Savings in the Cards at Interior

ltaylor@govexec.com

T

he new rules requiring the use of government charge cards for all business travel have some federal workers up in arms. But at one Interior Department agency, travelers are thrilled with the way things are going.

That's because the Bureau of Reclamation has, since December 1998, been paying centrally for all routine travel expenses. You heard that right: If you pay with a government charge card, hotel, car rental, gas and even parking won't show up on your bill; the agency pays the card vendor directly.

With a mandate from the top to improve work life, Interior officials wanted to address concerns about timely reimbursements. People felt "stressed and like their personal credit was at stake," says Debra Sonderman, director of the department's office of acquisition and property management. With central billing, she says, there are "fewer things the employee has to worry about."

All-Around Win

Central billing isn't just good for the bureau's 5,000 employees: it's an all-around win, says Sonderman. The system allows the department to pay quickly (making its card vendor, Bank of America, happy) and thus to earn larger rebates. The bureau has the lowest delinquency rate in the whole department. The banks like it because their risk is lower and they get paid every day.

Central billing also ends the confusion and debate over state taxes. The government is not supposed to pay the taxes, but employees using individual cards often must. The tax issue is not small potatoes. Reclamation estimates it can save $1 million a year in lodging taxes alone. Bill Rivers, acting director of the travel management policy division at the General Services Administration's Office of Governmentwide Policy, estimates that $100 million a year is spent governmentwide on lodging taxes.

And with central billing, Interior gets better data on how it spends its travel dollars. The department can get much more detailed records from hotels than it can with bills that go to employees. Sonderman says she hopes to reshape the relationship between the federal government and its private industry vendors. She'll go to them and say: "We're spending all this money with you. This is [what] we need."

The program has been a tremendous success, says Sonderman. "The employees just love it." For most, all that is on their personal bill is the cash taken from an ATM for meals and incidental expenses.

As the bureau's property manager, Rayleen Cruz says central billing is an administrative boon. And as a federal traveler, she says, she's a convert. Not only is filling out the voucher easier, but "you don't have to get reimbursed, put the check in your checking account and then write a big check to the bank. I really like not having to do all that."

Charging Ahead

If central billing is so easy, why isn't everyone doing it? Because, like private companies, the federal government is wary of being charged for things it shouldn't pay for, such as mini-bar and video use. Even worse, the government could be charged for hotels with rates above per diem or for travel that isn't official or approved. "The reconciliation problem could be huge-it's going to come back to bite them in the ass," one government travel official says of the Bureau of Reclamation's experiment.

But Interior didn't just charge blindly into central billing; it established procedures that are designed to keep things aboveboard. Employees pay charges for mini-bars and videos with a personal card or cash at checkout. Nine months into the program, says finance and accounting manager Tom Lab, the bureau's nationwide service center examined the thousands of vouchers filed since the direct billing pilot started. Fewer than 1 percent had improper charges on them.

"We have to be squeaky clean," Sonderman says. "The employees like central billing so much that they don't want to lose it. They understand that [honesty] is one of the responsibilities that goes along with it."

With more than a year of success at the Bureau of Reclamation, Interior is considering using central billing for all of its 55,000 cardholders. With the proper management controls in place, Sonderman expects the whole department to be billing hotels centrally by October.

"Interior employees travel a lot because of our mission and because we are geographically spread out," she says. "We look on [this approach] as the government's financing the cost of travel that is necessary to our mission, rather than asking the employees to finance it."

Sleep Tight

Domestic per diem rates increased an average of 3.6 percent from 1999 to 2000. But business travel costs are rising more quickly-about 5 percent this year, according to Wisconsin-based travel management consulting firm Runzheimer International.

Business travelers worldwide are away from home an average of 48 nights a year, according to a recent survey by OAG Worldwide, a travel information publisher. And trips are getting longer: Two-thirds now last two or more nights. As a result, hotels are more important than ever to a smooth trip.

So when you're trying to make the travel dollar go far, where can you get the best bed for the buck? SmartMoney magazine evaluated and rated hotels and provides some answers.

Mattress Discounters

Among mid-priced hotels, SmartMoney gave Holiday Inn the top spot for convenience and efficiency. With 1,500 locations worldwide, the chain was a shoo-in for convenience (Ramada was second with 1,000), but Holiday Inn also won points for exercise rooms, express check-in and checkout and more. Hilton-with 500 locations, gyms and business centers-took first place among upscale properties.

In the comfort category, hotels were rated on amenities that make business travelers happy, including coffee makers, good lighting, data ports and useable desk space. Westin (which has voice mail you can personalize and a mattress, with 900 coils, to die for) won the top spot among upscale chains; Hilton and Omni came in a close second with high-speed Internet access.

Wingate, a new chain especially for business travelers, won top honors among mid-priced hotels. It has the usual amenities plus a separate phone line for Internet access and cordless phones. Holiday Inn and Courtyard tied for second in this category.

Where Pros Repose

Business Travel News readers (who are travel agents and corporate travel managers) also recently rated hotels on criteria such as in-room business amenities, helpful and courteous staff, relation of price to value, quality of food, physical appearance and quality of the business center and meeting facilities.

And the winners are:

  • Upscale: Hyatt, Omni, Renaissance
  • Mid-priced with food: Doubletree, Four Points-Sheraton, Courtyard
  • Mid-priced without food: Hampton, Amerisuites, Country Inns & Suites

To see the full results of the Business Travel News survey, go to: www.btnonline.com/news/426/426hotel.html.

Cyber Cool

Find yourself in, say, Sri Lanka, and can't check your email? Want to log on in Mexico and haven't got a laptop? Stuck in Switzerland with a dead battery? No problem. Just go to www.netcafeguide.com. There you can find more than 2,800 "cyber cafes"-public places equipped with computers where you can log on-in more than 130 cities worldwide (including almost 400 in the United States).

I know, I know-without a cyber cafe you can't get on the Web to find the list of cyber cafes. Well, you could check the site before you go. Or, if your itinerary is uncertain and you want to be ready to log in from anywhere, buy the hard copy: a book called Internet Café Guide that goes for $12.95. It's smaller and lighter than any laptop, so you can stay connected without the weight, hassle and responsibility of lugging an expensive computer around.

But the online version is still the best bet (despite the annoying personal ads), because it is constantly updated. Watch the number of cyber cafes worldwide grow right before your eyes. No book can do that.

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