4 Best Practices for a Return to Travel at Higher Education Institutions

Jason Grunin |

In a world of reduced enrollments, budget cuts, and hiring freezes, what will the future of higher education look like? During this time of travel restrictions, there’s never been a better opportunity to completely reimagine your institution’s travel and expense policies.

Now is the time to ignore such thoughts as “This is how we’ve always done it” or “We can’t rein in faculty spending” with a more responsible, accountable, and transparent approach to travel. Based on our experience and discussions with SAP Concur customers, we believe the following best practices will help your institution update your travel and expense policies to promote increased visibility, efficiency, and accountability.


Best practice 1: Create a travel working group

Working across campus to get input and buy-in from your different constituencies is crucial to building new policies and procedures that work for everyone. Be sure to include key stakeholders from Risk Management, Development/Advancement, Admissions, Athletics, Study Abroad/Global Education, Finance, your COVID response team, an academic dean or provost, and faculty and student representatives.

Discuss concerns around returning to travel, such as safety protocols and campus policies. Also examine which travel policies and processes have worked in the past and which were difficult or time-consuming to manage. How might your institution achieve cost containment goals while also simplifying processes for travelers?

Involving a full range of stakeholders in charting your new course will also help to gain buy-in from senior management. As your new travel policies take shape, the travel working group can become your on-campus advocates, helping to drive adoption of new processes.


Best practice 2: Consider mandating TMC use

Travel management companies proved essential in helping travelers return from abroad during the early days of COVID-19. Their continuing assistance with unused ticket credits has also been a huge help. Institutions that don’t currently mandate TMC use can reap multiple benefits from doing so, such as greater transparency into travelers’ itineraries to support your duty of care; help with negotiating supplier discounts and additional supplier benefits for your employees; and more visibility into expenses and compliance.

If you have several TMCs, it may be a good time to consider consolidating them. Fewer TMCs can help travelers know where to go when they need assistance and make it easier for Finance to see all campus travel data. Consolidation can also help enforce consistent policies across campus; the same booking policies that apply to campus travel should also apply to Athletics, for example.

Investigate why different groups use different TMCs and seek to consolidate wherever possible, and work with senior leadership to enact this change. As you investigate, also keep in mind that having just a single TMC can hinder your university from fully taking advantage of supplier relationships and unused ticket. Additionally, the current economic climate poses the risk that some travel suppliers may merge or shut down. Take all of these factors into consideration as you evaluate your current TMCs to help you prevent potential disruptions and simplify processes.


Best practice 3: Develop new guidelines around travel approval 

New travel safety concerns and budgetary constraints call for new rules. For instance, you may want to require pre-trip approval, considering not only standard concerns such as budget, trip purpose, and travel providers used but also COVID-19 risks such as policies around returning to campus after a trip. This could mean restricting or prohibiting travel to high-risk areas. Ensuring pre-trip approval helps decision makers learn about high-risk destinations before a traveler leaves, rather than after they’ve departed or already returned to campus.

New purchasing, spending, and accountability procedures may also need to be implemented to bring in more travel data to the university, cut costs, and create more efficient back-office procedures. For example, you may want to change purchasing/travel card thresholds, ensure frequent travelers obtain a university issued credit card, update your per-diem policies, or require students and staff to use your TMC(s) for institution-funded trips.

Case in point: In 2020, how much time did your staff spend trying to track down ticket numbers, pull receipt images, and uncover how many unused tickets your AP department had reimbursed to your employees prior to travel or because they couldn’t get a refund? Consider requiring all airfare expenditures be charged to a university liability card to ensure ownership of the credits and refunds from cancelled tickets in the future. Or, better yet, provide a university travel card to all travelers.


Best practice 4: Look for ways to improve back-office efficiencies 

Staffing cuts and hiring freezes place new demands on remaining employees and working remotely makes manual accounting processes impracticable. Reconsidering how you use your SAP Concur solutions can help you find new ways to remove data silos and reduce inefficient manual processes.

For example, you can set controls, such as flagging potentially noncompliant spend before reimbursement or creating thresholds to require preapprovals. If you don’t already use Concur® Invoice, consider adding it to automate vendor invoice data entry and routing, identify duplicate invoices, and reconcile invoices, as well as boost the amount of spend data you are capturing. If you find more staff and faculty members are driving for their jobs, requiring the use of Google Maps or automating mileage capture can make it easier for them to submit their mileage expenses.

Besides helping the back office, automating more travel and expense processes makes life easier for employees. The easier it is for them to book travel, capture data from receipts and invoices that can flow into reports, and track mileage, the more likely they are to adopt new processes and perform these tasks promptly. As timeliness and compliance improve, so does your institution’s ability to control spend.


Travel reimagined

The future of higher education – and higher education travel – is likely to look very different from the past. The current “travel pause” is a chance to reinvent your institution’s travel policy so that when travel does pick up again, your institution will be ready with more control over spend and happier travelers.