As account competition heats up, travel becomes essential

Now that client work is rebounding, firms are searching for the most affordable and flexible travel options for scheduling face-to-face meetings with potential out-of-town clients

Now that client work is rebounding, firms are searching for the most affordable and flexible travel options for scheduling face-to-face meetings with potential out-of-town clients

Client work is picking up again, and that means new accounts, a greater need for face time with current and potential clients, and - for most firms - more hours spent on the road.

But even as travel is one of the necessary costs of doing business, it is also an area executives are constantly re-evaluating to make sure expenses are kept under control.

Ron Magas, president of Fairfield, CT-based Magas Media Consultants, feels strongly about the importance of having regular, on-site contact at the beginning of a client relationship.

"It's important to travel now more than ever because the environment is more competitive," he says. "There's nothing to beat the handshake, the face-to-face meeting."

At New York-based Nancy J. Friedman Public Relations, free or discounted hotel stays are one of the perks of servicing clients in the hospitality industry. But the agency also accumulates costs associated with meeting clients all over the globe. "We're very mobile," says Friedman, president and founder of the agency. "We have hotels as far away as Vietnam and Cambodia, and have to get to know them."

Business travelers, who have the least scheduling flexibility, typically pay higher fares than leisure travelers. In addition, the resurgence in travel means more legwork is necessary to find the best deals.

At the same time, "The internet has made it much more competitive and advantageous," Friedman says, adding that the firm uses a web-based service called Quikbook to book reservations.

Magas adds that his agency recently switched from a travel agent to an online service, which is more cost-effective, if less personal.

Mitch Robinson, corporate marketing director at Expedia Corporate Travel, notes that the travel industry has reduced costs for businesses. Airlines, for instance, have started to abolish Saturday night stay requirements for discounted fares.

"The first tip is to explore how you're researching and booking your travel," he says. "Things are changing so quickly. ... You need someone at your agency who sort of owns travel, even if you're not large enough to have a travel [specialist] on staff."

Managers should also have travel policies in place and communicate why they're important, Robinson notes. Moreover, expenses should constantly be monitored for inefficiencies and to make sure individual departments fall in line with company averages.

When cutting costs, however, executives are also mindful not to jeopardize productivity.

Friedman notes that it's critical for hotels to have amenities that allow her to stay connected to the office, through a business center or wi-fi access.

Robinson adds that, in some cities, business travelers might consider renting a car rather than relying on taxicabs; the time you save might be worth the extra cost.

Although almost all agency executives seem to agree that face-to-face contact is crucial - especially for strategic planning - new technologies are also making it possible to meet with clients remotely.

"In general, we've found electronic communication has improved to the point where it has eliminated much of the traditional need for on-site support - especially for tactical items," says Paul Forecki, VP in the Gig Harbor, WA-office of Sterling Communications.

Sterling, which has three offices, uses group-ware that allows employees and clients to chat in real time - regardless of location.

"If a client is not local to us, the question [of responsiveness] always comes up. They generally want to hear that you're very good at communicating regularly," he says.

A program like Microsoft Office Live Meeting allows agencies to have virtual meetings while still retaining the ability to share slides, mark up white boards, and edit documents.

Waggener Edstrom, which works with Microsoft, uses the internet program to hold meetings with not only clients, but also journalists and analysts, notes Feliz Montpellier, senior product manager at Microsoft's Real-Time Collaboration Group.

Montpellier adds that use has "grown significantly over the last few years."

But Magas cautions that agencies need to determine whether the investment in virtual-meeting technology outweighs the cost of hopping on a flight. "If it's relatively similar, we'd rather get the face-to-face vibe."


Saving money on business travel

  • Plan in advance, whenever possible

  • Take advantage of seasonal deals. Some of the best business promotions are in the summer; fall and spring are generally more expensive times to travel

  • Although the internet has made travel more affordable, it's also advisable to call hotels and ask about corporate rates

  • Know when to splurge. What you save in cash could cost you in billable hours

  • Keep track of agencywide spending

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