Pandemic prompts SMART travel reset

Sammit Khanndeparkar, global travel and expense manager at Astellas, explains how the pandemic prompted a new, SMART approach to travel


For pharmaceutical company Astellas the pandemic has presented an opportunity to “reset” its global travel programme. Not only is it on the brink of appointing a single global TMC, but it has also introduced a ‘SMART’ travel programme – supported at CFO level – to help employees determine whether to hit the road or to keep it virtual.

“SMART stands for sustainable, mindful, agile, reportable and targeted,” explains global travel and expense manager Sammit Khanndeparkar. “It’s there to make employees consider their work-life balance and clearly states ‘please travel only if required’.”

In the long-term Khanndeparkar expects the company’s business travel volumes to reduce compared to 2019. Recovery so far is nascent, with business travel dampened by ongoing travel restrictions.

“Asia is still relatively closed and we don’t want people travelling and encountering problems,” says Khanndeparkar. “Elsewhere, we have a big presence in the US, Latam, EMEA and even Africa, and we have colleagues travelling to countries where there aren’t restrictions – where there’s no quarantine or travel advisories.”

There is no lack of appetite for business travel but stringent approvals processes remain in place and travellers are expected to do their due diligence on travel restrictions.

“We ask travellers to download the International SOS app and to check requirements before even booking travel, but it can still change between the time of booking and travelling. That’s why we’re in regular communication with them,” explains Khanndeparkar.

Despite the complexity of travel currently, the company is keen to drive up online booking adoption and sees the appointment of a single TMC and of Concur as its booking tool globally as key to achieving that.

“We had to globalise our travel programme and that was regardless of Covid – it was too regionalised previously. Everything was managed locally and we had different policies and processes in place,” says Khanndeparkar. “We want to get everyone except top management booking online.”

The goal is 91 per cent adoption, achievable thanks to what he describes as the “cleansing and total reset of our travel programme”. He has experience on his side too, having pushed online adoption up to 95 per cent at another company.

“Rolling out the new TMC will be a big challenge as well as getting people familiar with booking online,” says Khanndeparkar. “Many of our people have not travelled for a long time so it’s a re-learning experience for them. There’s going to be a lot of training sessions!”

Astellas has addressed its accommodation programme by introducing a single revised rate cap globally but is in a similar position to most corporates right now, with its minimal data from the last two years preventing it from drawing reliable conclusions. “Our airline spend is [historically] pretty huge but we’re just renewing existing contracts as I don’t know what my baseline is going to be,” says Khanndeparkar. “I’ve been very transparent with them and said maybe next year is the right time for me to say ‘right, travel is going to be 30 per cent less’ or whatever, and to look at new deals then.”