While some companies are quick and eager to get back on the road, others are being more cautious based on their ability to interact online and avoid risk, experts said.
REPORT FROM THE U.S.—While leisure travel is expected to lead the recovery for the broad travel industry, hoteliers must prepare for an eventual return of business travel as well, and travel managers for various companies said they expect things to be different coming out of this crisis.
Speaking during the recent “Establishing a safe return to travel” webinar conducted by The BTN Group, experts said they have to “stay agile” as they plan a return to travel for their companies, projecting various different scenarios. This will include keeping an eye on countries hit earlier by the COVID-19 pandemic and charting their recovery.
“We’ll learn from our colleagues in Asia if a return to travel is possible without creating more flare-ups,” said Ann Dery, global travel director for S&P Global.
While many panelists said their companies aren’t traveling for the time being, Rebecca Jeffries, travel and event services director for Toyota North America, said her company is already doing some travel that it deems essential to their core business.
“In the short term, it’s looking more like a v-shaped (recovery) for us,” she said. “We’re already starting to travel and expect that to continue and certainly increase as things open up more. Because of the nature of our business, we need to travel. There are physical things we have to do.”
Caroline Strachan, managing partner of Festive Road, said there are a wide variety of appetites to travel among different companies and among their executives.
“We have one client that is back to traveling already, and they need to be because they’re in construction,” she said. “But we’re seeing a different approach from a high-tech client that’s more risk-adverse. For them, travel will come back much later.”
Travel managers working closely with COVID planning teams
Various panelists said their return-to-travel policies are being guided by larger steering committees focusing on dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. This will likely result in long-term changes in how they handle travel.
Dery said her company has tried to remain flexible in its approach across the board.
“There may be a return to travel before there’s a return to work,” she said. “Nobody has stopped working since COVID-19 took over their lives. If you’re in a major city, you might not be returning to the office, potentially, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be a return to travel. There’s a lot of scenario planning.”
Taking a close look at what’s essential
Business are examining closely what they believe is travel they absolutely can’t forgo. For Toyota, that means “any activity to ensure our business continuity or that maintains our competitive advantage,” Jeffries said.
Carmen Smith, senior manager of travel and events for ICF, said her company is also careful to maintain contractually obligated travel to clients.
More approvals required
Panelists said in recent years, travel managers have pushed for, and largely won, more streamlined processes that made it easier for employees at companies to get on the road when needed. But with the heightened risk from the pandemic, layers of approval are expected to return.
Smith said her company is seeing a greater degree of tracking travelers.
“We didn’t have to use preferred vendors or travel management (before), and now that’s mandated so we have the ability to track travelers and know where they are,” she said. “And now even if the travel is essential, it needs a division-level leader’s approval. You can’t just get up and travel.”
Strachan said going forward there are essentially three groups that need to be agreement on whether travel is feasible: the company, the individual traveler and the government. Any one of those throwing up a red flag means travel shouldn’t happen.
She noted that the government is the most complicated piece of that as travel regulations and restrictions are changing constantly, but companies have work to do in “getting (travelers’) confidence level up.”
Bruce McIndoe, president and founder of WorldAware, agreed that it’s particularly difficult to track government regulations across the travel spectrum, noting an example of a client that took a business trip recently by road only to find they couldn’t get off interstate highways in New Mexico due to state-level regulations.
“He had to drive to Arizona to find a hotel to finish that trip,” he said.