BTN’s 2021 Salary Survey revealed an upbeat perspective among many travel managers as business travel inches toward recovery amid a global pandemic. For some, the global crisis underscored the strategic value of their work; for others, it opened new opportunities to expand or deepen their roles—and sometimes both. The effects of the pandemic weren’t positive for all travel managers, however. BTN’s survey uncovered instances of job loss for some whose companies suffered financially or altered their business travel outlook for the foreseeable future.
The average salary for a travel manager taking BTN’s survey in 2021 was $116,123. That was up $2,000 from 2019 and up $7,000 from 2020—though the 2020 average salary number should be viewed with caution. BTN forewent its detailed salary survey during the height of the Covid-19 crisis and instead asked a brief, optional poll question as part of its State of the Industry research last year. Many opted not to respond to that poll, so the scope of salary data was limited and its methodology different.
BTN’s more robust annual survey, reinstated this year, includes several contributing factors to travel manager salary levels, including travel program size as well as the individual’s years of experience in the role and the location of their company. BTN from June 18 to July 6 surveyed 152 respondents, 97 percent of whom were based in the United States.
In the U.S., BTN found travel manager salaries on the rise. Two-thirds of travel managers responding to the survey said their salaries had increased compared with compensation in 2020. Among those with salary increases, individuals gained an average of nearly 7 percent over their previous year’s salary. Twenty percent of travel managers queried in 2021 had no change to their salaries year over year. Among the 14 percent of respondents who experienced salary decreases in 2021, the average erosion was 13 percent from the previous year—a significant drop.
Travel Managers for Larger Midsize Programs Gain Most Ground
As in years past, salary levels for travel managers often increase in direct proportion to the overall dollar volume they are responsible for managing within their programs. In programs that annually spend less than $2 million in air, the average travel manager salary didn’t quite break into six-digit territory, landing instead just under $96,000. For those managing the largest enterprise programs of more than $40 million in annual air volume, BTN pegged an average salary of more than $131,000.
Compared to the survey cohort from 2019, the group that experienced the largest salary jump were individuals managing programs between $12 million and $20 million in 2019 air spend. 2019 is the most recent year that BTN could target reliable volume data for programs and, therefore, will continue to be the benchmark until the industry re-establishes equilibrium—perhaps in 2022. Travel managers of programs in this tier reported average salaries of $128,559 in 2021, which is a 16 percent increase over the respondents managing similar-sized programs in 2019.
That was no surprise to Maria Chevalier, who since 2010 has run CTME Search Party, an industry job search and career mentoring group. “We saw the biggest increase in job posts for travel manager positions than we’ve seen in 15 years,” she said, noting that particularly in the midmarket, program managers finally have been getting recognized and compensated correctly. “We used to see job postings with huge scope and lower pay, but now we consistently see that pay going up and a better understanding of the skill sets and value that a bona fide travel manager brings to the table. We’re seeing people not just getting jobs but getting great jobs.”
Even with that promising outlook, several respondents to open-ended questions in this year’s survey reported job losses or team furloughs. Among those with job losses, results were somewhat mixed in terms of regaining employment. Some reported new jobs at bigger companies and higher salaries, while one remained without a position and another took a job with higher responsibility but lesser pay—a disheartening result in profession that continues to become more complex, not less. Others did not lose their jobs, but may have taken on more responsibility due to furloughed team members, without a pay increase. Another remained concerned for job stability as travel remains at very low levels in the company.
Of course, landing a great salary depends at least partially on an individual’s experience level and a track record of success. Travel managers with less than a year of experience reported making about $64,000 annually, and none received bonus pay. Among this year’s survey respondents, those with one to three years of travel management experience reported making significantly more than those with four to nine years of experience, which may simply be an anomaly in this respondent set. Generally speaking, getting more travel management experience under the belt resulted in better-paying positions for survey respondents. But longevity may only go so far. Travel managers with 20 to 30 years’ experience in travel management made nearly the same average salaries as those with more than 30 years.
Job title and advancement correlated to travel management salary levels as well. And pushing for that advancement appeared to be key to driving compensation levels among survey respondents. Even for those with 10 to 20 years of travel management experience, job titles that included words like ‘analyst’ ‘assistant,’ ‘coordinator’ or ‘specialist’ had salaries that languished far below average salaries of titled travel managers—even those who might have fewer years of experience.
Job titles among survey respondents indicated broader responsibilities brought increased pay, whether that scope came from managing multiple geographies or from taking on management responsibilities for categories adjacent to travel, such as card, expense or meetings and events, or even fleet. ‘Global T&E manager’ and ‘Americas manager of travel and expense’ or ‘global category manager of travel and meetings’ were among the titles that began to break the six-digit threshold. It should be noted, however, that they also indicate programs of significant size—the companies are global in nature and may have large enough volume to divide management of the travel program among different regions.
Twenty percent of survey respondents reported annual salaries of $150,000 or more. Titles in this cohort indicated scope and seniority, with titles like ‘vice president of global travel’ or ‘senior manager of global travel operations.’ They also indicated roles that are larger than travel management, like ‘treasurer’ or ‘sourcing director,’ which have broader responsibility in finance and procurement.
Urban Centers Pay More
Location plays a large role in travel manager salary, and the BTN survey noted significant regional U.S. variations in salary levels. Salaries in the Northeast averaged more than $131,000. Average salaries in the Southeast came in at just over $98,000, lowest among regions for which BTN gathered sufficient data. Travel managers in the Plains reported lower salaries, but too few respondents from the region prevented BTN from making realistic estimates about salary levels there. The Great Lakes region overall reported average salaries at just over $102,000, but as with most regions, metropolitan areas reported the highest salary averages.
Chicago, for example, reported average salaries over $128,000. The nearly $137,000 average salary in the Southwest region was led by a strong showing in Dallas, where the average salary among respondents was more than $149,000. Seattle’s average travel manager salary of $152,000 drove the overall Northwest regional average to more than $119,000. San Francisco and Los Angeles reported salaries around $140,000, which supported $116,000-plus regional averages in the West. New York City drove the highest travel management salaries among all urban centers, with travel managers raking in more than $163,000 on average, though the range within that city was substantial. The overall average for the mid-Atlantic region, which includes New York and Washington, D.C., landed at just over $131,000.
Measuring Contribution & Recognizing Value
More than half of travel managers queried in BTN’s 2021 survey said they had more opportunity at their companies than ever before, since the Covid-19 pandemic upturned the industry. Several travel managers interviewed for this story said they had more access to CEOs and executive leadership, and that they had been tapped for strategic initiatives like return-to-the-workplace planning groups that are shaping the future of how employees will interface with their physical offices and coworkers.
But beyond those extra-travel responsibilities, many travel managers said their core work has been more recognized for its business enablement and the richness of the data and reporting travel managers can provide to CEOs, risk managers and business leads.
“I continued to provide reporting to my senior leadership throughout the pandemic,” said Salt Lake City-based Franklin Covey travel director James Thalman, who long has had access to the CEO and CFO at his organization because of the intrinsic role travel plays in the success of the leadership training firm. “Travel has always been among the leading indicators of Franklin Covey’s business performance; how that situation changes going forward is hard to say and will largely be determined by our clients’ preference for whether they want virtual or in-person programs,” he said.
Either way, Thalman said he feels his job remains valuable to his company, especially given the complexities introduced during the pandemic. The firm had zero travel for six weeks following the World Health Organization’s pandemic declaration in March 2020, but since has partially resumed travel. “Understanding the situation on the ground in the locations where we travel has become a much more important part of my job,” said Thalman, who runs Franklin Covey’s ARC-accredited Corporate Travel Department. “We need to provide so much more information now,” he said, “and anticipate what traveler concerns might be, and how we can help travelers and the business make more informed choices.”
Like Thalman, many travel managers have seen their responsibilities shift in new ways. Nearly two-thirds of travel managers say their focus on traveler safety, health and well-being has increased in the past year and 46 percent said their work in implementing new technologies and driving innovation has been an important development in their responsibility set. Other areas have seen increased focus as well, but not quite at the same rate: focus on virtual meetings and collaboration technologies is higher for 36 percent of survey respondents, and 32 percent reported their work on program communication efforts had increased. Thirty percent are focusing more on developing sustainable travel practices for their organizations.
It’s inevitable that travel managers experienced shifts in their responsibilities during a global pandemic that halted a huge percentage of business travel. Whether those shifts will pass as the pandemic lifts, however, is another question. The consensus among travel managers is that their new priorities will linger—and potentially become permanent best practices. Nearly three-quarters of travel managers said their current mix of priorities would stick around for the long term, while only 11 percent thought the shift was temporary and 16 percent wouldn’t wager a guess on what the future holds for travel management priorities.
If these responsibilities do hold up, the way organizations measure and reward travel management job performance may need to catch up. Only 34 percent of travel managers said they were measured on program innovation and 27 percent said they were measured on technology implementations—but 46 percent said both of those were an important shift in their roles during and post-Covid. A handful of travel managers provided write-in answers about their risk avoidance performance, but no one mentioned traveler health. With this renewed and important focus for travel managers, organizations would do well to create specific goals and job performance metrics for it, and reward accordingly.
For now most travel managers surveyed in 2021 seem satisfied with their current roles—or at least with the idea of advancing in their current travel management career track, even staying with their current employers.
Seventy-eight percent said they were well or adequately recognized by their employers and 65 percent said they were either well-paid or there was a fair exchange for the value they brought to the table. Sixty-five percent of survey respondents said they saw themselves in two years with their current employer in the same position or with their current employer, but in a more advanced travel role. Just over nine percent said they saw themselves with their current employer, but largely in a role outside of travel management. Twenty-one percent were looking for a different employer.
One global travel manager for a Fortune 500 company told BTN she had considered employment on the supplier side in recent years, given that she felt she had reached a seniority limit on the corporate side. “I wanted that VP title. I still do,” she said, bemoaning the fact that vice president roles are few and far between for corporate travel buyers. Instead, she took a new job on the corporate side. “I love my job,” she said about a role in which she built a global travel and meetings program from the ground up and through which she has proven herself a progressive leader in the industry. “I have more responsibility and opportunity than ever,” she said. “But I’ve checked all the boxes, and I’ve done all the ‘things.’ I’ve asked my boss what else I need to do to achieve that title.”
For that buyer, the answer is still forthcoming. For the travel management profession—perhaps the chances are looking up as more companies recognize the strategic value and business enablement acumen that travel managers continue to bring to the table. But one thing’s for sure, it won’t happen until travel managers consistently pursue it. Fewer than 20 percent of travel managers pursued a promotion in the last 12 months.