ve been around long enough in this industry, the true meaning is revealed. It’s a ‘Right F****** Pain’, more like!
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Savvy buyers are waking up to the fact that starting relationships well makes them more fruitful and harmonious – mainly due to an industry realisation that in the past the entire process had disappeared into an endless rabbit hole of questions. As best practice emerges, RFP is now as simple as ABC.
Start at the very beginning
Understanding – and being able to convey – what you want to achieve from the RFP process seems pretty obvious, but it’s a surprising early fail for many businesses.
TMCs are an obliging bunch but do need clear parameters if they are going to make a real difference to any travel programme. Do you want better reporting or are you exploring new pricing models? Maybe sustainability in the supply chain is the new watch word, or you’ve simply had poor service in the past?
One big gripe often cited is that companies present a multi-pronged list of requirements and seem to want the world from their potential new partners, but in actual fact are only really interested in reducing cost. Even worse, they are using the opportunity to re-tender their contract as a ‘beauty parade’, just to put pressure on their existing provider. Sometimes, this is justified as being part of the company’s governance process, but if so TMCs everywhere will say avoid a formal RFP altogether.
Travel Trust Commercial Director Paul King saves his ire for those with issues of expense management integration. “How do you manage expenses?” he asks. “If it’s Concur and you use its OBT, will you seriously consider alternatives or are you just looking for another agency to provide exactly the same tool whilst expecting different results?”
Whether your company is new to the business of managed travel or you’ve got road warriors around the globe, TMCs and suppliers love to have a feel for their potential new clients. ‘Culture’ is a broad and pretty nebulous thing to pin down, but think of it more about how you want your relationship to progress.
Always start with your baseline needs and then consider how a travel policy should be shaped to fit requirements of staff. Perhaps you want to have rules about costs or booking different classes, and maybe exceptions for certain employees to operate out of policy? Has adherence to policy been a real problem in the past? Many companies now allow more flexibility so travellers can book online, but you may have multi-leg, multi-country trips that require a much more consultative approach – this is the typical pinch-point that often causes issues between client and provider.
TMCs are the ringmasters of the travel circus. As well as managing suppliers in the air and on the ground, your new partner will oversee payment and approval, offer sleek booking tools, can provide heaps of useful data and even keep an eye on traveller wellbeing. That’s an impressive list – but how much of it do you need?
It’s a question the BTA likens to picking a dating app. Are you more Tinder (in search of fleeting hook-ups on a casual basis) or Bumble (you’d prefer something a bit more meaningful and in-depth)?
The basic rule is understanding how important travel is to your operation. The more staff travel to win business, the more strategic your supplier relationships need to be and the more support you’ll need. This is another area where clients can get the RFP wrong.
“It is important that a prospect communicates what level of support they expect, and truly understands what support is needed. [They need to] listen to the TMC,” says Travel Trust’s King. “A £1.5m spend account does not require a team of five agents, two account managers and senior level access, yet the number of clients that expect a large team to support a small spend is extremely common.”
Pull yourself together
Shaping your RFP isn’t an easy task, but sharing the burden helps. Getting input right across your organisation gives a true picture of the varied requirements of stakeholders in all departments. A common mistake is that budget holders, bosses and frequent travellers are consulted (that’s great, by the way), but that others at the sharp end are forgotten.
Equally important are PAs (who do plenty of the booking); IT staff (who will likely be the people implementing third-party technology such as booking tools); and those in HR and compliance/security (who will have valuable thoughts on employee safety and wellbeing).
To get the best possible insight, the key is to get the internal communication right – explain to staff why you are going to RFP and why their input will be valuable.
At the end, try to have a top 10 list of requirements, listed by importance. It’s a great starting point for conversations with providers.
Pick ‘n’ mix
Not all TMCs are the same. While they will all support and manage your travel, how they do it can vary considerably. Also, they come in all shapes and sizes, with a welter of specialisms. To narrow down your potential suitors, it’s worth keeping an eye on the trade press and getting out to industry events. The industry and its technology is constantly evolving so it’s important to keep a finger on the pulse of what’s happening.
Your top 10 ‘wish-list’ can go a long way to rule bidders in or out. When you’ve settled on a few, make sure that you make time for face-to-face conversations (protected by NDAs) to really find the best fit. TMCs will want to know about your spend, existing travel policy and compliance, geographical footprint, culture, payment solutions and technology used.
Whether you’re issuing an RFP or responding to it, the aim is the same – to create a partnership that’s fit for purpose. The best documents explain objectives and the expected outcomes in a simple, clear and concise manner. What you absolutely don’t want is responses running to hundreds of pages that are impossible to read and compare.
Take a matrix approach, but set your template up in a way that gives respondents the best chance to get their message across – thoughtful questions are better than running some sort of tick-box exercise.