This article was first published in the Sep/Oct issue of BTN Europe
The return of business travel within Europe and beyond is undoubtedly going to be a tentative process with the Covid-19 pandemic crisis far from over, amid emerging virus hotspots and increasing fears of a ‘second wave’ of infections during the winter.
This is putting new – and frankly unprecedented – pressure on an organisation’s corporate travel policy. But with the pandemic being such an unpredictable crisis, how can corporates effectively manage their policies and ensure duty-of-care to travellers when they get back on the road?
There has been much talk about introducing ‘pop up policies’ which are essentially temporary rules to deal with travel during the immediate Covid period. But how do these policies work in practice and will some of the changes introduced now become permanent in the post-Covid world?
Getting back on the road
In a way, decisions were much simpler in the pandemic’s early days in spring with many organisations introducing travel bans, especially for international trips – many of these bans are set to stay in place until later this year or even the start of 2021.
But business travel is slowly starting to get going again and this puts renewed pressure on travel policies to cope with the range of issues the pandemic is creating. So how are buyers changing their policies to deal with this challenge?
A study by the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) found that 59 per cent of European travel buyers had changed their policies due to the pandemic, with 61 per cent of this group saying they had changed their policies either ‘a lot’ or ‘somewhat’. The most common change for European-based organisations has been introducing new pre-trip approval rules (60 per cent of buyers), followed by more frequent or detailed pre-trip communication and briefings (42 per cent) and requiring travellers to use corporate or TMC booking channels (26 per cent).
Other common tweaks to policy have included new rules about ground transport, including permitting more use of rental cars, as well as collecting more detailed health information from travellers.
As for organisations yet to make any changes or introduce pop up policies, research from the ITM (Institute of Travel Management) found that they did not feel the need to do so yet, due to blanket travel bans or because “no change reinforces prior policy which reassures travellers”.
So what’s the best way to make sure your corporate travel policy is rigorous, effective and flexible in dealing with the practical realities and potential sudden changes to travel advice or quarantine requirements that are the ‘new normal’ of the Covid travel world?
Caroline Strachan, managing partner at consultancy Festive Road, says pop up policies should define what “permissible travel” is, as well as creating “clarity and reassurance for travellers during this pandemic phase”.
“We encourage policy owners to think about the new information needed across the plan–book-prepare-travel-return continuum,” she explains. “In the plan stage, what level of approval is now required and what locations are permitted? In the booking phase, how should a traveller book and are the choices of suppliers limited or different to before?”
A travel manager for a professional services company says they have yet to make “wholesale changes” to policy due to their current travel ban. “When travel does eventually return, we will most likely have additional approval controls to ensure that destinations are safe, but it will be a very slow and phased return rather than a full return,” he says.
“We will also have additional training and communications for travellers to keep them safe. Lastly, we will likely have bookings made centrally rather than by the travellers themselves to make sure we are leveraging the best options available and using any credits or vouchers where possible – from airlines, for example.”
Flexibility is crucial for Click Travel’s CEO Jill Palmer, who adds: “Policy control needs to be flexible and agile – no policy is forever. It’s also really important to have different policies for different types of employees.
“Essential workers may need to travel for work while other types of employees may have their travel reduced for a little longer,” says Palmer.
Al Norman, director, global business consulting, at American Express Global Business Travel, says organisations should also consider allowing employees to decline to travel within the policy if they have “reasonable safety concerns”.
“These could include health conditions or a situation at home – for example, family members who are vulnerable or shielding,” says Norman. “It’s also important to define acceptable reasons to travel, so management can understand and communicate.”
Higher levels of pre-trip approval – often from the very top of an organisation – is here to stay as the pandemic continues, and features prominently in a series of case studies of pop up policies collated by the ITM.
Generally, the level of management approval is at a higher level for international trips than domestic travel, with the latter widely predicted to pick up more quickly than international travel in the coming months.
As well as higher levels of approval, many policies are also only allowing client-facing or business-critical travel, with all internal meetings having to be conducted virtually through online video conferencing platforms.
A buyer for a financial data company says their travel policy is “constantly reviewed” even though business travel is unlikely to meaningfully resume until 2021.
“We have increased the level of approvals required for any travel to executive approval. Only business-critical [travel] is permitted and under very specific guidelines,” she adds.
A UK-based buyer in the financial services sector says the company is operating a “restricted approval process” for travel during the pandemic. “Any travel request requires senior executive approval,” she says.
“Business-critical and client-facing travel only will be considered. We will not permit travel to countries where there are quarantine measures in place,” she adds.
Chris Bowen, managing director, EMEA, for travel management giant CWT says clients have “widely introduced or enforced” approvals processes for proposed trips, and many corporates switched off their online booking tools (OBTs) during the pandemic.
One of the pre-Covid priorities for buyers was to keep pushing more bookings online to drive down costs. But many organisations have now changed their policy to ban or limit the use of OBTs during the Covid crisis in order to implement strict approval processes and keep tighter control.
While doing everything offline is clearly manageable when there is only a trickle of bookings being made, what happens as travel picks up in the coming months?
James McIlvenna, head of account management at Corporate Traveller UK, says most of its SME clients are not currently using OBTs and are instead “relying on our consultants for expertise and offline support” to guide them through the fast-changing travel environment.
“The purpose of an OBT is to enable bookings to be made quickly at short notice,” he says. “But due to Covid-19, business travel is no longer decided at the last minute; it is planned and pre-meditated. If a country suddenly closes its borders or has a second spike, clients need to discuss the implications with their travel consultant. That sort of information can’t be built into an OBT.”
But will this signal a longer-term move away from booking tools or will it be a temporary shift back to offline service to deal with these unique circumstances?
Consultant Raj Sachdave, managing partner at Black Box Partnerships, is already detecting a shift back to OBTs in recent weeks as business travel slowly returns. “Initially we saw offline TMC teams filtering all transactions, adding value and insight that technology couldn’t filter,” he says. “OBTs are now back on – albeit with additional filters, biasing and authorisation layers. These all link back to TMCs’ offline teams who continue to keep travellers informed and safe.”
Sachdave also believes the wave of pop up policies is starting to “taper off” and are instead transforming into longer-term “new normal” policies.
“There’s greater clarity on Covid-19 measures and patterns – local lockdowns, air bridges, safe lists – that’s allowed businesses and TMCs to predict and plan with greater accuracy,” he adds.
Festive Road’s Caroline Strachan agrees that OBTs “don’t necessarily need to be switched off” during the pandemic. “TMCs and OBTs have stepped up and created new approval processes, traveller reassurance data points and more,” she says. “Online will absolutely be required as demand returns. It’s hard to scale with human-only booking services.”
While we are living through extraordinary times, will travel policies simply snap back to their previous pre-Covid incarnations once the crisis is over? Pretty much nobody thinks so, with the virus likely leading to some permanent changes.
Corporate Traveller’s James McIlvenna says the crisis has seen duty-of-care become “front and centre” of policies rather than just a “sub section”.
“A lot of interim measures, particularly duty-of-care and guidelines around non-essential travel versus essential travel, are likely to remain in place and shape travel policy in the longer term,” he adds.
Policy is also bound to be profoundly affected by the massive increase in the use of virtual meeting platforms, with rules around internal meetings being conducted online likely to endure beyond Covid.
“We will see less travel than before as we’ve seen this year how well we are able to work remotely without having to travel so frequently to meet face to face,” says one buyer. “Travel overall will be more thought-out and considered if it’s truly adding value and is necessary.”
Another buyer thinks travel will be also be “much more restricted” as organisations seek cost savings, reduced carbon emissions and offer more flexible working – all considerations likely to form part of emerging post-Covid travel policies.
While many current restrictions contained within pop up policies will ease significantly when the pandemic eventually ends and travel resumes in a more significant way, travel policies seem very unlikely to simply revert to where they were at the start of 2020.
The factors buyers should consider in interim or ‘pop up’ travel policies
• Travel policies needs to address the issue of employees who may not be confident or comfortable with travelling during the pandemic. While this will be primarily a HR issue, buyers can help to create a company-wide position within the policy for employees who do not want to travel.
• The policy should provide a step-by-step guide to journeys detailing how the organisation is supporting the traveller throughout the trip from booking/approval to the journey itself and the return home. This includes setting out the responsibilities of both the employer and the traveller. Some corporates have created helplines to reassure travellers.
• Health and hygiene protocols at airports, stations and hotels, as well as on-board transport providers, are changing constantly. A good TMC or accommodation specialist can help buyers keep track of these changes. Buyers may wish to choose one or two preferred properties in key destinations based on their high hygiene standards.
• Clarity is key in informing travellers how they should be booking trips, particularly if they are required to book through a travel management company or corporate online booking tool. Approval processes for different types of travel, meetings and destinations should also be communicated clearly with all employees.
• Policies need to reflect the fast-moving nature of the pandemic with destination travel advice and quarantine measures changing regularly and often at very short notice. What happens if a trip destination is suddenly placed on a quarantine list by the traveller’s home country? What’s the protocol when a traveller is already in a destination and the border suddenly closes or policies change?
• Travellers also need to be informed of any Covid measures they may face in a destination, including whether they have to take personal protective equipment or medication with them. These measures can also be enshrined in an interim policy.