At a time when business travel more less came to a stop, there is a certain irony that travel managers have become over the last two years perhaps even more indispensable to their organisations than ever.
The Covid-19 pandemic aside, buyers in Europe have also had to deal with the multiple complexities of getting employees to and from the UK in a post-Brexit environment.
Even now as business travel adapts to the 'new normal', soaring costs and the growing need to focus on sustainability are adding even more pressure to the expanding remit of travel managers, many of whom are no doubt both drained and reaping the benefits of their rising profiles within their companies.
At the start of the pandemic, when airlines began grounding their planes and governments moved to close their borders to stop the spread of the virus, everyone involved in travel had a heart-in-mouth moment. How long would the world essentially stand still? How many jobs would be lost? As the days turned to weeks and then to months, the situation looked grim, but not without hope.
Many governments across Europe – the UK included – sought to secure jobs through furlough schemes. Still, in a bid to cut costs at a time when business travel was impossible for most, travel managers were sometimes casualties of the crisis. But it wasn’t all bad news.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, we saw some travel managers made redundant or furloughed, but as the months passed and corporations realised travel was now more complex, furloughed travel managers were bought back and some had a very busy time throughout,” says Lynne Griffiths, CEO of business travel recruitment specialist Sirius Talent Solutions. “We have seen some companies create new travel manager roles to assist with the paradigm shift involved in managing travel programmes in the new normal.”
The ‘new normal’ Griffiths is talking about is not yet clearly defined. While many countries have removed or are planning to reduce travel restrictions, there is a large cohort of employees who have spent the last two years conducting business meetings remotely and want the ability to continue to do so. And travel managers have risen to that challenge; the latest survey of the Institute of Travel Management’s members found 48 per cent of buyers expect their travel spend to be down by 50 per cent in 2022 compared to 2019 levels, and most respondents said they will only allocate 25 per cent of their budget to internal meetings compared to 50 per cent in 2019.
Kerry Douglas, ITM’s head of programme, explains that almost all the association’s buyer members said they have taken on “unprecedently complex additional responsibilities”. She continues: “Whilst business travel ground to a virtual halt, the corporate travel buyer’s ‘to do’ list certainly did not. Their positions within their own organisations have been through countless phases during the pandemic.
“Priorities have morphed from initial repatriation, disruption management and implementing travel bans, to crystal ball-style forecasting, budget overhauls and extensive new types of reporting. They have also had to become experts in Covid travel protocols, as well as thorny issues such as changes to EU travel rules due to Brexit and the implication of Strong Customer Authentication as part of the EU’s new Payment Services Directive (PSD2). All this has coincided with reviewing and improving existing suppliers and programme management against a backdrop of minimal volumes with which to road test them.”
TMCs have had a front-row seat for this shift, with many having to form closer relationships with clients to support them through this ever-changing landscape.
“We are working closely to provide up-to-date information to close any new travel knowledge gaps,” says Helen Menniss, vice president of global account management at GlobalStar Travel Management. “We’ve seen our clients’ travel managers seek local knowledge from our partners on the ground. This isn’t just providing the latest 'R rate' and entry/movement requirements, but also the provision of a bespoke VIP travel service should the traveller require assistance whilst in country.”
Christoph Carnier, president of German travel management association VDR, points out another shift caused by the growing propensity to work remotely: “This is where travel managers need to collaborate with their HR departments, because HR determines the contractual terms of where new employees are based. If their contract says they work from home, then every trip to the office essentially becomes a business trip, so then travel managers are in charge of mobility for remote employees.”
Douglas agrees. “Travel managers have a new brief: meetings effectiveness management and positioning their role and/or department as strategic advisors to the business. They should be leading the charge to be directly involved in their company’s conversation about the rationale and ROI of in-person meetings and analysing when employees should physically meet and engage internally, or travel to initiate or deepen customer relationships. Their role is to both re-educate their organisation on how the travel function can support the wider organisation’s goals and strategic imperatives. Where previously travel managers facilitated bringing people together through travel, now they are helping companies understand how to have the most effective meetings in the most effective way.”
The result of this increasing responsibility is more visibility of the work travel managers actually do. What was once a role that often worked in the background has become a vital part of the business function, with travel managers now taking a seat at the table with stakeholders from across their organisations.
The ITM has even launched the Future Role of the Travel Manager taskforce to help buyers “re-enforce the strategic importance” of their roles. Its remit includes “identifying ways of generating awareness across the business travel sector, as well as other industry sectors, of travel management as a profession”, according to Douglas.
One buyer said at a recent conference: “My profile has definitely increased. The pandemic has given us [travel managers] an opportunity and I believe that opportunity is around partnership and collaboration internally and externally. We’re seen as a source of expertise that is much wider than in 2019.”
Mark Cuschieri, global head of travel at UBS, commented in a recent white paper by American Express Global Business Travel that he believes this will be a lasting evolution. “Our function has had to take on broader responsibilities and, in the future, as travel changes, it will be critical to continue those relationships.”