24-Hour news cover means travel round the clock

Travel procurement is a 24/7 task at news channel eNCA. Travel arrangements are required as often as news breaks, and that may be multiple times a day, without advance warning. Michelle Colman investigates what being at the heart of news entails for eNCA’s travel procurers.

Whether it is 15 000 crocodiles escaping from a Limpopo farm, or the State President addressing a pre-election rally, broadcaster eNews Channel Africa (eNCA) needs to get its  news crews on site, often at a moment’s notice. Advance planning is a luxury that rarely factors into the process.

Gill Scholtz, the channel’s Johannesburg office manager, oversees the process for the Dunkeld-based head office, as well as its bureaus in Durban, Bloemfontein and Port Elizabeth. It’s a heavy load, shared by administrative assistant, Renchia Maasdorp, who works on the company’s travel procurement full time.

At the time of our interview, South Africa was gripped by the Oscar Pistorius trial. For Scholtz and Maasdorp, that meant accommodating an average of nine staffers a week in Pretoria, close enough to the capital’s High Court to facilitate a daily 04h00 start. At the same time they were preparing for 14 teams to cover the May national election, some travelling to locations as remote as Ulundi and the much-publicised Nkandla.

Rural destinations feature high on Scholtz’s list of challenges, and thereby B&B and guesthouse facilities. Many of these far-flung areas present numerous difficulties. The nearest accommodation facilities are often some distance from the news site, and few offer shuttle services. If there is a major event occurring, they are heavily booked and tend to inflate their rates excessively.  

Scholtz illustrates with the example of Madiba’s passing. “In anticipation of the event, we began sending news teams down to the Eastern Cape about a year ahead. We came to an agreement with a B&B in Qunu, which gave us their normal rate of R1 000 because of our good relationship with them; we were booking eight rooms, on a monthly basis. Other establishments in the same area were hiking their costs to as high as R3 000 per night per person, when their normal rate was about R530. For the actual burial we had to supplement accommodation by renting additional houses and even a campervan.”

A barter deal with Tsogo Sun takes care of most of eNCA’s accommodation requirements in larger cities, and Wings Travel Management has handled the eNCA account for the past four years, in accordance with a contract that is reviewed annually. But when it comes to accommodation in smaller locations, Scholtz is a strong advocate of doing her own research into properties and negotiating rates. “Save, save, save is our policy,” she states, “and to do so we believe we need to do our own investigation and secure our own bookings. We then pass the details on to Wings Travel Management to manage payments.” 

As a result, Scholtz has built up an extensive inventory of suitable properties countrywide, as well as good relationships with owners and managers. The broadcaster favours three-star facilities for news staff, but will upgrade to four-star when this category is unavailable. 

In the sphere of air travel, eNCA’s policy is that news crews fly on low-cost carriers where possible, while management is booked on mainline airlines. There is flexibility, however, when frequencies are few and haste is at stake.

An aspect that strains budgets, however, is the large bills the channel has to contend with for excess luggage, incurred by cameras and heavy equipment essential for news coverage. On local trips the cost of excess baggage averages at R1 500 per trip, while on a regional or international assignment it hits the R10 000 mark. “We tend to use airlines that offer extended excess baggage allowances,” says Scholtz. 

eNCA teams do a fair amount of travelling in Africa, which often comes with considerable frustrations. Scholtz says there’s a lack of mid-range accommodation in much of the continent, leaving very poor or very costly options. Further, communication is problematic, as are payments. An eNCA crew was once ‘held hostage’ by an Ethiopian hotel that would not let the South African guests check-out until payment was received. Although it had been remitted by the travel agent, it took longer than anticipated to filter through to the property. Extra expenses incurred through flight changes and an extended stay of three days was generously borne by the travel agency.  

Some African hotels want cash payments only, says Scholtz, while others demand credit cards, even when payment has been made. “We don’t issue company credit cards to our news teams, and discourage them from spending their own funds as they have to wait for refunds,” points out Maasdorp.

On occasion, news crews undertake road journeys. Often, an element of road travel is the massive Satellite Navigation Vehicle, used for outside broadcasts. Parking availability and parking costs come into play here, often at odds with hotels that have high parking rates and first-come-first-serve parking policies.

With so many trips taking place at short notice, both women are on call at all hours, on weekends and public holidays. “I’ve made bookings at 23h00 at night in the past,” laughs Scholtz. Much use is made of the SOS after-hours service built in to eNCA’s agreement with Wings Travel Management. The pressure is less intense when it comes to business trips for management and staff members who take up the opportunity of fellowships abroad. These can be planned at a more leisurely pace.

Hailing from the Eastern Cape with a background in insurance broking and bookmaking, Scholtz was well entrenched at e.SAT TV (Pty) Ltd before it launched eNews Channel in 2008. The Johannesburg office now accommodates a staff of 300. Along with her post as office manager, she acts as personal assistant to the channel’s head of news, Patrick Conroy. Describing herself as a the mothering type, Scholtz’s prime motivation is ensuring  eNCA travellers are comfortable; she is not averse to pulling them out of an establishment if they encounter problems with hygiene or safety, or striking the venue off her list of future selections.

Gill Scholtz’s tips for travel buyers

  • Get involved in negotiations with accommodation suppliers, especially when working with the B&B and guesthouse sectors.
  • Foster good relationships with your travel management company and accommodation suppliers.
  • Keep a detailed inventory of accommodation establishments that work for your company’s travellers, incorporating notes on locations and facilities.
  • When travellers return, get them to rate properties and record their feedback.
  • Where possible, undertake site inspections.

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