Travel managers have spent much of the past two years preparing for a day that, for many, finally appears to be here: the time when their offices reopen, their employees begin travelling again, and they can get back to a professional footing that echoes, if not equals, 2019. But even with two years of preparation, pushing past the Covid-19 pandemic can be an intricate process, particularly as internal and external rules and regulations change.
Many companies are in the midst of revising travel policies to redefine who can travel and the circumstances under which they can do so, and they are addressing the procedures in their travel programmes to help would-be travellers re-enter a travel ecosystem that might be different to what they remember.
While the ways travel policies and procedures are changing vary by company size, industry and location, most are moving forward with a momentum companies – and their travel partners – haven’t seen during the two years. In fact, many companies are beginning to lift the pre-trip requirements they implemented during the pandemic, says Will Tate, managing partner of travel management consultancy Goldspring Consulting, but still aren’t allowing a free-for-all of unlimited business travel.
“We saw huge numbers of people move into pre-trip approval requirements, and now you’re starting to see that dissipate,” Tate says. “I’d say half to three-quarters of our clients came into pre-trip, but now they’re letting it go back.”
Shelley Mathews, general manager sales and partnerships Europe, at travel management company CTM adds: “Organisations wanted a tighter grip on approvals during Covid for risk mitigation and duty of care reasons. I think risk awareness is still really important to buyers and pre-trip approval will remain. Currently, approval is going as high as head of finance or team leader, and I can’t see this changing for the foreseeable future.”
Tate also noted a level of pre-trip scrutiny that differs from pre-pandemic levels. “It seems like there is a greater scrutiny on the [return on investment] of any particular given trip,” he says. “It seems as if buyers’ organisations are now saying, I know everyone went for whatever they went for, but now I think we do want to know a little bit more about what are we going to accomplish. Do we really need five people going to the conference or will three people do that?”
While there is much talk of pent-up demand among would-be travellers, there are also employees who aren’t yet comfortable with the notion of business travel, and companies must take that into consideration when implementing re-entry procedures.
Companies also might also have to consider how to approach business travel for another group of employees: those who have not received the Covid-19 vaccine, or a full-course of it. Some companies during the pandemic banned such employees from business travel just as some banned them from onsite work premises.
“We do have some companies that require their people to be vaccinated to travel, and we have others who do not. It’s typically the bigger companies that are requiring the vaccination,” says Roger Hale, president and CEO of travel management company Adtrav, who adds that the TMC could help companies deploy pre-trip approval systems that can deny travel for any reason, vaccine-related or otherwise. “We don’t know if they’re denying that travel because they’re not vaccinated or they’re just denying the travel,” he adds.
Once those who are willing and permitted to travel are ready to do so, there remains a level of work in preparing employees for travel, especially if their itineraries are international. But even for domestic travels, there is a considerable level of detail that must be managed.
“We’re finding that we need to do some retraining of the travelers,” says Hale. “These travellers haven’t travelled in a year or two. Getting them back on the online booking tool, a lot of their credit cards have expired… it’s getting all that taken care of.”
KesselRun’s Strauss notes that quickly changing entry procedures throughout the world have made sufficient pre-trip preparation for international travel a must, and cautioned that such preparation should be extensive and encompass more than the travel itself.
“We have entire consulting engagements now that are geared specifically to Covid preparedness for global trips, which are usually multi-legged and more complex,” he explains. “What do I need to do or do I need to know, even beyond vaccinations and quarantines, down to the street level: How are restaurants in this particular city? What do I do in terms of reservations?”
International travel also requires a level of duty of care by the organisation, and Hale says many companies’ attention to the concept has increased as a result of the pandemic.
“There’s a renewed focus on duty of care,” he says. “Companies that didn’t have duty of care programmes in place are implementing them, and those who have them in place are paying a little more attention to them. They want to know where folks are going, especially when they’re travelling internationally, and how they can get in touch with them.”
According to Mike Cameron, CEO of Christopherson Business Travel, some of those changes to international risk management are being addressed through policy.
“The pandemic shined a light on the gaps many organisations have in their policies and how that affects their risk management,” Cameron said. “As people return to travel, we’re encouraging clients to review those policies and make sure they align with their new spend and risk management requirements. Rather than reinvent the wheel, some clients have simply added a one-page policy addendum to accomplish this.”
Some policies that govern travellers’ acceptable choices also are changing. While some companies are holding to pre-pandemic philosophies regarding travellers’ choices of supplier and class of service, others are allowing their employees more latitude in that selection for a few reasons, Strauss said.
“We’re starting to see some policies relax a little bit more, to be more generous to the traveller,” says Strauss. “I think a lot of that has to do with the perception of safety. Also, to have flexible travel policies and be able to do more in terms of what they want or giving them more options and more flexibility becomes a job perk.”
CTM's Mathews reports a similar trend. “Business class and premium are a lot busier, for sure,” she says. “What’s important to note is that everyone is reviewing policy post-Covid, and traveller wellbeing and sustainability are huge influences over new policy strategy. That means buyers are really considering the impact that travelling has on their employees and that has resulted in some businesses bumping travellers up a class on shorter flights, and others no longer sending travellers directly from a flight into a meeting, for example.”
Hale suggested such flexibility, however, did not extend to travellers’ choice of booking channel. In fact, he said some clients were tightening policy language around that in an attempt to keep would-be travellers on their radar.
“We are seeing more of a focus on having travellers come through the programme,” Hale said. “Some companies now are mandating that you come through the programme. No more of this going outside. They want everything booked here because they need to know where you are.”
Many organisations are also pushing travellers back towards their online booking tools, says Mathews. “Adoption levels are definitely increasing,” she says, “partly because it’s cheaper to book online than it is to call an agent and cost is an issue right now.”
“They are definitely heading in the right direction and, for one customer, they [online bookings] are back up to around 83 per cent of pre-Covid levels.”