BTN Europe presents an overview of business travel and MICE predictions for this year
ExCeL London - 24-25 February 2021
The volcanic ash crisis was an unprecedented emergency situation for everyone involved in the corporate travel sector. Eurostar played a key role in the repatriation of thousands of UK business travellers from mainland Europe, and was deservedly lauded by both buyers and travel management companies (TMCs).
The cross-Channel rail company suffered its own crises during winter when freezing temperatures brought its services to a standstill, stranding some of its customers.
Having dealt admirably will the fallout and public criticism, the company knew it was well placed to lead the debate and postmortem surrounding April's airspace shutdown.
Buying Business Travel and Eurostar, the organisers behind this special forum, also form part of the industry's Phoenix Group, founded by the chairman of the Institute of Travel & Meetings, Jamie Hindhaugh. The group was established following the ash crisis to provide a platform for buyers and suppliers to discuss crisis management issues affecting the industry, and the findings from this forum will form part of a broader crisis management report to be published by Phoenix in the autumn.
Present were representatives from a cross section of industry sectors: aviation, rail, car hire, travel management and hotel as well as buyers.
Frustration over the lack communication between industry sectors was a recurring point in the wide-ranging discussion.
Celia Allbut from WPP said she could have helped her TMC "massively" if she had more up-to-date traveller profiles.
She urged other buyers to make updating mobile phone numbers and email addresses a priority as it could be the difference between being able or not being able to find them in a crisis situation.
However, Allbut, with the support of all the other buyers present, also urged TMCs to be more vocal towards buyers: "In a crisis situation I want the TMC to tell me what they want from me. But that's just not happening at the moment," she said.
The group unanimously agreed that whether you were a buyer, TMC or supplier, steps should be taken to ensure everyone has access - data-protection laws permitting - to travellers' contact information.
Ken McLeod, Advantage's director corporate, said: "We've got 700-plus locations around the UK; what jumped out at us was that there was no central point of information. Our role was to let our members have as much information as possible. So we really need a central point for information - probably a website." Communication between TMCs and airlines was also discussed. A major problem during the crisis was when travellers stepped out of policy to rebook onto flights without informing the TMC.
Iberia's Mike Salva said the airline has an obligation to the customer to book the seat requested. But there is no way for an airline to change the information in the PNR (passenger name record) held by the TMC. The traveller is essentially lost. For this reason, the buyers suggested that in future crises travellers should be advised not to move until contacted, although it was acknowledged there would challenges managing such a policy.
Lee Whiteing, a travel buyer from HSBC, recounted an incident where an aircraft went down in Buffalo and, according to the company's traveller tracking technology, one of the employees was on board.
It turned out, fortunately, that the traveller had switched to an earlier flight at the airport, but Whiteing said the employee was still in trouble for stepping out of policy. What if it had been the other way round?
Omnicom's Nicola Lomas confessed: "I found myself pretty much out of my depth. BCD was really good at pushing out the information they got, and Eurostar and British Airways both did a good job - the bit that was missing was the information bit."
Jamie Hindhaugh, ITM chairman and the BBC's head of sourcing, accepted that airlines had an obligation to serve customers, but urged them to remember that in times of crisis the ultimate liability still resides with the corporate.
Salva said the airlines were in a hugely unenviable position because managing seat inventory was almost impossible: "We tried to plan two or three days ahead, expecting a resolution to be found, but it just went on and on."
TMCs said they were being forced, on some occasions, to hold up to seven fully flexible tickets for individual customers, causing chaos for the airlines. It meant in the early stages of the crisis, aircraft that should have been full were flying with empty seats. Hindhaugh admitted that BBC employees had been guilty of this practice and said with hindsight he was ashamed of their behaviour.
It was suggested that some sort of booking code of conduct be established, though Ken McLeod said it would be foolish to think travellers would show much pragmatism when desperate to return home.
Mark Willis from Radisson Blu said one of the biggest problems facing travellers, in terms of hotels, was not knowing if they were going to get on a flight. "travellers need to be sure they are on a flight because many were checking out and going to the airport only to discover they were not getting on," he said. "by the time they returned the room had gone to someone else and they were stranded.
Willis denied any suggestions that hotels were profiteering from the situation. He said all corporate rates were set on the eve of the crisis and were fixed and held throughout.
Easyjet's Sophie Dekkers said her airline took steps to work with hotels close to its airport bases by posting the latest flight information in lobbies. It was agreed by the group that this type of simple cooperation should be more widespread between hotels and air and rail suppliers.
The civil Aviation Authority (CAA) was fiercely criticised by all corners of the room for making the decision to shut UK airspace without properly consulting the aircraft and engine manufacturers. Geoff Allwright, UK travel manager for Airbus EADS, said: "Airbus had no relations with Eurocontrol, or the CAA, or the aviation authorities in Germany or France. These people were making all these decisions about aircraft engines' [ability to cope with the ash] without even consulting Rolls-Royce. I think that must never happen again. As for the International Air transport Association and the other organisations - those bodies that are supposed to be representing the airlines just didn't perform."
The group discussed what role the government and legislation should play in crises situations that affect the business travel sector. It was decided that the Phoenix report would provide the basis of an official approach to policymakers in Whitehall.