I thought I had seen every potential threat to the long-term viability of the industry, and then Covid 19 happened.

Talking to Focus Partners, suppliers and industry consultants I have been discussing with them whether the sector will automatically revert back to the ‘old normal’ – or will managing business travel be completely different? The pandemic crisis will undoubtedly accelerate technology trends across the travel industry, but with a slow return of volume expected, particularly to international business travel, what are the challenges for Travel Management Companies (TMCs) amid the duty of care and risk management concerns of customers and travellers.

In some ways closing everything down is a simple process, but in contrast re-opening economies and business is proving to be far more complex and recovery could well be slower than first anticipated. Revenues and volumes have declined dramatically through the lockdown months and restarting business travel requires all parties working together to instil confidence with clients and their employees.

As corporates begin to decide how and when they send their travellers back on the road, safety is soaring up the agenda and has become top, front and centre of considerations.

For many corporates where travel is a requirement of doing business, most have previously worked on the assumption that everyone wanted to travel, it was an enjoyable part of the job and often highly sought after – and so corporate processes were installed to provide justifications and budget caps. Now, with heightened risks, many businesses are wary of sending their valuable assets out on the road at all and individuals are nervous about travelling. Visiting restaurants and bars, which used to provide highlights of a trip, could now provide untold risk. Together with social distancing, cabin crew wearing what amounts to hazmat suits, heightened hygiene processes and additional checks at airports, travel does not look quite so appealing.

As a result, we would expect decisions about travelling to be elevated to the C-suite. Approval processes will surely be mandated with the ultimate sign off potentially sitting with a board director or even the CEO. This will bring with it issues around the holding of bookings, TMC productivity and cost impacts. Safety must come first, and the industry will be looking at the supply chain to meet corporate demands with a consistent and easing of policies on flexibility and instant purchase content. In line with a tightening of approval processes, travel policies will be reviewed and amendments or new polices will introduced for the TMC to manage and ensure compliance is attained through a close working partnership and the exchange of quality data.

Another consequence of policy change, approval processes and traveller nervousness could be a greater demand for offline booking and consultant expertise in options to meet compliance and for advice and information. Online may well still meet with domestic requirements, but a light touch of consultant intervention could be required. Discussions should be taking place with clients to agree new policy requirements so staff levels and productivity changes can be assessed and factored accordingly into the partnership

These likely developments and demands for the TMC sector, along with the cost and complexity of restarting the model should finally move the industry away from a commoditised transactional model to one based on the value and service delivered, but will they…………?.

The global pandemic and the risks of second waves, constant change and enhanced duty of care necessities, underpin why it is so important to use a TMC. The partnership and consultative approach between client, traveller and TMC has never been more important than it will be in the months ahead. Duty of Care is no longer a value add requirement of the TMC offering, it is now the number one priority and the required investment into traveller safety and wellbeing by companies should be seen as part of the Covid “fit for business” investment all businesses are now having to make.

All TMC’s will be investing heavily in their technology, communication and staff training so they are ready to meet the challenges and demands placed on them by their clients. The need for great communication, accessibility and flexibility has never been more necessary in the TMC / client relationship. The additional pressure and likely workload for TMC account managers, operations, digital and marketing teams will greatly increase and should be recognised and not commoditised in the medium to long term. Overtime policies will change again and investment in service delivery can be reviewed and amended, but investment in duty of care and quality of service will instil confidence in a traveller who is now being asked to travel than requesting to travel.

When it comes to who will be travelling and when, the overwhelming consensus is that volumes in the short and medium-term will be reduced. Domestic travel will be the quickest to bounce back, but choice of travel mode and hotels could vary to those chosen previously. The likely impact is for a knowledge level to be required of TMC’s about UK rail operators and stations that has never previously been required. Social distancing on many a peak train and at major stations is something we will probably all welcome with experiences we hear so often, but communicating the new booking, safety and distancing policies will be just as important on rail as air and for hotel.

International travel or long haul will be the slowest to return with Covid safe markets benefiting with the easing of lockdowns and quarantine measures. There are many industry sectors where travel has continued to be or will now become again classed as essential and the learnings for these sectors will be a benefit across the whole industry.

The supply chain in total has a vital and mutually beneficial role to play in assisting companies, travellers and TMC’s in building confidence and keeping travel both safe and time productive. The communication flow on safety measures, distancing policies, hygiene policies, traveller requirements and changes, are going to be so important.
TMC’s will need to find a productive way of communicating with their customers and travellers to avoid information overload and to keep it relevant and specific to each journey type being booked. In addition to supply chain information, there will be the need for country and location specific information to be communicated. If we take the USA as a current example, States all have differing policies which will need to be understood and communicated in addition to the country level advice. Airports and rail stations will be the other environments with greatly differing rules, queue times and procedures depending on both national and local restrictions.

Regardless of a chosen booking channel the flow of information pre, during and post trip is going to be vital all round. Tighter policy compliance and stronger approval processes should see the end of “maverick” and out of policy bookings. Hotel booking leakage should become a thing of the past, if a company is adamant that they most know where their travelling asset is at all stages of a journey. For a TMC to implement an all-encompassing duty of care and risk management policy on behalf of their clients, they cannot be accountable for bookings they have not made and are not in their systems. This has long been an issue in the industry, sometimes accepted, often one companies want to resolve, now is the opportunity to fully mandate compliance.

The same should be in place for all ancillary content so a potential traveller or booker knows they can source all their content requirements in the one booking channel. The travel manager and company then have full itinerary oversight, payment method and data management. This should also improve booking productivity and reduce the touch points the traveller must access and give comfort that the content is Covid safe and has had a level of satisfactory audit by its own industry sector and the TMC or distributor.

So, in summary, my belief is that in the medium term, the management of business travel has and will significantly change. The consultative approach to embedding a TMC into a client’s business has never been more necessary. It has been an agenda item in the past after ash clouds, global incidents, severe weather disruption and to ensure best in class service, but this time the shift is so big the old “norm” can surely not be the new “norm

Whatever the business size, corporate and SME UK should be partnering with a recognised business travel specialist to ensure their traveller safety, their corporate duty of care and their travel expenditure is expertly and professionally managed and that when asking the most important asset in any business to travel on their behalf, that every facet of their safety has been meticulously considered and implemented in a manageable policy.