“Our business travel has returned with such vigour that our vendors are commenting that we will definitely meet and likely exceed our 2019 volume this year,” says Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. sourcing director Harriet Washburn.
The insurance and risk management broker never really put the kibosh on business travel during the pandemic. “We are a client-facing organisation, and we like to be in front of our clients,” says Washburn. “We like to prospect for new business.”
That said, volume definitely slowed at the height of Covid-19. AJG had a temporary stop when airlines sliced capacity and grounded planes. Like many companies, AJG loaded a lot of cancelled airfares onto UATP cards. After that point, the company elevated travel approvals to the SVP level, and distributed “all sorts of caveats and guidelines and cautions” to prepare employees who chose to travel but held back on any blanket halt on travel activity. Washburn said the company lifted trip approvals “several months ago” and the pent-up demand has sent levels through the roof.
“We exhausted the UATP funds right away,” says Washburn. “Our employees returned to travel with an alacrity that was astounding.” Including, she says, complex, multi-leg international trips with the support of risk management. “We haven’t had many problems.”
In growth mode
Is this kind of business travel trajectory unique to AJG? Not really. We spoke to a number of companies, often those that engaged in essential worker travel or businesses that actually boomed during the pandemic, where business travel never went into a deep hibernation. Patterns changed, precautions changed and approval levels changed, but business travel continued. As the pandemic mindset times out in these companies, business travel is gaining volume almost immediately.
T-Mobile is another company that let its business determine the level of travel during the pandemic, with precautions and elevated approval, but without a hard stop. Jennie Robertson took a travel manager role at the company during the pandemic and says the company has returned to near 100 per cent of pre-pandemic travel. But with a wrinkle: “T-Mobile acquired Sprint during that time,” she says, taking on their workers and travellers in the process and formulating travel volume around some new origin and destination cities like Kansas City and Frisco, Texas.
AJG has the same story, says Washburn, but on a global scale, extending points of sale to new markets in Europe and the Middle East as well as to Asia-Pacific.
“The most exciting news is the result of a very significant acquisition. We are in the process of launching new points of sale globally. And what I find intriguing is that the company from which people are joining us had halted all travel. There’s significant pent-up demand and as of the day these folks formally joined Gallagher, they were ready to book travel.”
Changing the programme?
Truth be told, the programme hasn’t changed that much for AJG, says Washburn. For T-Mobile, the pandemic ushered in a new TMC partnership thanks to consolidation, but policies and procedures haven’t been unrecognisably altered.
What has been different is how the company has sourced its programme and communicated with partners. Washburn cited a bigger reliance on chainwide agreements and allowing existing contracts to roll over into the next year. She also says her suppliers had been supportive of her business travellers’ needs – with airlines pooling funds to UATP cards and car rental partners finding cars amid shortages. AJG’s TMC, Egencia, rolled out some technology enhancements that facilitated better travel processes.
Asked whether she thought continuing to travel during the pandemic and staying close to customers gave AJG a competitive advantage over peer companies, Washburn demurred.
“I really wouldn’t want to comment, but I can say that we are told by our vendors that we have recovered, that we continue to travel more aggressively during the pandemic and that we are the first to rebound. So that’s really as far as I’d want to go on that. But you can impart from that what you wish.”