Companies Cutting Business Travel Seen Putting Bottom Line at Risk

Research from IHS Global Insight shows linkage between spending on business travel and rise or fall in sales; research also examines optimal level of business travel expenditure for 15 industries

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New York — September 14, 2009 — Companies hit hard by the recession have been taking a hard look — if not a sharp knife — to travel and entertainment (T&E) spending this year, but reducing business travel spending could wind up hurting the bottom line through reduced sales, according to a new report.

Research conducted by IHS Global Insight and previewed during the National Business Travel Association (NBTA) International Convention & Exposition held recently in San Diego explores the link between changes in business travel and sales and profits. The research, commissioned by NBTA and American Express Business Travel, used data spanning ten years from 1998 to 2008 and across 15 industries and 9,500 U.S. companies.

IHS Global Insight Principal Christopher Pike offered said that, for most companies and industries, the pressure to cut business travel is actually counter to the goals of maximizing revenues and profits. "Although the findings do vary by industry, in looking at the past 10 years, the study indicates an incremental 1 percent increase or decrease in travel spend yielded in aggregate a corresponding 1.7 percent increase or decrease in sales," Pike said.

Business Travel "Underutilitzed"

Kenneth McGill, a research consultant with NBTA, said by looking at 10 years of data and isolating only the influence of business travel, the research suggests that business travel is being underutilized in the U.S, although it does vary by industry.

"Using 2008 results as a starting point, the study shows that economy-wide corporate profits would be maximized at a point where business travel spending is increased by 5.3 percent or about $14 billion," McGill said. "Using the correlation established over the last 10 years, increasing travel this much could result in increased total industry sales of 3.7 percent or $894 billion."

Adding in the additional business travel expense and assuming other costs are proportional, gross operating profits for U.S. business in aggregate would increase by $224 billion or 4.4 percent. However, this correlation does not factor in the current recession of 2009 and the fact that business travel is expected to contract by 14.7 percent this year, according to McGill.

The research also explored the optimal point of travel for each industry sector. Of the 15 industries studied, IHS Global Insight's findings indicate that industries such as Chemical Manufacturing (which includes pharmaceutical and medicine) and Retail/Wholesale could have benefited by increasing their average yearly investment in business travel over the last 10 years.

Other industries, such as Business Services and Consulting may have reached their maximum return on travel expenditures based on the last 10 years of average spending data, and an increase in business travel is not likely to correlate to increased sales and profit in those industries.

Increasing Focus on ROI

Kevin Maguire, NBTA chair and past president, noted that having the ability to demonstrate the return on travel investment has increasingly become a focus and a key deliverable of NBTA members to their organizations.

"We thought it was important to invest in this groundbreaking research to get past the pro-business travel and anti-business travel rhetoric and test the correlation between business travel and sales and profits," Maguire said. "This study is a first step in better understanding the value of business travel to corporate top and bottom line performance and offers an important benchmark for companies across a wide industry spectrum."

Hervé Sedky, American Express Business Travel vice president and general manager, noted that companies often view business travel as a non-essential area of spend, found at the front of the line when spending cuts are being considered. He said that his organization supported this research to begin to apply the critical ROI business discipline to travel that business leaders need to guide decision making around all expenditures and tie them to business outcomes.

"Companies not only have to understand the optimal mix of travel for their industries and companies, but they need to know how to best use those dollars by investing in smart travel programs during the downturn so they are in a better position when the economic recovery takes hold," Sedky said.

The full report of this research is expected to be published at the end of September. NBTA members and subscribers to eXpert insights, American Express Business Travel Global Advisory Services research practice, will receive access to the full study once available.

Research Methodology

IHS Global Insight developed an approach to statistically correlate the level and change in business travel spending with sales and profit for fifteen industries, comprising 9,500 companies, over the ten-year period 1998-2008. The principal sources of industry performance measures included the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis and Compustat, a Standard & Poors database of individual public company performance.

The impact of travel spending was isolated by simultaneously accounting for the influence of other determinants of sales and profit, including demand drivers, supply factors, and inflation for each sector. Travel's influence on sales was modeled with consideration of each industry's varying level of travel utilization, as well as the rate of diminishing returns to travel spending. Additionally, a key basis of the research was sizing the business travel market, estimated at $929 billion in 2008.