Have expenses, will travel by Roger Collis
You may not have heard the story of the salesman who is summoned by his boss to explain an egregious item in his expense account. 'Now see here, Joe. I know you've had a tough month chasing the Fingelstein order up in Niagara Falls.
You may not have heard the story of the salesman who is summoned by his boss to explain an egregious item in his expense account. ‘Now see here, Joe. I know you’ve had a tough month chasing the Fingelstein order up in Niagara Falls. But $2,000 for an overcoat! You know there’s no way I can approve that. You’d better go away and re-work these expenses.’
The next day, Joe’s boss is apoplectic. ‘Joe, these expenses of yours come to exactly the same amount as before. How come; what about that overcoat?’
Joe is unchastened. ‘Ah, yes, Mel, I know it’s the same total. But you find the overcoat!’
Had Joe’s company given him a fixed daily allowance for meals and entertainment expenses, he could perhaps have bought the overcoat with a fairly clear conscience by skipping a few lunches or dinners – or getting himself invited. Or, by making a pre-emptive call to his boss. ‘Mel, I’ve landed the Fingelstein order. And he has invited me up to his place in Yellowknife for the weekend… Mel, listen, it’s cold up there; I’m going to have to buy an overcoat.’
The moral: Travel expenses – however outrageous – should be transparent, or seemingly so. The best place to hide something is out in the open; you can get away with (almost) anything if you can show that you are (1) saving the company money and (2) getting results beyond the call of duty. Always make the most of your moral mileage – not to be confused with frequent flier mileage.
Traditionally, ‘Travel Management’ in most organizations is mainly about accounting control of ‘travel and entertainment’ – who gets to travel first, or business class, stay in certain categories of hotel, how many signatures are needed to sign off on expenses. Nobody bothers much about whether a trip is necessary as long as the company gets the best value for money and the correct procedures are followed. Look after the expenses and the trip will look after itself.
The converse of travel management is Management by Expenses, which can range from creative exploitation of the rules (enshrined in the corporate travel policy) to grand larceny. It’s rather like the legal difference between ‘tax avoidance’ and ‘tax evasion’ – between being smart and being dishonest.
Expense account aficionados swear by corporate plastic. A corporate credit card helps no end with personal cash-flow. But it can lead to hassles with the bean counters when you’re trying to sort out who owes whom at the end of the month. This is fairly clear cut when you’re ‘extending’ a business trip from say, Hong Kong, to a long weekend in a Thai resort with your loved one by getting the travel agency to ‘pro rata’ the difference to your account. Trying to get a hotel cashier to let you pay for personal items on the bill with cash or your own plastic can be a nightmare. Checking out is bad enough at the best of times.
In my corporate days, I preferred to use my own plastic in felicitous conjunction with a cash advance (better you owing them than them owing you) and then ostentatiously deducting personal expenses, like personal phone calls, drinks in the disco, or the cost of a friend joining me for breakfast. There’s no point in being virtuous unless you are seen to be virtuous.
Make the most of full-fare business tickets by exploiting two-for-one promotions or free or half-price companion fares. Some airlines offer a free 24-hour stopover package as an incentive to fly through their home hub. Or combine a money-saving point-to-point fare on the way out with a fare that allows stopovers on the way back. And, of course, traveling full fare allows you to earn more expense-account miles to buy yourself upgrades or free tickets.
‘Planning business trips can be more daunting than doing business when you arrive – assuming you still know what you’re supposed to do there – says Stanley Zilch, director of Blue Skies Research Institute in Broken Springs, Colorado. ‘We’ve developed a kind of “yield management” system for the expense-account traveler called Expenses Monitor which flips the whole expenses reporting system upside down.
‘Let’s say your boss wants you to visit customers in Hong Kong, Bangkok and Tokyo. But you could also visit customers in Sydney, Chicago and New York. And yes, it would be nice to spend a weekend in Bermuda. Expenses Monitor allows you to “model” these factors, along with how you can maximize your earning of frequent flier miles, and come up with an optimum travel solution – such as a first-class round-the-world ticket.
‘You might even get your boss to believe that it’s his idea.’
Then you could say you have arrived – expenses-wise.