Business Travel Show Europe Kick Off, 23 February,
Global Travel Risk Summit Europe, May 2023,
3rd Annual Sustainable Business Travel Summit
There’s something odd afoot in travel management: is it just me, or have you noticed a complete crisis of confidence about how we adapt to the demands of younger travellers? You may remember a Harry Enfield film from a few years ago about two unruly, selfish teenagers, entitled Kevin & Perry Go Large. Well, we need to talk about Kevins and Perrys.
I recently moderated an event in London, called The Future of Travel Forum, that British Airways and Marriott staged for around 100 travel managers. A theme that came up again and again was an anxiety on the part of buyers, suppliers and intermediaries alike about how they must change what they offer to satisfy their Generation Y employees. We had a live specimen of this generation on stage – a 22-year-old digital entrepreneur who, in his short life to date, has already produced apps attracting millions of downloads, and joined (and quit after 18 months) a multinational corporation as its head of product innovation.
Gen Y, this whizz kid effectively told us, know what they want, feel entitled to have what they want, and know how to get it via their tablets and mobiles. That goes for corporate travel too – they will source trips how they please, and, unless employers can offer them technology of consumer-type levels of attractiveness, compliance won’t happen. As I told our youthful speaker, his presentation reminded me of another film, the one about my ancestor Brian Cohen, because I couldn’t decide whether he was the Messiah or just a very naughty boy.
Later that same week, I happened to receive a press release from the Guild of Travel Management Companies (GTMC). It had surveyed 1,000 business travellers about rail, and discovered 28 per cent of the respondents aged 18-29 typically travel in first class, compared with 16 per cent of all respondents. What is more, three times as many of the younger travellers as the older ones think priority should be given to expanding first class compartment capacity rather than standard class.
Commenting on these findings, GTMC chief executive Paul Wait was quoted as saying: “The differences between business travellers under 30 and those older are important considerations for the rail industry. It is essential that services evolve to meet their different needs.”
What this statement implicitly said to me was: if young people want to travel first class, we’d better make sure they can. What Gen Y want, so Gen Y must get.
Must it? Do we have to join them, or can’t we just beat them? I mainly mean that metaphorically (although I sort of mean that literally, too – preferably with a big stick), for example, with a rigid travel policy mandate.
Now, if all the above sounds like the agonisings of a parent of Gen Y children, that’s because I am. And that was something else which dawned on me at this forum: travel management is very much like parenting. We want our kids to get out and about to learn new things and make new friends, but we need to make sure they do it safely and without breaking the bank, and we have to be there for them if things go wrong.
What’s more, have you ever realised that many travel managers are the same age as parents of older children? And if you’re a parent, you’ll know that to give kids exactly what they want every time they demand it is a recipe for disaster. On the other hand, you’ll also know that sometimes you need to adapt to a different generation’s way of doing things. I’m not suggesting travel managers say “no” to everything Kevin and Perry want, but I do think we are running the risk of saying “yes” too much as well. They don’t need to travel first class, but travel managers should give travellers as much choice as they can without damaging the travel programme, and they must communicate in the (mobile) media Kevin and Perry actually use.
BA and Marriott gave thought-provoking presentations at the forum on how changing demographics are making them re-examine everything from airline seat layouts to loyalty schemes. Suppliers are concluding they can no longer solely target the tastes and needs of Western, middle-aged males – and that’s a good thing, despite being a Western middle-aged male myself.
Flexibility and a more relaxed style seems to be the prevailing design philosophy, and Marriott has been putting that theory into practice with its new meeting layouts. Some of the conference rooms at its Amsterdam property look more like the living areas of trendy city apartments than what we have grown up thinking of as a meeting space (banqueting tables, theatre-style seating and so on).
It may sound weird, but it worked, even for our ancient baby boomer/Gen X audience. In fact, audience engagement was some of the best I have ever experienced. Speaking as someone who once saw a CD box-set entitled Chillout at a friend’s house, and concluded it must be the collected works of an obscure 19th-century French composer pronounced “Shilloo”, all I can say is: “Legend – really bangin’, bruv. And please pop another Arctic Monkeys disc on the gramophone, innit?”