Managing business travel expenses these days has become almost too easy. Your employees can book flights and hotels online, they can record their journeys using the Webexpenses mileage app and then instantly feed all the information to your finance team in lovely digital form. But we don’t have to rewind too far back to reach a land where this all seems incredible - like something from an episode of Buck Rogers.
So let’s take a trip back in the Webexpenses time machine to remind ourselves just how much the Internet and the digital world has transformed our working lives. We’re going back 20 years. It’s 1993 and two years earlier a British computer programmer called Tim Berners-Lee had invented something called the World Wide Web but it would be another five years before his online vision would enter the mainstream.
In 1993 the average house price was £88,000, Jurassic Park was breaking box office records in British cinemas and Manchester United had just won their first league title since 1967. But what was life was like in the world of business travel?
The idea of being able to fly over to a European business conference for under £40 would have seemed absurd in 1993. But this was the year things were starting to change thanks to European Union deregulation of air travel. It opened the door for budget operators like Ryanair to start challenging the likes of British Airways. In 1993, Ryanair operated just five routes, serving just over one million passengers, that compares with today’s 78 million.
Bookings for trips would have to be done over the phone with a business travel agent. These agents were liable to steer employees towards to using British Airways as they received lucrative ‘loyalty bonuses’ - something challenged in court that year by Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic.
Big changes were happening in the world of rail transport in 1993 as it was the year Prime Minister John Major privatised British Rail. At the time a single ticket from London to Manchester would have cost £45, compared to today’s £154.
The introduction of private operators meant that, for the first time, business travellers were not guaranteed a smoking area as companies began to remove the traditional smoking carriages. With laptops still extortionately expensive it’s likely the traveller would spend the journey listening to one of the new Portable CD players which were just becoming popular.
If employees were taking a trip by road in 1993 they were likely to be driving a newly released Ford Mondeo - the most popular executive car for the year. And they will have been claiming mileage expenses of 32 pence per mile, the recommended level set in that year’s budget.
Journeys would also be less likely to include gas guzzling traffic jams as road traffic has increased by 27 percent over the past 20 years. With no Webexpenses mileage app expense claims were based on a mixture of dashboard mileage counters, honesty and guesswork.
Mobile phone technology had been for around 10 years in 1993 but the bulky size of devices and the high costs meant usage was still limited in the business world. If you could afford it, however, you could have been using the first ever smartphone. The IBM Simon Personal Communicator may have been the size of a shoebox but it included mobile phone, email, address book and fax machine.
With desktop computers becoming more affordable many finance teams would have been using accountancy software to process their paper expenses. Newcastle based Sage had gone from selling 30 copies of their accounting package a year to becoming a multi-million pound company in 1993.
So, looking back, there have been some major shifts in the world of business travel with 1993 being a pivotal year. There is no doubt that our modern ability to book, track and monitor travel is a vast advance on the mountain of paperwork which used to be involved. But it’s hard not to feel a pang of nostalgia for those pre-Internet days of giant mobile phones and train ticketing that made sense.