the sun is setting over the clouds in the mountains

Combining business and leisure travel is not a new phenomenon – we were gifted the portmanteau ‘bleisure’ back in 2009 – but in the post-pandemic era of remote work and travel-starved employees seeking greater work-life balance, bleisure travel has been given a new lease on life.

A 2022 industry poll conducted by the Global Business Travel Association found that two in five travel managers (41 per cent) reported an increase in the desire for blended or bleisure travel among employees. One estimate holds that in 2022 blended travel had a market value of $497.5 billion, and some experts insist that providing support for it can be an important tool in attracting and retaining talent.

What does this mean for travel managers? And is there value in thinking beyond business travel for a managed travel programme? Salesforce senior director of global travel Dorian Stonie is a long-time believer in the value of bleisure travel and has integrated leisure travel as part of the software company’s managed travel programme “from day one.”

“We wanted to leverage not just our corporate travel spend, but all the travel activity within our community… so we started partnering with our suppliers on how to extend discounts, benefits and services to the personal side of travel,” he explains.

Stonie says the added leisure volume “makes us a more multifaceted account” for suppliers and has enabled Salesforce to negotiate better corporate rates.

“[The programme] has been very well received, especially among our younger employees,” he says. “And when it comes to travel policy, we allow personal extensions or bleisure so long as it does not add any additional cost to the trip, and if it does, the expectation is the employee will then break out any of those additional expenses.”

Salesforce currently has more than 20,000 travellers in its ‘road warriors’ community, which has “one of the most interactive Slack channels in the company,” where conversations traverse both business and leisure travel, says Stonie. 

The added personal benefits for travellers have also driven greater policy compliance and has proven to be an important factor in both attracting and retaining employees.

Post-pandemic, Stonie says the company’s business travel patterns are “evolving.” Business travel volume is down compared with 2019, unsurprisingly, but the average length of stay has increased, due to a combination of “purposeful travel” – folding multiple trips into one – and personal extensions, according to Stonie.

Size doesn't matter

Even travel managers with smaller-scale programmes are finding value in harnessing leisure and blended travel. Tracie Saunders, director of business operations at HR consulting firm Segal, manages a travel programme with some 300 travellers, 75 of whom are frequent travellers. She said incentivising her employees to access corporate discounts for their personal travel, and extending supplier benefits via loyalty programme memberships helps to drive compliance and discourage leakage.

As a smaller programme, she says, “we are not in a position where we have a lot of upfront discounts, so for me it’s more about capturing spill and making sure that all of our spend is visible.”

An inherent part of this process includes employees linking Segal’s corporate ID to their personal loyalty membership when booking leisure travel. Benefits from airlines include promotional discounts and additional status points, while brand-wide hotel discounts provide opportunities for savings, especially, according to Saunders, for smaller programmes that might not have enough volume in a particular city to establish a meaningful relationship with an individual property.

While providing suppliers direct access to individual travellers has been a sore point among some travel managers, Saunders says she “likes the idea of being able to work in tandem” with airline and hotel loyalty programmes.

“For me, the traveller experience is improved when someone can become a loyalist of a brand that we already partner with and where we’re offering them [personal] savings opportunities and their status is increasing… and even though I’m not going pay for them to be in a suite because that’s not our policy, if travellers can be in a suite [thanks to status upgrades] while they’re on the road for us, then that improves their experience and makes them that much more excited [to travel],” she says.

Salesforce has also been successful in building direct supplier connections with its road warrior community through dedicated Slack channels. “We do have guidelines with the suppliers that access the channels,” says Stonie. “They can’t be selling or promoting non-preferred suppliers or promoting something that would be deemed outside of policy.”

Stonie adds that facilitating the business-to-business-to-consumer connection and allowing suppliers to communicate directly with travellers in real time has improved the traveller experience and helped to improve efficiencies around addressing traveller enquiries. 

“It’s a win-win-win situation, and we’re always looking for ways to be able to enhance it,” he says. “We’re looking to extend access to an increasing number of preferred suppliers within our global programme.”

Courting leakage?

While a combination of cost savings, productivity gains and happy travellers seems like a match made in heaven, GoldSpring Consulting partner Will Tate says the deployment of New Distribution Capability (NDC) air content and the onset of technology like ChatGPT could lure travellers further astray with personalised sales and marketing messages based on personal traveller preferences rather than corporate policy. And the risk of this happening increases, according to Tate, when leisure or blended travel are added to the mix because “travellers get accustomed” to particular hotel chains or airlines.

“The traveller experience is improved when someone can become a loyalist of a brand that we already partner with and where we’re offering them personal savings opportunities and their status is increasing”

Segal's Tracie Saunders

“If the programme of record is not providing the best fare, the best experience, this will very likely stress the system and that tension is likely to drive [travellers] outside [the programme],” Tate explains. “And if they go outside the programme we lose duty of care, we lose negotiation leverage and we also lose the ability to create a nice, harmonious experience for the traveller.”

Consulting giant EY last year launched a pilot project with open-source travel distribution platform Winding Tree to provide a blockchain-based portal for its US-based employees to book leisure trips.

In a previous interview with BTN, EY global innovation and technology lead Ian Spearing said the company wanted to test NDC capabilities to personalise content and fare bundles in the leisure space to “bring something different to employees”.

“We wanted to really test how someone can build a combination of discounts and benefits that can be packaged together, depending on the types of routes they would select, that is not fully constructed in the current GDS,” Spearing said in December.

At the time, Spearing said feedback from employees had been “great” and the company was looking to expand the offer globally as well as integrate a hotel component. “We’ve definitely identified and proved that there is supply chain efficiency and visibility improvements by connecting directly in the leisure space,” Spearing added.

Supply and demand inconsistencies

When it comes to reworking travel policy to incorporate blended trips, Tate says only about 25 per cent of his clients are “putting effort into it” and currently assessing how to improve management processes. That’s not to say bleisure travel isn’t happening. “It’s happening 99 per cent of time,” says Tate. But challenges around traveller safety and insurance, as well as shortfalls in traditional booking infrastructure, are limiting widescale programme change.

The post-pandemic rise of the ‘workation,’ in which an employee works remotely for an extended period of time, usually in a leisure destination, also raises questions about duty of care and the longer-term impacts on managed travel.

The new ISO 31030 standard for managing business travel risk, released in 2021, doesn’t stipulate whether support for blended trips should be provided, but indicates it should be clarified in a company’s travel policy and communicated to employees. 

While the bleisure trend has been leveraged by some companies to attract and retain talent, sometimes with a remuneration package that includes a personal workation travel budget, this is largely considered the purview of the HR department, rather than travel.

CWT Solutions Group senior director Rich Johnson says remote work models are “definitely” influencing an increase in bleisure travel and workations, but that the TMC has not witnessed any clients leverage the additional leisure volume in contract negotiations.

“The reason we aren’t seeing a material change in negotiation leverage is because the destinations could be more commonly leisure traveller locations and as such, volumes wouldn’t warrant discounts, demand from holidaymakers would be high anyway, and the competition on certain routes may not be on a large enough scale,” he says.

Similarly, Laura Kusto, vice president and global hotel practice lead at BCD’s Advito consultancy told BTN that bleisure hasn’t affected their corporate clients’ hotel sourcing strategies. Instead, she said chief concerns are around mitigating rate increases and assessing sustainability metrics.

At least one technology partner for BCD, however, has a different view. “Blended travel requires access to different content and different experiences and travel managers are keen to facilitate this for their employees,” says Adam Kerr, founder and CEO of Tripism, a business travel planning platform, that is part of BCD’s SolutionSource marketplace. But current travel booking technology, he said, doesn’t facilitate blended travel.

Tripism already enables the presentation of supplier benefits and promotions to travellers. Kerr says “significant volumes of users” are accessing the platform to take advantage of suppliers’ leisure promotions and benefits.

“[Bleisure] is a huge added value for employees, and it’s something that is meaningful to them and that an organisation should be mindful of”

Segal's Tracie Saunders

Norway-based tech start-up Travelin.AI, meanwhile, is taking things a step further with its online booking tool which allows travellers to combine business and leisure trips while automatically separating the expenses.

“We looked at how people live, work and travel and built the technology backwards,” says Travelin.AI CEO Roy Golden. He added that travellers want a better booking and expense management experience, and that current tech is “stuck in the 80s.”

“In the new [post-Covid] world it doesn’t make sense [for an OBT] to just deliver a business trip, we’re too far gone,” he says.

The cloud-based platform can be customised according to corporate needs, with capabilities to book air and hotel for business and/or leisure travel, blended travel and workations.

The platform also includes individual profiles for guest travellers (family and friends) to be added to blended trips, while the workation feature allows travellers to tap into a travel budget attached to their compensation package.

“We built our own payment technology so the system can identify what is a business expense and what is a leisure expense and separates them automatically with no financial burden to the business and zero intervention by the traveller,” Golden explains.

Since its soft launch last July, Travelin.AI has been working with 13 corporate clients, largely from the management consulting and tech industries, to build the tool’s AI capability. Of these, two clients use the tool solely to manage workation packages, while the remainder are booking business and bleisure trips. The ultimate goal, however, is to offer the tool to TMCs as an end-to-end platform or to integrate with existing workflows.

But even without the productivity gains of automation, both Stonie and Saunders believe bleisure travel adds a meaningful component to their managed programmes.

“[Bleisure travel] is a huge added value for employees, and it’s something that is meaningful to them and that an organisation should be mindful of,” says Saunders. And while gray areas, such as additional TMC transaction fees or insurance coverage for blended trips, can “create issues,” she said the benefits of supporting employee wellbeing through bleisure travel “are valuable enough that [travel managers] should be willing to evaluate every kind of pain point, and to address them, as opposed to turning off the opportunity.”