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Comment: The future of business travel

Travel managers will increasingly act as risk managers in the recovery, says Darryl McGarvey, director of travel partnerships at SAP Concur

Since the start of Covid-19, business travel has come to a halt.

Client meetings have moved online, frequent-flier cards have gathered dust and professionals around the world have learned how to keep communications up without jumping on an aircraft or train. For now, at least.

One of the defining features of the past year has been the rapid rise of video conferencing platforms, such as Zoom. But with this comes the very real issue of Zoom fatigue, combined with a yearning for in-person interaction, which draws ever-closer as global vaccination programmes continue to gather pace.

It seems business travel almost certainly still has an important role to play in the not-so-distant future. However, it will look very different to before the pandemic, and businesses will have to consider everything from employee safety to environmental impact before restarting travel – and the added costs.

First class travel on the rise?

The safety of employees will continue to be the most important criteria for business travel for a long time to come. Keeping their duty of care obligations in mind, companies will continue to give top priority to taking appropriate precautions.

When planning trips, they face several considerations. Which means of transportation offer the best protection against infection? Are seats booked in business class to ensure the minimum distance from fellow passengers? Are higher class airlines and hotels chosen because they offer more individual space and may have stricter hygiene and safety standards? Does a taxi or rental car hire beat public transportation?

To make these decisions, travel managers will increasingly act as risk managers. It’s clear minimising risks on trips always comes with increased cost. In addition to increased security requirements, a changed infrastructure contributes to this. Demand from tour operators, airlines and hotels has fallen dramatically in recent months. Suppliers have had to react to this – capacities have been reduced, security standards have been implemented and much more.

The good news is technology can support businesses in keeping their travellers as safe as possible while managing costs. This includes travel management solutions that integrate a company’s travel policy into the boking process, pre-trip approval options, travel organisation apps that provide Covid-19 guidance and data availability to analyse travel behaviour, and organising good rates with preferred travel vendors. On the cost-saving side, some pre-Covid business trips will likely turn into virtual set-ups.

Seizing the sustainable business travel opportunity

Beyond ensuring the safety of employees, organisations can effectively press reset and plan for a more sustainable travel future. In fact, doing so will be essential to live up to the changing guidelines and expectations of governments and employees.

The pandemic has given businesses the opportunity to build on behavioural changes and learnings. For instance, how many face-to-face meetings per year are necessary to maintain a relationship? Which meetings work well on a virtual basis? Which newly-acquired behaviours can be retained to operate more sustainably?

While some of these considerations might lead to fewer business trips and reduced travel costs, some businesses might still ask themselves whether a sustainable travel programme is necessary. For some this is because more sustainable choices for the remaining trips could be more costly. However, business should also consider the costs of doing nothing, like becoming less attractive for new talents, missing out on RFP opportunities or a negative brand awareness.

For those businesses keen to use the opportunity to make their travel programme greener, data is key as you can’t manage what you can’t measure. By having complete visibility of everything from carbon emissions, to green travel partners, businesses and their travelling employees can turn good intentions into actions – while having visibility into the associated cost at the same time.

The latter are ready to take action, with 97% stating their willingness to increase journey time if it significantly reduced environmental impact, according to the Corporate Travel Sustainability Index.

New cost-benefit trade-off for business travel

With the changing business landscape – underpinned by employee safety and sustainability considerations – companies will almost certainly face future corporate travel trade-offs.

For example, in which scenarios must profit take a back seat to achieve sustainability goals? Or what financial expenditures are required to ensure the safety and wellbeing of travellers?

Ultimately, no two businesses are the same, and these trade-offs will vary greatly from company to company. But one unifying feature will be the need to factor in change, with sufficient budgets to cover the potential increased travel expenses that come with safety and sustainability.

Furthermore, businesses will need concrete policies in place to let travel managers and employees know under what conditions travel can take place – and the data to guide decisions.

It’s clear corporate travel will look different. But there’s no reason we can’t return to this age-old art of business, should businesses be willing to embrace change and put their people and the planet first.

Doing so needn’t be difficult, with the rise of platforms that can support travel managers to prioritise employee safety and satisfaction, control costs, protect our planet and adapt quickly to our fast-changing world.

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