In today’s global economy, it is imperative for multinationals and large corporations to develop and maintain an international market to remain competitive. Whereas once upon a time that meant hefty periods of travel in any working calendar, today online meetings and virtual conference calls are beginning to replace the time and expense of travelling. But in Lebanon, where the internet connection leaves a lot to be desired, travelling is still really the only means to preserve relations with international clients, despite the cost.
Travel agencies in Lebanon have been quick to meet the demands of Lebanese businesses and multinationals that have offices in the country by establishing separate corporate travel divisions within their agenices to handle frequent travelers and corporate accounts.
Today corporate travel divisions are an essential part of Lebanese travel agencies. Selim Boutros, corporate travel manager at Kurban Travel, says their corporate division constitutes 60 percent of the agency’s business and handles more than 250 companies in Lebanon and the region. They achieve this mainly through their Hogg Robinson Group (HRG) section — an international corporate service provider and travel management company which Kurban joined in 2006 and for which it now acts as the regional hub and contact center in Lebanon and the Levant area — and also through the Kurban Corporate section which handles smaller companies based in Lebanon and the group’s meetings and events section.
Nadine Kekhwa, director of the corporate department at Nakhal & Cie travel agency, says they manage around 60 corporations in Lebanon for full travel packages, without counting the companies who book only airline tickets through them. She explains that, especially in the winter season, it is the corporate accounts — with their steady stream of travel — that bring in the most revenues to Nakhal, since most leisure clients go on only one or two vacations per year.
Although Wild Discovery declined to provide the exact number of their corporate clients, Claudia Rouhana, head of their corporate desk, says they handle “the biggest travel accounts in town.”
According to the travel agencies interviewed, clients are mainly from sectors with significant travel budgets, such as pharmaceutical, insurance and consultancy companies, as well as major banks and multinationals. Employees of such corporations, according to the agencies, travel mainly to Middle Eastern countries or to Europe and usually for a period of two to three days for either international conferences and exhibitions or meetings with clients.
For a corporate division to be viable to a travel agency, explains Kurban Travel’s Boutros, volume of travel is usually more important than company size or number of clients. Nakhal’s Kekhwa says that some multinational companies have such a big volume of travel that they need a dedicated employee to handle them separately. Such companies, whose accounts can reach up to $70,000 per month according to Kekhwa, bring in more revenue than several small client companies combined.
While the internet may not provide a reliable alternative to travel agencies in Lebanon, agencies nonetheless face competition when it comes to possible clients booking and finding deals online.
Agencies view themselves more in the role of consultants than airline ticket bookers for corporate clients, and though corporations can certainly use online resources to independently arrange their trip, agencies believe they are still irreplaceable as travel managers. According to Kurban Travel’s Boutros: “We are walking away from merely booking and more into management and consultancy, which cannot be achieved online. Our clients are very happy and surprised with what we do and we have double-digit growth figures in the corporate division.”
“It is true that Lebanese travelers tend to go online to look for competitive prices,” says Wild Discovery’s Rouhana, ‘‘but most of them rely on their travel agent to finalize the booking. The online platform is not seen as a real challenge for us as Wild Discovery launched an online booking engine last year — a complete online solution that compares prices and addresses the ticketing and hotel needs of its clients — and yet we still have a demand for consultancy and assistance from our business travelers, which implies that human expertise and know-how are essential.”
Corporations look for ‘‘flexibility, solutions, availability of a dedicated account handler and competitive rates,” from a travel agency, says Rouhana. While Kekhwa says that corporations generally ask for the whole package including hotel reservations, transfers within their destinations and visas.
The main concern for corporations when it comes to travel remains how much they can save financially without cutting down on important trips. Corporate travel divisions can help in this regard. “Some corporations have huge travel budgets both regionally and locally and are starting to be concerned. They realize they are spending that much on travelling but how are they spending it? Can they save and how can they monitor this? That’s where we come in,” says Boutros, adding that when they start managing corporate travel accounts, they save the company an average of 15 percent of their previously unmanaged travel budget, and can save up to 25 percent.
Kurban Travel, explains Boutros, is able to achieve these percentages by consolidating figures and savings with participating hotels and airlines made possible through HRG which provides them with the necessary large travel volume. “Let’s say we are spending $10 million with Middle East Airlines (MEA), we go to MEA and negotiate a better deal, over and above the traditional miles. Mind you, this only works with corporations with a specific volume and destinations,” says Boutros adding that when they take over an account, after researching it, they commit to a tangible amount of savings based on the data gathered from the company. The specific amount of savings depends on travel volume and complexity.
Kekhwa says Nakhal recognizes the importance of using their expertise to provide clients with the best rates in order to maintain loyalty: “If a corporation finds a hotel room at a lower price than the one offered by us, they will never use our services again and our goal is long term. This is why we have our contractors always seeking out the best rates.”
As part of their corporate travel services, Kurban Travel maintains a constantly updated and extremely comprehensive database of their clients’ travel needs and policies. This allows companies to maintain compliance with their travel policies as Kurban acts as their gateway, not allowing employees to book against the terms of the policy — which not only saves companies money but also the awkwardness of informing senior employees that they cannot book in a certain airline or hotel class. This database also functions as a tracking system, allowing large corporations to immediately locate and reach their travelling employees through text messages in times of crisis.
Nakhal’s corporate clients have 24-hour access to their agents through their personal cellphone numbers. They also have the option to settle their account at the end of the month in accordance with the terms of their agreement with Nakhal. “This is a service which our corporate clients enjoy; some corporations send their employees abroad on a weekly basis and you know how the accounting process is in corporations! It is more convenient for them to pay the statement of account at the end of the month,” says Kekhwa.
Wild Discovery’s Rouhana sums up their role by saying that in the business world, time is money and they can save their corporate clients time through handling all details of their trips and prevent them from facing the unexpected while abroad.