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Buyers Add Leisure Value

By Ben Chapman

JULY 29, 2002 -- As companies are weathering the stormy economic conditions by cutting back on employee services, travel managers are finding they can deliver leisure travel perks to employees with very little investment of corporate resources.

Corporate leisure travel programs deliver discounts to employees and cost very little or nothing at all, since they provide vendors with access to the lucrative corporate market. Buyers who work with leisure agencies, preferred suppliers or their corporate travel management companies to provide employees with leisure travel perks report kudos from travelers and senior management.

"In an age of so many 'take aways,' we wanted to do something that benefited the employees," said Mark Williams, Tampa-based director of Americas travel and meeting management for PricewaterhouseCoopers. "A year ago, our senior management asked, 'Can we bring some leisure travel services to our employees?' "

Williams' answer was yes. In PwC's leisure program, millions of vacation dollars have been spent over the past 12 months in three leisure agencies and two airlines that Williams has linked to the PwC intranet travel site. Leisure suppliers offer PwC their services for free since they are granted access to the company's discretionary travel dollars. Williams said the program pleases both employees and senior management.

One leisure group PwC works with is VacationWired.com, based in Philadelphia. President and CEO Candace Sneberger said more buyers are linking their intranet sites to her leisure site, a service that comes free of charge. About 400,000 corporate employees have VacationWired.com linked to their desktop computers, Sneberger said.

In addition to the former corporate travel agent's two-year-old clicks-and-bricks venture, many large travel management companies also offer leisure services for corporations.

In a business environment characterized by cutbacks in employee services and staffing reductions, Sneberger said, providing free leisure travel services improves morale without incurring additional costs. "This is a good time for our business," she said. VacationWired offers users the full range of leisure travel bookings, including air, hotel, ground and cruises. Similar to a traditional leisure travel agency, the company derives its income from commissions.

Paul Tomaszeski, executive director of administrative services at East Hanover, N.J.-based pharmaceutical company Novartis, said linking his corporate intranet travel site to VacationWired.com does not require inordinate resources. "I'm looking to provide value to employees by extending discounts on leisure travel," he said, "and this doesn't require a significant investment of time or money on my part."

Tomaszeski said the leisure travel links help lure travelers to the Novartis intranet site, which features an online booking tool, answers to frequently asked questions and encourages money-saving traveler behavior.

Commonly, travel managers use e-mail or special notices on the corporate intranet to let employees know that leisure options exist. John Guarneri, global travel manager for BP, communicates his company's VacationWired leisure program to employees in traveling educational sessions. He said contests also are an effective way to raise awareness of leisure options. "Vendors are usually open to holding contests where they offer discounts or give away a free trip," he said. "It stimulates more business for them, and it's also a nice thing for our employees."

Mega agencies have responded to corporate demand for leisure assistance by offering discounts and services, for a fee or for free, that can be handled in a lower cost environment. Rosenbluth International's two-year-old leisure travel division, Travelution, is a full-service leisure agency that builds customized leisure travel sites for corporations with which it contracts. Ninety percent of its clients are Rosenbluth business travel management customers.

Travelution's corporate leisure service has been implemented at more than 100 companies, said vice president Marc Kaelin, who added that demand for the service is strong. "In the day and age of corporate cutbacks, we can walk in and give a value-add the whole employee base can take advantage of for little or no cost. Selling Travelution is a no-brainer."

Providing employees with options for leisure travel is an important part of a complete corporate travel management program, Kaelin said, because it diverts leisure bookings away from relatively expensive corporate call centers. "One client saved $750,000 in call center operation costs in one year by directing employees' leisure bookings to Travelution," he said.

Other mega agency leisure services include WorldTravel BTI's corporate affiliate program, WorldTravel Vacations, and NavigantVacations.com, the leisure subsidiary of Navigant International.

Cyndi Perper, global purchasing manager for Invensys, has a policy allowing travelers to book leisure fares through agency TQ3 Maritz Travel Solutions. "People can get discounted rates on air travel, car or hotel from our agency," she said, "but they must pay the transaction fee." Perper said the leisure component enjoys support from rank-and-file employees as well as corporate leadership. "Senior management may be the ones that use our agency for leisure the most," she said, "because they get accustomed to their VIP agents. It's a one-stop shop."