Despite the billions of euros they spend collectively, Europe’s corporate travel managers go largely unheard by regulators. The massive inconvenience of the European Union’s formal requirement for anyone travelling for work to carry A1 social security certificates “is a good example why BT4Europe was founded,” says Christoph Carnier, president of VDR, the German travel management association.
BT4Europe, shorthand for the European Network of Business Travel Associations, was launched late last month by 13 national business travel associations, including VDR. It aims to give travel buyers a united voice on public affairs, especially in Brussels.
Until now, VDR has almost single-handedly led corporate travel lobbying to introduce an exemption for short-term business visitors (as opposed to, for example, manual workers) to the A1 certificate rules. VDR is on the verge of success with this quest but, says Carnier, the task would have been much smoother if a pan-European association had led the campaign. A united buyer voice might even have secured business traveller exemption when the A1 rules were originally drafted.
“In our discussions with the authorities in Brussels, they kept asking us if we had representation through an association at a European level,” says Carnier. “We can have a much stronger impact if they see it really is a European topic.”
BT4Europe starts life with two key aspirations. The first is to generate data about the corporate travel sector. “We know business travel is important but the real facts and figures about how much gross domestic product it drives, volume of travel, how many people are on the road and so on is missing,” says Patrick Diemer, founding chairman of BT4Europe and a former managing director of payments company AirPlus International. “Without data it’s difficult to have any conversation.”
BT4Europe hopes to use the same organisation that researches data for VDR’s annual report on business travel in Germany. “It’s tried and tested and they know that the figures they get are the ones policy makers are requesting,” says Lotten Fowler, general manager of the Swedish Business Travel Association and a board director of BT4Europe. “VDR has managed to get the ear of decision makers in a way none of the others of us have.”
The second aspiration is to start putting buyers’ perspective across on key issues. The underlying goal is to make business travel more frictionless, a need underlined by the experience of Covid. “Free business travel is a prerequisite for free trade,” says Diemer. “You can live for a while on the trade relationships that were established when there was still free travel, but you can’t establish new relationships.
“Coherence is the keyword. It’s such a disaster that the rules are all different. That’s a key message we need to put across.” Diemer points to lingering inconsistencies, even among EU members, in vaccination requirements and quarantine rules.
Thanks to extensive vaccination and the typically mild symptoms – if you are vaccinated – of the omicron variant, Covid restrictions are finally being wound down, but Fowler warns: “The question is whether lessons will be learned. You need to make a plan for the next time this happens so that we don’t need to close down borders and can continue to see colleagues and customers in other countries.”
Fowler adds that inconsistency across Europe in managing Covid-related controls on travel was the catalyst for the new association. BT4Europe is calling for far greater digitalisation and harmonisation in future so that, for example, only one passenger locator form would have to be completed for a multi-leg journey around the EU.
“There is so much paperwork still in many business travel-related processes,” says Diemer. “The Posted Workers Directive [another EU social security admin requirement related to A1 certificates] is an infamous example where regulators imposed a new rule to prevent misuse of cheap labour from Eastern Europe but at the same time forgot that the way they implemented their rule created a big administrative nightmare for everybody who travels on behalf of their business. If they keep it, it needs to be digital.”
The other key issue on which BT4Europe intends to be heard is sustainability. The association says travel managers want to make business travel more sustainable, but regulators aren’t helping them.
Once again, the key challenge is inconsistency. BT4Europe is calling for the EU to publish sustainability reporting standards. “They have made regulations that we need to report but they haven’t told us what to report or how,” says Fowler. “If they are going to make rules and regulations, they need to understand how our industry works.”
BT4Europe aims to provide a position paper by the summer to contribute to the EU’s Fit for 55 package of proposals for transport, climate, energy, land use and taxation policies to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55 per cent by 2030.
Limited resources mean that in its early months BT4Europe will confine activities to those described above, but its leaders have plenty of other issues on which they would like to coordinate buyer demands. Diemer mentions harmonisation and, again, digitalisation of VAT recovery processes; and providing input into the European Commission’s review of its GDS Code of Conduct.
Meanwhile, Fowler remains deeply concerned about data transfers from the EU to the US, the legality of which have been cast in severe doubt by the Schrems I and II European Court of Justice judgments. It’s a crucial issue for business travel because so many of the service providers which dominate this sector house their data in the US.
“It has created lots of movement in Nordic countries,” says Fowler. “The government sector moved away from the international TMCs because they’re afraid of the data upheaval following Schrems II. There are huge concerns and worries, so we need to solve that.”
BT4Europe won’t be running out of matters to occupy it any time soon.