With renewed attention from the C-suite and a laser focus on traveler care, has Covid-19 underhandedly delivered the support travel programs need to realize their best form in 2021?
That looks to be the case for the university travel buyer who spoke to BTN. The university has introduced booking and agency compliance mandates for the first time to achieve better visibility. What’s more, however, is that the department has been granted resources to take the program to the next level.
“We always felt like we had a strong program and now want it to be a state-of-the-art program for when travelers come back,” the buyer said. “It’s really focused on polishing and looking for gaps and systems that may be broken in the backend.”
Indeed, buyers are putting more importance on the digital aspects of their programs, according to BTN’s survey. Thirty-four percent of buyers said their booking tool would be more important going forward, while 32 percent said they would be looking for more from their mobile travel tools. Nearly a quarter said they would put more emphasis on off-channel data capture tools—even as they mandate their sanctioned channels—to provide an additional net for itinerary visibility.
Whether buyers will press their TMCs to service those bookings or harness the real-time data to bring stray travelers back into the program may emerge as a strategic decision as more tools come to market to bridge the gap between GDS-based PNR technology and direct supplier bookings.
Pacific Life’s Campbell is trying to aggregate information on flight changes, new routes, covid outbreaks at the county level, quarantine and testing requirements and other useful information that can help travelers prepare themselves before they get back on the road. Integrating this type of health and regulatory data at the point of sale will be critical for enabling business travel at scale, said Festive Road’s Strachan. Right now, “it’s quite a manual approach,” Strachan said.
These are the kinds of innovations rushing into the market now. Some are industry solutions, like ATPCO’s new “Structured UPAs,” which tweak Routehappy’s amenity-focused Universal Product Attributes to instead communicate about cleaning procedures, mask requirements, pre-flight temperatures checks, seat blocking policies and capacity limits. Serko and Egencia are the first corporate travel platforms to adopt and display the information.
Other solutions are provider-specific offerings. TripActions, for example, rolled out an internal offering that includes outbreak mapping and infection metrics for specific markets, as well as government restrictions in place for specific jurisdictions. The tool also enables travel managers to set and adapt travel policies based on those data points.
Exton, Pa.-based World Travel Inc. introduced an interactive risk assessment map with real-time travel advisories and risk ratings incorporating Covid-19 information. In World Travel’s formulation, risk information is linked to traveler itineraries after the booking to enable tailored alerts and updates, while an integration with data capture specialist Traxo allows the TMC to apply the same process to out-of-channel bookings.
Still other solutions will come to market from third parties. Safeture was one of the first to the market, Stabilitas followed and off-channel data capture provider Shep pivoted its entire product to provide booking tool overlays with Covid-19 messaging. TravelPerk introduced a standalone API-based service that allows other third parties to offer its Covid-19-related data like infection levels, travel restrictions and airline safety measures.
Considered more abstractly, these are the kinds of innovations travel buyers have wanted for a long time, said Strachan. “Players have shown they can adapt for a pandemic—excellent. Now let’s use this momentum to catch up on overall product development time missed.” Perhaps that will translate into sustainability ratings at the poitn of sale, supplier equity ratings or any other filter.
More than 63 percent of travel buyers surveyed by BTN said innovation and specifically digitization will be either significantly or somewhat more important to their programs moving forward, and several buyers BTN spoke to said they were able to find additional funding—either directly to travel program efforts like the buyer at the university, or through other departments like human resources that are vested in employee well-being, including when they travel.
Data and software company Informatica is investing in an employee self-health assessment mobile app as part of its return to travel strategy. “We are actually looking at building an app for return to travel and return to office that does a self-health assessment. It can also be used for [trip] approvals and that may become a new norm,” said global travel manager Rick Wakida. ‘We’ve had several meetings from our pandemic resiliency team, and we’ve had demos [with vendors] and then there’s been demos internally to senior management on how it works [and] how it would be deployed to the workforce.”
Will a Vaccine Get Us Back to Normal?
As travel captures more awareness as a strategic business lever integrated into return-to-work strategies and fundamental employee well-being, companies are likely to look at more integrated travel management strategies. Heightened awareness within the organization may cut both ways, however.
The increased trip justification happening now—even if buyers are correct about trip approval being temporary—could lower travel volumes as a cultural shift occurs within companies to manage the total travel picture, including opportunities not to travel.
Microsoft’s Bailey is already there, and he’s weighing more than cost in the equation.
“In the past, if I flew to New York, I would line up maybe three meetings. That won’t be good enough anymore. That will have to be eight or 10 meetings now” to justify the expense, from a dollars perspective, but also from a time perspective and in terms of carbon emissions, Bailey said.
He added, however, that these will be higher-value trips—both for the companies sending the traveler and for suppliers delivering services to them. “As people look to add more value for each trip, that may mean the cost of each trip goes up,” he said.
Will broad distribution of a Covid-19 vaccine reverse that cultural shift around business travel? The travel buyers and consultants BTN talked to didn’t think so—at least not for the near future.
“2021 first half is obviously not going to be aggressive as far as mass travel because of the concern around [the pandemic]. The bigger issue is having people in offices and the meeting places and the health and safety of the travelers, which is the No. 1 concern of us and our business partners,” Campbell said. “We all know the effectiveness of [a vaccine] isn’t going to drive people back into the patterns of travel they were in before.”
Strachan agreed. “Many conversations in the industry talk about vaccines as the endpoint and, after that, everything comes back to normal,” she said, but she’s skeptical about the industry taking that position. “I see it being a more gradual process than that.”