Laying a firm foundation

Linda Druckman

Recently tasked with heading up travel management for field marketing company, Smollan Group SA (Pty) Ltd, Linda Druckman has focused on building a solid foundation for the development of future efficiencies. Debbie Badham finds out more. 

DESCRIBING her first year in the role of travel liaison officer for Smollan as an incredible, but challenging experience, Linda Druckman is forging a way forward in terms of new travel management developments and procedures at this field marketing company.

Druckman worked as a personal assistant at the company for 19 years before being offered the job of travel liaison officer. She began as Doug Smollan’s PA in 1995 and over the years has worked for various directors in the company. However, she says that having handled travel for the company’s executive team over the years, travel is not by any means new to her.

Since being in her new position, Druckman has enjoyed the opportunity to show initiative and start putting new procedures in place. While the basic elements of a travel policy already existed, a significant number of changes have been made.

In February, Smollan changed its Travel Management Company to XL Sandown Travel. Currently all the company’s travel is booked through the TMC, which has a dedicated team of travel consultants. “For the first few months the process of changing TMC was extremely hectic as travel consultants and travel bookers had to get used to working together. Workshops were held around the country to introduce all travel bookers to the XL Sandown Travel Key Account Manager who explained the systems and procedures that would be used at the TMC.”

Smollan has 122 dedicated travel bookers whose job it is to fill in travel request forms and forward these to the TMC for booking. Druckman explains that, for now, the company has elected not to introduce an online booking tool because of frequent changes to itineraries, which become a complex affair to manage from an online portal.

She notes that communication has been an extremely important part of her strategy to more effectively manage Smollan’s travel and, to this end, she has spent a significant amount of time going over the important points of the company’s travel policy with the new TMC as well as the travel bookers. “I have also arranged to have a number of suppliers present and provide travel bookers with more information on their products.”

The nature of Smollan’s travel is diverse, with needs ranging across everything from overseas and local travel to executive meetings as well as to field marketers travelling into relatively secluded areas where they typically need to stay in B&Bs. Workshops and training also comprise a significant component of the company’s travel.

Relationships are key

A significant part of Linda’s role involves negotiating corporate rates with suppliers. Smollan has rate caps for all hotels booked, as stated in company travel policy and, as a result, Druckman often finds it necessary to negotiate with accommodation providers around this. “When it comes to hotels with rates that exceed our cap, I find that they are often willing to reduce rates if it means they can secure our business,” she says. She highlights the importance of being open with suppliers in an effort to build sound relationships.

Detailed policy curbs costs

According to Druckman, the most definitive feature of Smollan’s travel policy is its detail and the way in which this assists with cost savings. Various elements such as the accommodation rate caps and stipulation that consultants must get at least three quotes from airlines in search of the cheapest fare of the day before booking a flight all help to drive savings.

The policy also states that travel must be booked in advance. However, she notes that compliance can sometimes be a challenge. “I plan to increase communication with management around the drive towards increased compliance.”

Reliable databases

With travellers required to work throughout the country, sometimes in more secluded areas, the regulation of reputable B&B establishments can be a challenge, notes Druckman. She says, at the moment, most travellers will either ask the TMC for a recommendation or search the Internet to find a potential place to stay. “When a traveller returns having had a negative experience, we make a note of this and so are building a database as we go.” She notes, however, that this has proved to be a time-consuming process. “Our TMC is in the process of compiling a database of all B&Bs booked by Smollan.”

Education a challenge

Druckman says one of the biggest challenges in the travel management space at the moment is the education of travel consultants. “Our bookers rely heavily on consultants to guide them in the decisions they make.  It is, therefore, important that TMCs allocate time and sufficient budget for the education of their travel consultants.”

Meaningful data

Smollan receives monthly travel reports from the TMC and so Druckman points out that the accumulation of relevant data has not been a problem for the company. “Sometimes additional reports have to be requested from the TMC, but the general reports that we receive are able to be translated in a meaningful way.”

She explains that the company’s travellers are generally not required to travel into high-risk areas, consequently duty of care has not presented a major challenge for Smollan. The company’s primary focus in this regard is on travel insurance and knowing where travellers are headed.

Consolidating suppliers

While much of Druckman’s role over the past year has involved the laying of groundwork and getting the entire travel system up and running, she had already made significant strides when it comes to the development of a reliable database of suppliers. Indeed, she feels that this has probably been her most significant achievement thus far.

“I have spent a great deal of time negotiating rates and putting together an Excel workbook that lists suppliers in alphabetical order,” she explains.

Employees are allowed to book travel with any supplier they choose as long as the service provider in question falls within the stipulated rate cap. However, the database acts as a convenient guideline for travellers who require assistance in putting together a travel itinerary.

Regular engagement

For Linda, success as a travel manager relies heavily on engaging regularly with the travel industry. “It’s really important to build relationships with all stakeholders involved in the travel booking process, including the TMC, suppliers and travel bookers themselves,” she says.

She further notes the importance of attending industry events to network with other professionals in the travel management space. “Other delegates might have ideas that you haven’t even thought of and might be able to help provide a solution to the particular challenge you are facing. It’s equally important to remain abreast of industry developments,” she maintains.

Linda’s goal is to build on the foundations laid over the past year. “Ultimately, my aim is to streamline processes and make things simpler and more efficient,” she concludes.