Travel Manager is going places

When it comes to managing travel expenses, Gelco Information Network executives say the federal government is a step ahead of the commercial sector.

Gelco intends to encourage that trend by positioning its Travel Manager product as a solution for reconciling other business expenses, such as purchase-card payments. Travel Manager is a Web-based software system intended to simplify travel-request authorization, reservation confirmations and ticketing, expense-claim submissions and approval, and final reimbursement.

Gelco recently released the latest version, Travel Manager 8.0, which incorporates changes requested by customers, such as simpler navigation tools and compliance with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. Section 508 requires federal agencies to make their electronic information accessible to people with disabilities. With the latest version of Travel Manager, employees can drag and drop their corporate card statements into their expense reports and then sign and submit the reports electronically using a password-based system. Travel Manager can be used to audit expense reports when they are submitted.

Travel Manager is being used in the Defense Travel System designed by TRW Inc. and in the Transportation Department's Web-based Travel and Expense System, which is being integrated by Price-waterhouseCoopers (see "Case Study").

The company's next step could be an even greater leap toward accounting efficiency in the government, said Daniel Ragheb, Gelco's vice president of marketing.

"We are starting to look at the technology we've developed for travel and how [to] modify it for other types of expenditures," Ragheb said. "It's a more efficient way of making payments. We now have the data-mining capability to handle beyond just business travel expenditures."

The system could be used not only to track administrative expenses, such as purchase-card payments and invoices, but also to pay credit card providers or vendors directly. That would enable agencies to pay bills faster, which would increase rebates and eliminate a middle step, Ragheb said. The government would not have to reimburse the employee and then have the employee pay the bill. Instead, Gelco would pay the agency's bills on a monthly basis and charge the agency for all payments made. The agencies would reconcile the payments with employees' records.

Gelco plans to start formally marketing its product for applications other than travel management in about six months, but Ragheb said there are cultural barriers to allowing a service provider to handle direct payments.

"Touching other people's money is a big deal," Ragheb said. "We are now seeing people acquiesce to letting us make payments. It's different than reconciling your checkbook."

The Interior Department's Office of the Inspector General is pioneering that movement with an earlier version of Travel Manager. The office's 260 employees in the United States and overseas use the full capacity of Travel Manager, including the payment module, said Ed Ottenheimer, the IG's chief of financial management.

"Because it has been working so well with travelers, we opted to pay some of our invoices using the travel voucher," Ottenheimer said, adding that travelers are reimbursed within three days rather than the 30 days it took using paper-based systems. The system uses the same process for approving and routing payments to a vendor's bank account that it uses to transfer payments to an em-ployee, he said.

The Interior IG's office has used Travel Manager for purchase orders and to pay its FedEx Corp. and AT&T bills, Ottenheimer said. Here's how it works:

Gelco pays the invoices. Gelco bills the IG's office for transactions paid on a monthly basis. The IG's office pays Gelco by government charge card. Ottenheimer said his office has saved about $200,000 on $3 million in payments since last summer. The office has been using Travel Manager for traditional travel management for about five years and plans to upgrade to the new Web-based version within a year, he said.

"We eliminated a whole finance office operation that was doing this for us," he said. With the agreement of the agency's finance office, the IG decided to try using the travel software for other expenses, which eliminated paper, inaccuracies and duplication, he said.

Even though Travel Manager is not customized for purchase-order payments, Ottenheimer said the system is easy to modify. The only area that needs improvement, he said, is in providing more information about the action taken when a notice is automatically e-mailed to a payment recipient.

Other products are available for both travel and procurement payment management. For example, Integration Technologies Group Inc. offers ProcureCard.net, a Web-based tool for tracking small credit card purchases. ProcureCard.net tracks a purchase from order placement until the statement is sent, but it does not make direct payments yet, said Wayne Kriebel, product manager for ITG.

In the next version of Procure-Card.net, the software will allow a user to create a purchase request and route it for approvals, he said. Most software focuses on the transaction after the bank processes it, but ProcureCard.net will start on the front end where orders are made, he said. ITG may eventually add travel and fleet expense capabilities.

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