By James Marconi
Director of Public Relations, NDTA

The inaugural GovTravels symposium on government travel and passenger services kicked off March 29 in Alexandria, Va., with frank dialogue on government policy, the promise of technology and the rising costs of travel.

Participants representing more than 35 federal and state agencies and more than 70 private sector companies joined the symposium on the current state and future of the travel industry, hosted by the National Defense Transportation Association.

Judge William H. Webster, chairman of the Homeland Security Advisory Council, offered a keynote discussion about the challenges that face the U.S. security apparatus. Retired Lt. Gen. Kenneth Wykle, president emeritus of NDTA, moderated the hour-long conversation, which centered in part on the cooperation between a panoply of agencies to protect the homeland. One particularly thorny consideration, Webster said, is weighing civil liberties against security needs – the enjoinment to respect the American traveler, while urging law enforcement to perform due diligence and prevent tragic acts of terror like the recent attacks in Brussels and Lahore.

“I’ve lived most of my life in the legal arena, particularly as a judge and a prosecutor,” Webster said. “As we try to balance and liberty and security, both are important in our system and neither should be sacrificed one for the other.” Paraphrasing from a book by Vernon Walters he continued that “the American people are ambivalent about intelligence. When they feel frightened, they want a lot of it and when they don’t feel frightened, they think it’s just a little bit immoral. Something similar to that applies to the issue of security.”

Much like the security environment in which travel occurs, the government travel space presents its own evolving set of obstacles and opportunities. One panel of experts from government and industry highlighted several areas where new policies and technologies have the potential to improve the experiences of the government traveler.

“I don’t think it’s any secret to any of you out there that [complicated] policy is one of the things that makes it so difficult for us to simplify the travel system or use industry best practices,” said Philip Benjamin, acting director of the Defense Travel Management Office. “Reforming [travel] policy is going to be key for us to…adapt to industry’s best practices.” With new authorities recently granted to the Secretary of Defense, Benjamin said, DOD can begin to make changes to better facilitate the adoption of emergent technologies in order to modernize defense travel.

Such technology already shows the potential to streamline the travel process so government travelers can better focus on their jobs, rather than details of the travel process itself – like making reservations and filing expense reports – said Cameron Anderson, senior director of research and development at Concur. Expanding mobile services and platforms represents one large target of development for Concur.

“It’s a big area for us,” said Anderson. “We’ve seen all the predictions come true over the last several years where mobile technologies are at the forefront of peoples’ preferred platforms with which they work every day.”

Still, said Laura Kistler, director of products and services marketing for CWTSato Travel, one difficulty innovating in mobile technologies stems from government mobile policies just beginning to emerge.

“We feel a lot of your pain points in that there are a lot of innovations out there that we feel can be delivered to federal government travelers to make that process of getting authorizations booking travel, filing their vouchers easier,” Kistler said. “It’s just that you run into that continual problem of policy [being] different, agency to agency. You can’t have a one size fits all, cookie-cutter approach.”

While fresh methods and technologies are poised to ease the government traveler’s experience, travel costs are overall on the rise. Heidi Skatrud, senior vice president of operations and product management at Runzheimer International, presented findings to this effect from a recent study. The research, which comprised data from more than 100 organizations, aimed to provide definitive information for organizations to compare travel costs, both direct and program management. In vehicle programs, for example, the study found that average direct spend per driver increased 11 percent since Runzheimer’s previously published result in 2013.

“If you can’t quantify your expenses, you’re missing out on a big part of management,” Skatrud said in an interview. “We need to be more creative and think about how spending can be controlled by using data to look at processes and policies that can manage it better. So much attention is focused on our biggest cost drivers like airfare, but we should also not overlook other potential low hanging fruit.”

As examples, meal expenditures are typically the third largest travel cost overall, and depending on the nature of the organization, mileage reimbursements can also be a sizeable spend category, according to Skatrud. “In many state and local governments, mileage can be the top travel expense. These areas deserve a fresh look.”