Would you spend a Saturday night in Cleveland to save your company $350?
Would you fly from New York to Dallas via Charlotte, N.C., to cut $200 off your travel expense report and make your boss happy?
Increasingly, business people -- whether they work for huge conglomerates or for small start-ups -- are asking such questions as they try to control rising travel costs.
Travel represents a major percentage of the operating budget for many businesses.
For instance, General Electric Co., the giant electronics, communications and industrial concern based in Fairfield, Conn., ranks No. 1 in spending on travel and entertainment. Its annual tab: $800 million, according to the trade journal Corporate Travel.
And spending for corporate travel rises every year, despite an increased emphasis on controlling costs.
Throughout most of the 1980s, business travelers benefited from airline deregulation, which drove down the average fare paid by passengers.
But airfare prices are increasing. And other travel costs -- for lodging, rental cars and especially food and entertainment -- are increasing at faster rates. Meanwhile, in many rapidly expanding businesses, more and more people need to travel -- and to do so more often.
So it's easy to see why controlling travel costs would be important to a multinational corporation such as GE. But saving money on travel is just as important to smaller companies, says Harold Seligman, president of Management Alternatives Inc., a corporate travel consulting firm in Stamford, Conn.
"You really need a good relationship with a travel professional if you're booking more than 12 trips a year," Mr. Seligman says.
"And maybe even if you take fewer than 12 trips a year, you need a travel professional more, because chances are that if you travel that little each year, every dime you spend is precious to your company."
Managers can control some travel costs by cutting unnecessary travel. But few are able to eliminate travel.
After all, somebody has to go on the road to sell the product, to promote it, to service it. Somebody has to go on the road to hire and train the people, to check up on field operations, to trouble-shoot problems.
And in many cases, employers have to send some people on the road to keep them happy. Employment experts say many workers expect some out-of-town assignments because they view travel as a reward for good performance or as a sign of their value to the company.
That's where the travel professional comes in, Mr. Seligman says. "Having a sound, written travel policy is the cornerstone of controlling corporate travel costs," he says.
A travel policy should contain guidelines that all employees can understand and follow, Mr. Seligman says.
"Educating your employees is essential," adds John Boyd, a travel agent in Fort Worth, Texas. "You have to teach your people how to best buy airline tickets and other travel services."
Some issues: how to look for the discounts and how to plan ahead to take advantage of those discounts. How to be flexible and willing to adjust travel times. And how to evaluate whether flying through a distant hub, rather than
non-stop, will save money or just lead to lost time and a hotel stay that cancels out the airfare savings.
Educated travelers even can save businesses money on short-notice trips, when fares typically are at their highest.
"If the boss is yelling that he's got to be there at noon, the secretary may do exactly what he says and buy a ticket that gets him there by noon," Boyd says. "But the boss gets mad when he sees the price of the ticket. But if both of them were educated, he might have given his instructions differently and the secretary might have been able to get a much cheaper flight that gets there by 1 p.m. and saves him a couple of hundred dollars.
"And that would be a trade-off he'd be happy with."
Still, simply picking low fares isn't always the best answer to travel cost problems.
Businesses that spend a significant portion of their budgets on travel need to be more sophisticated than that, says Neva Kelley of Kelley Moore Travel Services in Fort Worth.
That may mean paying more for airfare so an employee doesn't have to play solitaire in a hotel room all day Saturday just to get a discount fare. Getting employees home to their families on weekends, in some cases, may be worth paying more for air travel.
Mr. Seligman says a travel professional's help can go beyond scouting for the best airline fares.
They also usually know such things as the best places to stay while conducting business, the differences in hotel rates within a city, and whether staying at an airport hotel and driving downtown will save the company money compared with staying in an expensive downtown hotel.