In just a few short months, business travel worldwide has come to a halt. Previously, the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) predicted that annual business travel spending would top $1.7 trillion in 2022, but today these numbers feel uncertain. We cannot predict how the coronavirus outbreak will play out — but what we do know is that business travel will undoubtedly change.
By: Andrew Hodges, Senior VP, US & Canada, Collinson
It is important for companies to take a moment right now to consider what these changes will be, what they will mean for business and business travelers, and what useful action can be taken in the short term. In particular, there are five considerations I believe businesses must start considering now, so they are ready to manage the new reality of business travel.
1) Questions around the value of business travel
A recent GBTA poll showed 70 percent of companies are developing contingency plans involving teleconferences and video meetings, to get work done in the COVID-19 period. With business travel and face-to-face meetings largely impossible, technology is the only way. Many people are wondering if on-screen interactions will continue to be the norm even when social distancing measures are lifted.
However, face-to-face interactions are a critical and irreplaceable ingredient in doing good business. After all, humans are social creatures, and in many cultures social interaction is a corporate culture must. You can’t read body language over a screen, it’s hard to catch nuances and easy to interrupt, and the technological frustrations can quickly eliminate any efficiencies of not meeting in person. Indeed, even Apple founder Steve Jobs famously said, “Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions.”
It’s probable that many colleagues will be yearning for face-to-face interaction as we move out of the COVID-19 world, and that clients and partners will equally be looking forward to human interaction once again.
Call to action for businesses: When travel is back online, be wary of strategies that completely substitute business travel for teleconferences and video conferences. While remote conferencing options certainly have their place, the value and power of face-to-face interaction cannot be understated.
2) Clearer definitions of essential business travel
As the option for business travel returns, employees and businesses may at first be more tentative about taking trips. Current sentiment in the U.S. among business travelers has found that employees may be more receptive initially to regional travel than extended trips, according to an April 28 survey conducted by Destinations Analysts. This same survey found that the overwhelming majority of U.S. based business travelers are still uncomfortable with the idea of attending a large event or traveling internationally. At the same time, as states open for business across the U.S., more and more companies will likely be anxious to get their teams of road warriors back out in the field to meet with clients and prospects. This dynamic will create a need for stronger mechanisms around defining and authorising “essential” business travel. How is this decided, and who owns the final decision about what constitutes necessary travel? In many companies, questions on business travel have fallen between the cracks of job roles — but in the future, clear processes and ownership of responsibility will be necessary to meet employee expectations and ultimately protect brand liability.
We may see more firms employing travel managers or bringing in new corporate assistance schemes to ensure that the right decisions are made, and employees are protected. There are a number of factors to consider, such as the physical and psychological health risk of the traveler as well as the destination risk — including local healthcare standards and anticipated government response should more outbreaks occur. Wellbeing for business travelers must not be allowed to come second to price, as research already shows that 39 percent of business travelers suffer lack of sleep and 35 precent feel mental health impacts — so a more robust focus on traveler health and security can only be a good thing.
Call to action for businesses: Create a strategy and process to define essential travel for your organization and decide on an ownership structure for key decisions.
3) Calls for more clarity around travel assistance
A recent survey from Collinson found that while half of business travelers say their employer has invested in medical and security assistance to support them, 51 percent of those aren’t sure what it means or offers. Many employees are apprehensive about making use of the traveler assistance and support services they’ve been signed up for, with only a fifth saying they were confident using their 24/7 medical and security assistance in the event of something going wrong while abroad.
While it’s great news that so many employers have signed up to medical and security assistance services for their employees, it’s also evident that more action is needed for staff to realize the full potential of these services. Many American business travelers may become more closely familiar with these services as they work to keep up with ever-changing travel requirements related to the pandemic. For example, four U.S.-based airlines — American, Delta, Frontier and Jet Blue — have all announced that passengers must begin wearing face coverings while on board. Especially post-COVID-19, business travelers will be looking to their employers and travel providers for clarity around how they are being protected in airports, on planes, in rental cars, and at hotels
Call to action for businesses: With travel offline, now is a great opportunity for companies to take a step back and evaluate how travel assistance offerings and communications can be more robust.
4) Wellbeing for the “bleisure” traveler
Millennial and Gen Z travelers often mix business and pleasure by extending corporate trips into personal vacations. This may be even truer after COVID-19, when people who love to travel have been unable to do so. These so-called “bleisure” travelers will naturally be more concerned about health and safety following the COVID-19 pandemic. They will be asking new questions around where their business insurance ends, and their personal travel insurance begins.
Businesses must strive for full clarity around what’s covered and what isn’t, from a monetary and protection perspective. This information should be widely accessible and understood by all employees. It’s also worthwhile to consider how the business can show employees that their health, safety and wellbeing, are paramount any time they’re abroad. For example, companies might have a preferred personal travel policy to recommend for workers wishing to extend their business trip.
Call to action for businesses: Ensure there is no middle ground when it comes to “bleisure”, making distinctions crystal clear to all employees across the business.
5) Ongoing vigilance and adjustment
As a return to normalcy occurs, the transition phase will likely still involve an increase in social distancing, increased hygiene measures and disease surveillance, while still allowing international travel. During this time, businesses will need to be agile in evolving their own policies, as things change fast. This includes many factors, from how corporate travel is approved to what advisory measures employees receive — whether that’s a recommendation to wear face masks when visiting certain countries or a reminder to leave more time for airport security and screening.
If and when an effective COVID-19 vaccine is developed, which experts are hopeful will happen by early 2021, businesses can continue to learn from this pandemic and be more prepared for adverse events and their effect on corporate travel. The question of how to balance employee comfort, experience and safety while traveling will continue for some time, and companies must be prepared for those ongoing conversations.
Call to action for businesses: Take stock of the learnings from COVID-19 and see where these flow out to overall crisis planning for the business. And, consider looking outside the organisation for extra help across medical and security assistance and insurance — it’s not a time to cut corners.