Baroque’s buyer streamlines travel

Dorine Reinstein speaks with Rene Phelps, travel and events co-ordinator at Baroque Medical, about the challenges around the Ebola crisis, global terrorism and shrinking budgets for corporate travel management.

Recent global incidents such as aircraft accidents, global political unrest and the Ebola crisis, have highlighted the importance of a comprehensive duty-of-care policy to ensure the safety of corporate travellers. Phelps says duty of care has become an important focus point and something she is increasingly conscious of in her role as travel and events co-ordinator at Baroque Medical.

Phelps says recent political unrest around the world has also heightened the company’s awareness of travellers’ safety. This has had an impact on a number of different areas in Baroque’s travel policy, including the company’s choice of airlines and accommodation. She explains Baroque Medical is limiting the use of apartments and B&Bs, particularly by its travellers, as hotel groups are generally considered the safer option. “The majority of our internal travellers are women, so we try to stick to the hotel groups out of safety concerns,” she says.

Although Baroque Medical hasn’t called in services from organisations such as International SOS to assist with duty of care, the company is dedicating a lot more time to the research of destinations. Phelps says Baroque has started carefully considering all travel requirements before making actual bookings. “We have started doing a great deal of groundwork to know exactly what is happening in a country before sending people there. We have also started taking more cognisance of what has been happening in the world, especially in the Middle East and Africa. If any unrest occurs, in the interest of our staff and clients’ safety, we would rather postpone the trip altogether.”

Thompsons Travel, the TMC that handles Baroque Medical’s international flights, has proved to be an invaluable help when it comes to duty of care, Phelps says. She says the TMC has been very efficient in briefing her on the latest destination updates and events that could affect corporate travel. She says, for example, Thompsons Travel has continually kept her updated on airport security measures that have come about as a result of the Ebola outbreak.

As Phelps mans the travel division at Baroque Medical alone, dealing with over 40 corporate travellers on a regular basis, she greatly values the support of the company’s TMC. “We’ve had other companies offer their services but we like the one-on-one relationship we have with Thompsons Travel and see no need to change at this time.”

Cutting costs                                                                                           

Besides duty of care, the biggest factor affecting travel at Baroque Medical is the difficult economic climate. Phelps says this has coincided with rising travel costs, which are in part due to the volatility of the exchange rate. Flight prices have also risen due to rising fuel costs. The cost of accommodation and local transfers has increased considerably too, she says.

“Our current process encourages us to book flights as far in advance as possible to make sure that we get the lowest price. However, decisions regarding international travel are sometimes made shortly prior to the individual travelling and this affects the price we pay for flights,” she says.

To bring costs down, Baroque Medical has reviewed several of its corporate agreements with preferred suppliers. “It has been our experience that some hotels are pricing themselves out of the market by adding almost R600 to R1 000 to negotiated rates per night, so we have had to source more cost-effective alternatives. Where some of these providers had at first refused to lower their rates, they are now reconsidering and renegotiating their rates with us, which is encouraging because it indicates a change in mind-set,” Phelps says.

One of the biggest changes Phelps has introduced at Baroque Medical since taking up her position in July 2012 is the implementation of the Amadeus e-travel Management system, an online self-booking tool that serves every aspect of corporations’ travel needs through one single entry point. It has also been one of the most important cost-cutting measures by reducing TMC transaction fees. Thompsons Travel still books all international travel for the company, but domestic travel is now provisionally booked online through the in-house travel department on the Amadeus System. The TMC then confirms fares and advises whether a more cost-effective fare is available.

The fact that the TMC remains involved in all the company’s air travel bookings, although to a lesser degree, means travel costs can still be consolidated into one report. Phelps says: “Each month, the TMC provides Baroque with a comprehensive report outlining what flights have been booked and at what cost. We are therefore able to monitor all costs based on the travel budgets and to encourage pre-planning where possible to reduce costs.”

Organising operations  

Other changes Phelps has made to the travel programme at Baroque Medical include the introduction of a streamlined travel schedule on one spread sheet, which makes it easier to keep track of who’s going where and on what date.

Phelps has also introduced comprehensive and professional ‘travel packs’. These contain all the information the traveller could possibly need while travelling, from check-in details to visa information, hotel details and destination information. Ideally, Phelps would like to digitise the travel packs she has created. “It would be great to be able to introduce an app where travellers could access all the information in the travel packs at the click of a button.”

About Phelps

When Rene Phelps began her career as travel and events co-ordinator at Baroque Medical two years ago, her travel experience was limited, having previously worked as an executive personal assistant for corporate companies such as Dunlop Tyres and Kellogg Brown and Root.

To familiarise herself with the industry and learn the ropes of her new role, Phelps decided to affiliate herself with organisations such as ABTA and  ACTE, and attend industry events such as Meetings Africa to collaborate with similar organisations to gain greater insight into the industry and global trends. She recently participated in the NEEMA Buyer Benchmarking Project, which was conducted by ABTA and Severnside Consulting to address the ‘black hole’ in the African Business Travel Industry.

Phelps is now responsible for all internal and external travel as well as the co-ordination of a significant number of local and international congresses, together with the Baroque Medical marketing team. “Being given this opportunity in an industry that I knew very little about forced me out of my comfort zone and I have made my mark by doing things differently,” she says.

Maintaining a healthy balance between work and home has proved to be one of the greatest challenges for Phelps in her new role. “It’s difficult sometimes because I constantly keep in contact with my team when they are away on a congress and I am their port of call should they need anything at any time of the day.” However, she points out that these challenges are nothing compared to the benefits of her role. “Having the respect and gratitude of the travellers in the company makes it all worthwhile,” she says. 

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