This article first appeared in the Sep/Oct issue of BTN Europe
While business travel is still fairly limited despite moves to re-open borders across the world, suppliers are touting their new safety and hygiene protocols in order to win back consumer confidence.
But with so much communication around new procedures from suppliers, not to mention measures being enforced by local governments, travel managers say they – and their travellers – are getting overwhelmed and confused. Here, we take a look at just some of the actions suppliers are taking, as well as how they impact travel managers and how TMCs are helping to cut through the confusion.
HOTELS AND APARTMENTS
Larger chain brands undoubtedly had an easier task of promoting new protocols than their independent competitors, having more resources at the beginning of the pandemic to develop such programmes. Most have branded their procedures: Marriott International has Commitment to Cleanliness, Hilton has CleanStay and Accor worked with Bureau Veritas to create the ALLSAFE certification label. Hyatt, Radisson Hotel Group and IHG were also quick to release details of their new cleanliness procedures. In the UK, Premier Inn announced CleanProtect, while Travelodge developed its Protect+ programme.
Recognising the struggle for independent hotels to implement their own communication and standards, hotel solutions provider HRS worked with SGS to develop the Clean & Safe Protocol, which can be used by any property regardless of whether it is partnered with HRS. The programme includes two options for displaying compliance – the Self-Inspected certification and an Expert-Inspected option.
The main pillars of these programmes include enhanced cleaning and disinfection of high-touch areas in both public spaces and guest rooms, physical distancing in public areas, protective shields at check-in desks, hand sanitiser stations throughout properties and new procedures around room service and housekeeping to limit contact between guests and staff.
Several hotel chains have also implemented touchless check-in and check-out procedures. More recently, companies such as Marriott, Hyatt, IHG, Choice and Wyndham have introduced face mask requirements in public areas in certain markets.
For serviced apartments, which have come into the corporate travel spotlight during the pandemic thanks to their largely self-service, low-touch model, the Association of Serviced Apartment Providers (ASAP) added the Stay With Confidence element to its accreditation process, outlining new hygiene standards properties must meet.
ACCOMMODATION BEST PRACTICE
While most hotel groups are following a standard set of industry-wide procedures to ensure cleanliness in the time of Covid, there are some that have taken extra steps to reassure travellers. Hilton has introduced a CleanStay room seal, which is placed on the door of a guest room to show it has not been entered since undergoing cleaning. Meanwhile, Marriott is using electrostatic sprayers with disinfectants recommended by the CDC to clean guest rooms, lobbies, gyms and other public areas. The technology enables a uniform coating of disinfectant on sprayed objects, including areas that could be missed with traditional cleaning methods. The company is also utilising ultraviolet light technology to sanitise rooms keys and devices used by employees. Premier Inn has made the decision to replace shower curtains after every stay, while Travelodge has implemented post-clean room checks with ‘digital tracking’ in place to ensure every room is cleaned according to new protocols.
AIRLINES AND AIRPORTS
IATA, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) have all published similar guidelines around the minimum steps airlines can take to protect their staff and customers. These include recommendations on cleaning of both aircraft cabins and airports, social distancing wherever possible – as well as the use of face masks where it’s not possible to maintain distance – and reducing on-board services.
Measures have so far included disinfecting high-touch areas such as tray tables and arm rests between every flight alongside enhanced full-cabin disinfecting measures each night, as well as the requirement for passengers and crew to wear a face mask or covering throughout the flight. Many have adjusted boarding and disembarking processes to avoid passengers congregating at gates and in the aisles. Some carriers continue to keep middle seats empty for social distancing purposes.
It’s a similar situation at airports – enhanced cleaning measures, signage promoting social distancing, efforts to reduce queues at check-in and security screening areas and limited amenities available past security. Some shops and eateries have remained closed, though this is largely down to the fact that airports are still seeing limited footfall.
Most of the major airlines are encouraging the use of their online and mobile app check-in facilities and touchless bag-drop systems. It could be a key component of making people feel safe when travelling during the pandemic, with 48 per cent of business travellers in an SAP Concur survey saying they want to be able to check in via mobile moving forwards.
FLYING SAFE: BEST PRACTICE IN AVIATION
Like other travel providers, there are a few airlines that are adopting the minimum standards recommended by global safety bodies and taking it a step further in an effort to gain consumer confidence. Virgin Atlantic is one of a few carriers to introduce new passenger hygiene kits, which include disposable face masks, disinfectant wipes and hand sanitiser. United Airlines recently brought its touchless bag drop technology to Heathrow airport, which allows passengers to scan their boarding pass – either on a mobile device or printed – at a kiosk and print bag tags without having to input further information on the screen. Although temperature checks are seen by some health experts as ineffective at detecting potential Covid-19 infections, many airports, such as Heathrow, have installed thermal imaging technology to screen passengers as they enter and exit airside areas of the terminals. This is largely being used as a visual reassurance technique to calm passengers’ fears as they travel through the airport.
For car hire, chauffeur drive and train travel in Europe, there does not appear to be unified standards as there are for airlines and hotels, but suppliers are following similar principles.
Car rental companies including Sixt, Europcar, Enterprise, National, Alamo, Hertz and Avis, have implemented enhanced cleaning measures for vehicles and at branches. This includes the use of disinfectants between rentals to minimise the spread of illnesses and contactless pick-ups at some locations to avoid having to go into the branch to collect keys.
Chauffeur and private hire companies face an entirely different challenge – how to protect both drivers and passengers. Providers such as Uber and Addison Lee have started installing Perspex screens in vehicles to separate drivers from riders. This comes in addition to mask requirements in most major global markets, cleaning between rides and the provision of hand sanitiser and gloves for drivers.
Eurostar and other train operators are generally following the airline model, requiring face coverings for all passengers, implementing enhanced cleaning on board trains and deeper cleans overnight, and encouraging passengers to space themselves out wherever possible.
BEST PRACTICE IN GROUND TRANSPORT
Chauffeur drive company Little’s has invested in ozone sanitation technology, which eliminates bacteria and viruses without the use of harsh chemicals and surface products. The firm has also introduced new procedures for handling passengers’ luggage to minimise contact.
Uber added a feature to its app that requires both drivers and riders to confirm they are wearing a mask and have washed or sanitised their hands before accepting or booking a ride. Either party has the power to cancel a trip if they don’t feel safe. Uber also disables the account of any user – driver or rider – who tests positive for coronavirus for 14 days.
Avis is utilising its contactless pick-up system during the pandemic, allowing customers to collect cars from certain ‘key in car’ locations and eliminating the need for them to go inside the branch to fill out paperwork.
THE TRAVEL MANAGER'S PERSPECTIVE
For travel buyers, all of the communication around suppliers’ cleaning protocols can be useful but overwhelming.
Katharina Navarro, global category manager – travel and meetings at Capgemini, says: “Being able to consolidate that information and translate it for the traveller so they know what to expect and the benefits is hugely complex. Which brands have already implemented their new procedures? Which ones are lagging behind? In which markets are they rolling out the protocols? It makes it difficult to understand what it actually means for the individual properties that people might go to.
“I want to be able to tell people ‘this is what your flight will look like, these are the hotels that I suggest because I know what procedures they have in place, here are some ground transportation companies that are enhancing their cleaning measures’. And I’d like to see that information – such as whether an airline leaves the middle seat empty but at an extra cost – in my booking tool so people can make that decision on their own and know that I’m allowing them to pay that little bit more if they choose an airline that does that. There’s lots of moving pieces with this and I’d like to see the information delivered in a more standardised format.”
Navarro says she’s working with her TMC and supplier partners to integrate cleaning protocols into the booking process, but so far the information is limited to a small number of hotels and requires users to click on the screen and read additional text, “so it’s not very user friendly yet”.
The communication of new procedures goes deeper than simply getting the information to travellers. Navarro says her programme – particularly in the French domestic market – includes a “significant number” of independent hotels, which she believes could struggle with getting their message out.
“I haven’t had a lot of communication from them,” she explains. “I’m afraid if they don’t step up their game they’re going to lose out on corporate business, at least temporarily. As a buyer, having spent a lot of time building relationships with these properties, I want to keep them in my programme, but I also see a big risk in them not being able to catch up. And what I’m seeing now is that travellers are starting to lean away from independent properties and more towards the chains because in this situation they want to know what they’re getting.”
Navarro adds that cleaning procedures – particularly in relation to preventing the spread of Covid-19 – will be a part of the RFP process for her this year. “The partners I’ve already spoken to have reassured me that they will be able to collect all of this information and answer any questions I might have,” she says.
Will prices go up to pay for these new cleaning procedures? Navarro thinks not in the short term. “It’s a buyers’ market right now. Suppliers are trying to recover pre-Covid capacity. However, I think there will be a lot of local factors that will influence rates, so I think the way forward in the recovery will be using dynamic rates with a kind of price cap (see p30-33). That’s something I’ve never considered before. I’ve always relied on static rates because I found dynamic rates hard to track and I just didn’t trust them. But this pandemic has changed a lot.”
Looking to the future, Navarro agrees that the structure around new cleaning procedures is here to stay. “Suppliers are investing a lot in these new protocols, and I also think what we’ve learned from this pandemic is how fast these situations can evolve. There’s a lot more awareness about how diseases spread and suppliers are more prepared so they can react faster next time something happens. You never know if it might happen while you’re travelling, so to know that your hotel or your airline is prepared will provide a lot of peace of mind to travellers and corporates.”
HOW TMCs ARE HELPING
TMCs face a bit of a challenge when it comes to aggregating all of the new supplier protocols. Many have updated their procedures several times over the course of the pandemic to respond to the changing epidemiological situation in different markets. This makes ensuring clients have the right information more difficult than simply providing them with a briefing.
Third-party players have tried to bridge the gap when it comes to airline information. ATPCO developed the new Reassurance Universal Product Attribute for Routehappy, which provides information on health-related measures carriers are taking. Meanwhile, Travelport rolled out a Covid-19 resource hub that collates information on suppliers’ safety and cleaning measures.
Multiple TMCs are using a mixture of third-party integrations and their own information-gathering skills. Travel and Transport, Reed and Mackay, Click Travel, Clarity, CWT, BCD Travel, Egencia and Corporate Travel Management (CTM) are among the many names taking steps to keep their clients informed so they can reassure their travellers as they prepare to start travelling again.
Jill Palmer, CEO of Click Travel, which added a hotel search filter to its platform so users can see a property’s cleaning protocols, says: “Customers want reassurance on Covid-19 security and we have been engaging with our suppliers about how they plan to tackle it. At the same time, we have been setting our product engineering team the challenge of helping. The key aspect of the new filter is that it is not static. We will be refining it constantly as more data is received and hotel standards evolve.”
American Express Global Business Travel, meanwhile, has launched Travel Vitals, a free information hub that pulls together details from multiple sources to provide travel managers and travellers with procedures for airlines, airports, hotels, train operators, train stations and ground transport providers in addition to destination-specific information on current infection rates and public health measures.
According to Mark McSpadden, GBT’s VP of global product and UX, destination information is integrated from Riskline, while the TMC has set up a dedicated team of people to source and update supplier-specific details on a daily basis. “Travellers want to know what their trip will look like. While the information being provided by suppliers was thorough, we realised it could be a little overwhelming for travel managers who were in their first stage of research, so we wanted to aggregate the most relevant pieces of data.
“We’re hearing good feedback from clients, that the information being provided is extremely important not just for reassuring travellers but also for making sure the trip they’re planning hasn’t been made impossible by a change in country-level restrictions,” McSpadden adds.
He believes the framework that TMCs are setting up for providing vital information to clients during the pandemic is something that will endure “long after we have a vaccine”.