How to...

Fast-track an SBT

When it works, a self-booking tool is fantastic, and this one – implemented by a top law firm – worked first time and in record time

Fast-track a self-booking tool

Many companies struggle to move process from offline to online, but this top commercial law firm that took an almost supersonic journey to achieve the desired result. It rose to challenges along the way, chiefly to separate those parts of the booking that are chargeable to a client and those that are not, and to cope with a decentralised booking model. Within three short months, Squire Sanders Hammonds had completed the tender process, appointed a new TMC and implemented the tool, with startling results.

It was a project instigated and driven by Jeremy Fowke, finance operations and development manager at Squire Sanders Hammonds, a company that has since doubled in size after combining with another law firm, Squire Sanders & Dempsey, to form Squire Sanders Hammonds. Even more reason, with hindsight, to push through these changes. But in late 2009, Fowke understood that there was a better way of increasing levels of control on business travel bookings.

“Using multiple TMCs was the issue, and booking offline,” Fowke explains. “It was quite obvious that offline wasn’t incredibly efficient, particularly having to manage two suppliers.” The decentralised arrangement of some 500 travelling solicitors were being looked after by 150 bookers, mainly secretaries, and that arrangement he was happy to retain. But Fowke wanted to consolidate from one agent looking after hotels, and another the rail and flight bookings. Read on for the detail of how it was all done.

STEP 1: The tender document reflected the high-touch service Squire Sanders Hammonds needed, outlining specific service level agreements such as 24-hour service as well as basics of a robust online tool.

STEP 2: To expedite the tender process, Fowke and his team had met a number of TMCs to get a feel for their offerings. “We didn’t want to issue an RFP to 20 TMCs,” he says. This way, they whittled it down to six and all had come to their attention by recommendation.

STEP 3: The six participants who responded were whittled down to three and each gave a face-to-face presentation in January 2010 to pitch their company’s USP. “Ahead of the meeting we set out criteria to mark the presentations by, around the perceived quality of the end product,” says Fowke. “We looked at the scores and it was an easy decision to make.” A team comprising Fowke, representatives of the IT and events departments, and a sprinkling of bookers then made that decision.

STEP 4: The successful candidate was ATP Corporate Travel. Heading up the Squire Sanders Hammonds account is business account manager Colin Geddes – “the lawyer account manager with ATP” – with over ten years’ operations experience with ATP, including time spent in an implant with a law firm in the City. “With law firms we have to go the extra mile and assist them from the moment the traveller leaves the office to when they arrive at their destination. It’s high service levels as well as offering value,” says Geddes. “We build all those in at the tender stage.”

STEP 5: After ATP was informed in February of the good news the fun began in terms of implementation, with a tight deadline of March 29 to roll out the programme. ATP created an implementation team of six to meet the challenge. Evolvi was to be used for rail, Conferma for hotels and Amadeus-based e-travel for air. More product tweaks were made in order to allow bookings for more than four travellers in one booking and the setting up of ‘matter references’ to deal with both the chargeable and non-chargeable bookings.

The difficulty was reaching out to all the end users, the 150 bookers. Getting to them took a combined effort by Squire Sanders Hammonds and ATP to instigate appropriate training. Road shows took place in each of the company’s UK locations, running three times a week to give people a flavour of the product. “People found the systems very intuitive,” says Fowke. “It was a fast implementation and a lot of hard work,” he recalls.

On the technical front, ATP tailor-made the system by creating a coding system to deal with the chargeable and non-chargeable travel. Fowke also understood what a huge cultural change it was for the bookers to switch from an offline system. “Most people picked it up very quickly,” he says, “but the air system had to have more training, with follow-up sessions. Pressing the button on a £3,000 air booking as opposed to a £120 rail booking sometimes takes a bit of confidence.”

The training was ongoing, with refresher courses, while all new staff were trained on the system immediately, usually by a team of ‘super users’ within the travel booking community. ATP also supported the client with an e-commerce support team to handle any queries. “It’s like riding a bike,” says Geddes. “Once you use the tools on a regular basis, it's easy.” Contact with ATP is structured, with quarterly face-to-face meetings at Fowke’s office in Leeds, augmented by monthly reviews by telephone.

STEP 6: The adoption rates soared in the first month, to 90 per cent for rail, as was expected, 74 per cent on hotels, and a more surprising 50 per cent on air. “The first month was amazing,” says Fowke. “A year on and the adoption rates have not only been maintained but have increased,” he says.

Additionally, there has been greater take-up of advance purchase and non-refundable rail tickets, while offline bookings are down to 20 per cent. “We are now better equipped to deal with non-compliance. People can see exactly what they’re buying before they push the button,” says Fowke.

ATP provides daily monitoring reports for the previous day’s bookings, against preferred suppliers, class of travel, the offline/online ratio, advance purchase, exceptions and average price of tickets. One of Fowke’s team who looks after accounts payable trawls through the reports. “They are comprehensive and we tend to look at high level KPIs such as average ticket spend, usage of preferred suppliers and the number of declined savings.”

STEP 7: Fowke used the move online to re-draft what was an already tight travel policy, by mandating online bookings for all UK rail, air and hotel bookings.

STEP 8: The next step was a roll-out to the non-UK offices of the enlarged Squire Sanders Hammonds practice, now comprising 37 offices worldwide. Internally, other developments are on the horizon. ATP is starting to look at benchmarking, initially with hotels, as Fowke is keen to keep down the cost of the company’s regular London properties and other properties on their hotel programme.

With air, the law firm recently joined several corporate loyalty schemes, including BA’s, Star Alliance’s and KLM’s, with the idea of accumulating points to exchange for flight upgrades and hotel nights. “Company air travel is growing and there will be an opportunity to benchmark and negotiate further air savings,” says ATP’s Geddes. “Likewise, if there are more hotel room nights we can negotiate better discounts.”

Fowke is more than happy with the results achieved to date and advises anyone else starting out on this journey to be prepared. “Invest a lot of time in planning at the start,” he says. “Also, be very clear about your objectives and set criteria for the travel management company to meet.”