BTN Europe presents an overview of business travel and MICE predictions for this year
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ExCeL London - 30 Sep - 01 Oct 2021
Suppliers are adapting to hybrid work and leisure concepts for employees, but how do you manage a deconstructed workforce?
Aurelie Krau has only just returned from a week in Munich. Before that came a short spell in Croatia. In early 2019 it was six weeks in Columbia. And in just a few weeks – as she has done for the past four years – Krau will escape Europe’s freezing winter and head off for two-and-a-half months travelling in sunnier climes.
Enviable as it seems, Krau isn’t simply on an extended holiday. Instead she combines this packed travel schedule – which makes up about 60-70 per cent of her time, she estimates – with remote working as a consultant for travel management firm Festive Road. The company is made up of 16 such consultants working as contractors and based in locations as widespread as Germany, the Nordics and Australia.
The set-up means Krau’s travel schedule is a mix of pleasure and professional, too. For example, while Munich was strictly business to attend the annual GBTA conference, Columbia was leisure, with Krau a self-proclaimed “sun seeker”. “We have the luxury of being right in the middle of the business travel ecosystem as we’re talking to everybody,” says Krau of Festive Road’s company structure. She is able to catch up with a client thousands of miles away while sitting on a tropical beach.
Idealistic as it all sounds, Krau and Festive Road’s approach is symptomatic of a far wider social trend. “My quest to see the world is not isolated,” she says. “I believe all younger generations now want to see the world and I’ve met many people on trips, either those who have just graduated and want to spend a year seeing the world, or who those have quit their job as their company didn’t offer them the opportunity to travel.”
An increasing number though, like Krau, don’t feel the need to bookmark travel before and after a career move or quit entirely. Instead they’re combining extended trips with extended periods of remote work as so-called digital nomads.
A study by mobile payment platform And.Co found that 39.3 per cent of those describing themselves this way were employed by global companies, with 17 per cent combining work with travel to more than five countries per year.
Growing tribeAt Remote Year, a specialist travel company that creates year-long programmes for people looking to do just that, around 50 per cent of participants are full-time employees, says a Remote Year spokesperson, “meaning they have received approval from their employer to keep their job and work remotely”.
And why not? After all, remote working as a concept is firmly established. A recent study by Swiss-based office provider IWG found that more than two-thirds of professionals globally now work away from the office at least once per week, while half (53 per cent) do so for at least half the week.
What difference does a flight and a few thousand miles make anyway when so much work is virtual nowadays? “If my client is based in the UK or US, we wouldn’t physically be in the same country,” says Krau. “It’s about organisation and navigating time zones to make it work.”
The fact is, though, for travel managers it can be a potential headache, throwing up issues of duty-of-care and blurred bleisure lines that their current policies may not have the solutions to. So, how can they make it work?
Bleisure has created grey lines on where business starts and stops
New infrastructuresOn the one hand, the increasing acceptance of remote working and digital nomads means the emergence of brand-new infrastructures in hospitality that travel managers and the digital nomads among their staff can take advantage of, not least hybrid work and leisure concepts from a growing number of hotel chains.
Village Hotel Club, for example, recently launched a brand new co-working space across its 30 hotels called VWorks which, it says, offers modern hot-desking spaces with meeting rooms, a lounge area, super-fast wifi, free printing and free refreshments. “The rise in flexible working has meant there are more people on the road, working from home, or simply looking for a temporary space away from the office,” says chief executive Paul Roberts. “It’s from this that VWorks was born.”
In May last year, Accor also announced a plan to implement 1,200 co-working spaces in its hotels worldwide by 2022 as part of a joint venture with Bouygues Immobilier called WOJO. “Through our new range of spaces, we are now able to meet a key customer need: combining the quality of work life with mobility,” said chief executive Stephane Bensimon of the announcement.
And in November NH Hotels Group launched its City Connection service, too, providing clients with crossover access to services in its international hotels, to suit those frequently on the move. Then there is, of course, the plethora of standalone co-working spaces and managed workspaces now available to remote workers, with the likes of WeWork (ahead of its fall from grace) valued at an eyewatering US$47bn.
Set-ups such as Remote Year, meanwhile, take care of almost every aspect of the logistics when it comes to combining travel and work, says its spokesperson. “We set our participants up with accommodation, transportation between each city on their itinerary (flights and door to door service from airport to apartment), 24/7 access to a coworking space with reliable and high speed internet, on the ground staff, a community of like-minded professionals to travel alongside, and various community events, professional events, and cultural events.”
In addition, “we will work with the company to better explain how our programme works and how their employee will be in good hands and able to do their job. Travel days are always on weekends and are planned by us, expenses are totally up to the individual.”
All of which makes the scenario appear practically effortless. But the truth is a little more complex for those overseeing travel. Yes, there might be the facilities available for employees to work effectively while travelling, but how does all this interact with an existing travel policy? Who pays for what? And where does duty-of-care begin and end?
1. Check facilities are right for remote working. “People often underestimate the ability to work from cafes and restaurants in foreign cities,” says Remote Year. “They can be loud, crowded, have internet limitations, etc.”
2. Check an employee has the right tools. Alongside the obvious – a decent laptop and smartphone – companies will need to consider supplying international sim cards, Skype for Business subscriptions for long-distance calls and private VPNs where work material might be sensitive.
3. Check your insurance. “Check whether the company insurance covers this scenario,” says Judith Heinrich of Travelicity. For example, some policies restrict the number of days an employee can be out the country and so aren’t suitable for digital nomads.
4. Verify duty-of-care for each destination. Whether or not an employer may be liable for any accidents or incidents that arise will depend largely upon the law in which a digital nomad is currently based. France, for example, is well known for being strict in placing duty-of-care on employers in most cases.
5. Agree when and how the travel booking policy will apply. Ensure this is explicitly agreed with an employee and HR ahead of them embarking on their travel. If necessary, write an additional clause into their contract, advises Heinrich.
Obstacles on the roadThat last question is perhaps the biggest obstacle to companies embracing the trend, believes Krau. “Duty-of-care is core when you’re talking about travel management and that’s one of the first blocks preventing travel managers moving forward with this at a faster pace.” But, she adds, “we should stop using duty-of-care as an excuse. Just find solutions because there are solutions.”
One company is asking digital nomads to sign waivers for when they’re travelling during their employment, she suggests. “The responsibility of the company is then not engaged if something were to happen.” Exactly where a traveller is at any given time can make a big difference though, cautions Judith Heinrich, managing director of Travelicity. “The big challenge is that I don’t think the majority of corporates have a policy in place,” she says. “Nobody is thinking of the implications. Bleisure has created grey lines on where business starts and stops. And you’ve got the same challenges here.”
Any travel manager considering allowing an employee to make such a move needs to take into consideration what insurance does and doesn’t cover, the law in any given country and also any impact on taxation.
Those same blurred lines can arise when working out how to manage the business travel of an employee that is already working remotely and so travelling under their own steam. Heinrich suggests an exception to standard travel policies might be the best way to address this. “If a person is required to attend a meeting in the UK, for example, but lives abroad, my argument would be that we’ll pay for the flight but not business class.
“It’s the same way you have different policies for contractors or if you fly someone over for an interview. It’s decided on a case-by-case basis. It may even be set out in their employment contract that if they decide to base themselves in different countries then if there are additional travel costs then they are liable for those.”
Evolving toolsKrau says there are online booking tools in their infancy that can accommodate this kind of scenario, too, allowing users to flit between booking business trips, where expenses are routed to an employer, and personal trips, where expenses are their own responsibility. “But this isn’t mainstream yet and online booking tools do need to reinvent themselves” to reflect this shift.
“Think of Uber,” says Krau. “You store as many cards as you want. If it’s personal you pay with your personal card; if it’s a business trip you pay with a corporate card. It’s easy. With Booking.com you have personal and professional profiles. We don’t have that yet in a business tool.”
Some suppliers do offer such a service when booking direct though, such as ground transport provider Groundscope. “Our services can also be booked for the employee’s personal travel and our system allows travellers to hold a personal credit card to pay for these personal trips alongside their corporate credit card, a big plus for digital nomads,” says chief executive John McCallion. “Making personal bookings while travelling abroad also allows us to know where people are travelling so if any incident occurs we or your company can get hold of you to check that you are safe.”
It’s clear that for all the employee perks of jetting off while still receiving a pay cheque, there are all sorts of complexities that can arise for the travel managers left behind. Which goes some way to explain a sense of hesitation that surrounds the concept of digital nomads. But what’s also clear is that the next generation of workers have a serious case of itchy feet.
Companies that plan for managing digital nomads have a value proposition that gives them the edge when it comes to recruiting and retaining talent, believes Krau. And, with that, she’s off, no doubt, to plan her next trip.