The Covid-19 pandemic brought approvals processes right back in the spotlight

Duty of care has always been a top priority for the corporate travel community but the pandemic has only served to heighten focus in the area, with travel managers and travel management companies increasingly scrutinising their duty of care processes.

One area that has seen a significant shift is approvals processes for business trips. While some companies have always had them in place, others have seen the introduction of them as an essential step in the current environment.

What's interesting is that while some have turned to automated systems to help tighten up procedures, others have taken a more hands on human approach, which might also enable more flexibility in an ever-changing environment.

Thomas Bey, global procurement category leader, Heineken, says: "With very little corporate travel taking place, we had time to align teams internally across the organisation to collaborate and build a robust consumer-grade travel programme with automated approval processes to mitigate risks for our travellers, drive sustainability goals, and better control costs."

But what's right for one company may not fit the culture or traveller requirements of another.

Kerrie Henshaw-Cox, associate director for travel services at Astra Zeneca, says that the idea is to keep travel "safe, smart and sustainable."

In line with that, the company doesn't want the booking of travel to impact productivity through additional or unnecessary steps in the process. But that doesn't mean procedures have not been tightened up during the pandemic.

She says that pre-pandemic travel approval was either on a per-trip basis or, in some circumstances, for example regular trips, could be a blanket approval and came down to the management at country or business unit level or senior manager for international trips.

During the pandemic, while all travel still had to be approved, what changed was the need to have approval from the senior executive team for international travel while, to allow for restrictions in different countries to be taken into account, domestic travel could be approved by the country president or incident management team put in place during Covid-19.

"It's quite a deterrent," says Henshaw-Cox. "If you want to make an international trip but you know you are going to have to ask the executive team it makes you reconsider even making the international trip. It's also part of the responsible thinking of the company that we have a duty not only to employees but also to support the safety of all those in the communities we serve."

Henshaw-Cox adds that as well as the senior executive team needing to approve travel there also had to be an "essential business" reason.

One further interesting element about travel approval is that it's based on an honesty system, overseen by BCD, the company's TMC, but with travellers themselves taking responsibility that the trip is "essential business" while also taking their own wellbeing into consideration.

Fast forward to September 2021 and Astra Zeneca has updated its policy further to say that inter-continental travellers must be fully vaccinated and require approval so within a region - for example, the UK to Spain or Singapore to Japan - a lower level of approval is now sufficient but it remains down to the business unit to decide what is essential business and who will give that approval.

While this is in place for at least the rest of 2021, she doesn't feel it will change for the first half of 2022.

Scott Davies, chief executive of the UK's Institute of Travel Management, says that as demand increases many organisations are now beginning to relax stricter approval processes implemented in early 2020. 

"Companies are adopting their own positions regarding return to office and return to travel," he says. "Within this, individuals have different frames of reference regarding their propensity to travel now. The majority of businesses and individuals are keen to get back to face-to-face interaction. Client-facing travel is expected to largely recover in the next two to four years and even internal travel will recover somewhat to help embed engagement and culture and to foster collaboration."

He adds that whether companies introduce more automation or make other changes to the approval process is likely to fall down not only to duty of care priorities but also cost and increasingly sustainability goals.

Julie Oliver, chief operating officer, Reed & Mackay, says that corporate customers are already layering in additional approval processes around sustainable travel choices.

"The trick is to make the approval workflow agile and automated enough that the booking experience of the traveller or their executive assistant isn't compromised," says Oliver.

The company offers its own booking and integrated approval technology but can also plug in third party solutions depending on customer geographies or other requirements.

Oliver believes that automation is key: "Not only are corporates looking to improve process efficiency, they also want to know that, no matter the time of day, a booking can be made from any location with the same robust approval in place. It's becoming more common to have one stakeholder to approve budget and then a different stakeholder manage approval for health and wellbeing. This will continue when restrictions lift."

The good news is that travel is picking up whether domestic, inter-continental or international. Both Henshaw-Cox and Oliver have noted an uptick in volumes as restrictions ease.

Oliver says: "Many of our clients have been waiting for the all-important UK-US route to open. Getting 8 November as a [reopening] date was huge. The first two weeks of October 2021 saw a 76 per cent increase in the volume of UK-US air bookings as compared to the same period in September 2021."

But the sector faces many challenges, from the constantly changing travel restrictions and requirements to the evolving role of travel managers and TMCs. 

Henshaw-Cox says accessing information "on entering, visiting and leaving a country from a single source" is a huge challenge and adds that the role "has gone from travel manager to a traveller manager."

"It's less about global travel management and more about individual traveller management because each case is different. Have I had Covid? Have I had a double vaccine? Where am I going? Where was I two weeks ago? Do I have vulnerable people at home? Am I putting others at risk? That for me is one of the biggest challenges and I don't see that going away in 2022."

Oliver agrees and adds that beyond the difficulties presented by changing restrictions, travel leaders have to master so many fields now, from travel to sustainability, health and wellbeing.

She says that the need for a more flexible or "agile working" environment has meant decentralisation of employees that now need to be reconnected to foster collaboration.

"Many companies are now looking at how they better connect their teams to drive collaboration which is also resulting in trips to and from the office or off-site workspace needing to be covered under the travel programme to protect employee safety, budgets and manage carbon emissions," says Oliver.

Technology will have a role to play in helping to solve these challenges. Already new partnerships and tools are emerging to bridge the gaps in the information and functionality corporates might need.

Gopass Global's recent work with Microsoft is just one interesting example with the company building a data analytics platform which uses artificial intelligence to provide accurate information to travellers.

The platform analyses data on the layout of aircraft, the latest information on Covid-19 infection rates and travel restrictions to provide a risk score.

Mark Radford, chief executive of Gopass Global, says: "Our platform takes a huge amount of fast-changing information into account to provide real time risk scores for pretty much any proposed trip. Corporations need to get their people back travelling, doing deals, building relationships, and they need to do it safely."

The company says it has already signed distribution agreements with Sabre, Global Travel Network, Lufthansa City Centre and Hickory Global Partners.

Meanwhile, travel management company CTM will roll out a new approvals tool for clients early in 2022. There is no question that corporate attitudes to approvals processes have changed and that TMCs are responding. What remains to be seen is whether the shift is temporary or permanent.