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Non-profit motives
Business Travel World – June 2007

Travel for charities can mean conflicting pressures, finds Mark Smulian

There is a group of business travellers who fly economy, use second-class tickets on off-peak trains, stay in guest houses and keep their expenses to a minimum.

The places they visit abroad can be unusual too - Darfur, Iraq, Afghanistan and Bolivia, for example - and sometimes their carrier, far from boasting about comfort and cuisine, is a military aircraft or desert truck.

They are the staff of charities, which do everything from delivering care to elderly people in the UK to famine relief in war zones.

Each time someone puts a donation in a charity collection tin, a little of it finds its way into the business travel industry, which makes charities cost conscious to the point of frugality.

Every pound they spend on travel is a pound they cannot spend on their work, so most have strict spending rules for their travel budgets.

Despite that, charity travel is big business. Ajay Sodha, managing director of Key Travel, the largest specialist in the field, reckons his 130 staff make 100,000 transactions a year for charities, slightly over half of them for developing countries.

There are two types of charity travel. Planned travel is to meetings in the UK, or sending staff or volunteers abroad at scheduled times to work on specific projects.

Unplanned travel happens when a war, famine or natural disaster occurs and staff must be quickly sent to deliver help.

The British Red Cross does both. Commercial manager Richard Dickens says: "For planned travel, the Red Cross applies a policy to everyone from the chief executive down, which is policed and enforced by our travel management companies.

"They will know the thresholds we are prepared to pay, so if I am going to our international headquarters in Geneva I cannot fly business class or book myself into a luxury hotel.

"We will sometimes balance expense against hassle, but it would have to be specifically authorised."

The Red Cross has four main travel management suppliers: Key Travel for all flights and overseas bookings, Travelocity for UK hotels, Business Express for rail and Thrifty for car hire, usually used only when a group of staff travel. These companies will give the Red Cross constant information to keep track of staff.

Information provided now also includes carbon footprints, although the Red Cross has not yet framed an environmental policy.

The Red Cross's hotel policy is to fix maximum rates for different types of locations, with a target that in any 12 months its UK hotel spend will not exceed an average of 75 per night.

It has local groups and offices across the country, but its most frequent travel requirement is between its London headquarters and its training centre in Manchester or accounts operation in Glasgow.

Staff will normally use either a budget airline or Virgin Trains, which alone among train operators gives discounts to charity staff, who may use saver tickets at peak times. "Nothing is offered by other operators, which I find a bit disappointing," says Dickens. "If Virgin can do it, why not others?"

Everything is different for unplanned travel - when staff must get quickly to somewhere often remote and with disrupted communications.

Dickens says: "It is all-important to get people where they are needed. Costs are still important but you obviously cannot book in advance, you just have to get there. Airlines give discounts to charity booking agencies, the main benefit of which is that the tickets are discounted but very flexible. They have to be because you are dealing with highly fluid situations."

A quite different charity is the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, one of the largest with a 50m annual income, a million members and 1,300 staff.

Its travel demand is mainly for UK meetings, but it still enforces a rigorous costs policy. As befits a wildlife charity, it also has strict environmental rules.

Brian Bland, corporate supporter relations manager, says: "Our policy is to use rail where possible, as staff must avoid air travel for ecological reasons. We have a policy to reduce our CO2 output per head by 3% year on year, and trains have far lower emissions than car or air."

Staff stay in bed and breakfasts or guest houses, of which the organisation maintains a list. All bookings are made by administration support staff. Age Concern England has a relatively small travel demand, although it is considering whether to appoint a travel management company, says procurement manager Lynton Hickie.

Its staff normally travel by rail and use Virgin's charity discount, or book direct through the National Rail website for other operators.

"Across the organisation we spend about 200,000 a year on travel and accommodation," Hickie says.

"It is not high enough to justify having a travel department, and organising travel is a responsibility that all the office administrators have.

"Hotels would be booked individually, but most of our travel is to our 20 regional offices and we have deals with the major hotels in each town as a frequent user."

Making sense of the varied and strict travel polices of some 2,000 charities is Key Travel's task.

Sodha says: "This is a very diverse business. The standard requirement is mostly rail and hotels, and generally always at the cheaper end of the market.

"For staff travel it is quite normal that we will get asked for bed and breakfasts or perhaps two or three-star hotels, but very rarely for a four or five-star one.

"A lot of those sorts of places are not on normal hotel databases and procuring them needs some perseverance and experience."

Charities' frugality takes second place when staff have to reach obscure places in the developing world in a hurry. "When they have to travel to some dangerous place we spend a lot of time trying to work out how to get people in there and finding them somewhere safe to stay," says Sodha.

Knowing which hotels are suitable, and how to contact them, is essential since trouble may blow up suddenly and it has to be possible to round up clients and evacuate them quickly if necessary.

Finding transport can tax the ingenuity of Key's staff. Sodha says: "While Afghanistan was being bombed by the Americans we were trying to get people in there to look after refugees, and Iraq has been big for us.

"What you have to do is fly people to neighbouring countries and work with people on the ground who might know, for example, that if we fly someone somewhere they can catch a UNHCR [UN High Commissioner for Refugees] or military flight onwards."

To get charity staff into the conflict zone in Darfur, Key will fly them to Nairobi in Kenya, or Chad's capital N'djamena, using whatever onward route is known to be open.

"Charities will still want to get to these places as cheaply as possible but may decide the savings of a lengthy journey are not worth it against the time taken," says Sodha.

Key also obtains visas for charity staff, sometimes through Paris or Brussels for states with no UK embassy.

This work demands that Key's staff keep up to date with international politics and know their geography.

"One day it may be Sudan, the next a hurricane in Central America or floods in Bolivia or something, and you need to know the local situation and geography quickly," Sodha says.

"Its hard graft, but very satisfying helping people to do this work."

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