It is now ten months since I semi-retired from daily involvement in this compelling, complex and often challenging business travel industry. During a very long career in the sector, I like many, probably thought we had seen and experienced every potential threat to the long term viability of the industry, and then Covid 19 happened……….

My involvement today with the industry is as the Non Exec. Chair of the Focus Travel Partnership, a part time role I started in January and one I was honoured to be offered as Focus also started a new chapter in their 20 year history. Being part time / part retired I am not as close to the industry as previously, so I have the opportunity to watch from a slightly removed position and offer my support and experience as relevant to the daily challenges faced by the Partnership and the Partners.

Old Norm or New Norm,  that is the QUESTION…

Media coverage in every business sector is now debating what life will be like after the pandemic passes. Most talk of a new norm and that the experience we have all gone through will fundamentally change our personal and business lives, in ways we couldn’t imagine only four months ago, so how will it potentially change business travel  in the short to medium term….?

Challenge Number One

The biggest single change for the business travel sector is the re-sizing and re-shaping of the majority of businesses involved in the industry. Revenues and volumes have disappeared and they will be slow to recover, so shape and size will change, for the supply chain, the client and the travel management company.  Is this then the opportunity to finally move an industry away from a commoditised focus on a transaction to an appreciation of value for money and service delivery?

Challenge Number Two

What will travel policies look like as the economy starts to function and open again and business travel resumes both domestically and internationally? Will the biggest change be the ownership and approval of policy? Surely the board room and company directors will do just that, direct what policy will be and not just approve a policy recommendation? Duty of Care was moving up the list of priorities in travel buying, where is it now on that list of priorities and what price will corporate UK pay to ensure the maximum safety of their most important assets, those they now ask to travel? What approval processes will now be put in place to allow an asset to travel and can the booking tools, process flows and business protocols all adapt simply and efficiently to the new norm? How will class of travel change, will there be a resurgence of business and premium economy class flying, first class rail travel and major chain hotels and apartment providers? Will flexibility be crucial, will off peak become the new norm so volumes get spread and there are no peaks? How will companies track and trace their travellers, do contracts need to change to allow GPS tracking, is this the end of bleisure, freedom of employee choice, personalisation and the relaxation of DIY buying? Are clients developing these new policies now, are the TMC’s and the supply chain involved or are they all furloughed?

Challenge Number Three

I am now the employee and the previous frequent or infrequent business traveller and am I prepared to travel again? Before I do, I want to know how my business, whatever size they are and wherever they expect me to travel, is going to protect and ensure my safety as best they can. I want to know a travel management expert is giving the best advice possible within the new policy, I want to know that both my employer and my preferred travel management company are working in a partnership that gives me flexibility and peace of mind and that it isn’t all just about cost. I want to know that every step of a business travel journey I am now making is with approved suppliers, from door to door, all booked in one place and all with an audited approval rating. I am going to want to know everything about the requirements and protocols of the airports I am flying out of and into or transiting, the age of the aircraft I am flying on, all about its HEPA filters and its distancing policies and mask requirements. I’m going to want to know about the station I am catching trains from, how are they stopping the crowds building up at places such as Euston, Waterloo, Manchester Piccadilly or Glasgow Central, what the train operators distancing policies are, which taxi or ground operators are approved and booked in advance, what audit level for hygiene and regular deep cleaning are the hotels at on the approved list I can use. What are the queueing times expectations at all stages of the journey, what are the security requirements I need to know about, what has changed, can I still check in at airports, do I need to fill in immigration and journey details per country in advance that I am visiting?

You get the picture?

Challenge Number Four

The re-sizing and shaping of travel management companies, probably and unfortunately means a likely reduction in staff numbers as the previous workload just won’t be there. So is this being discussed right now with clients, is it going to be in line with client expectations and new policies? What if you downsize based on previous transaction and productivity numbers and your clients expectations of service all change? What if offline becomes the new norm in the medium term for clients previously predominately online? What if the average time per booking or enquiry doubles due to the amount of detail required by both the client and their traveller? What if they continue to book online, how much development is needed on the preferred booking tool, will you need to change booking tool, will online bookings now need offline intervention or support, and does the booking tool or even the offline system allow the easy booking of all ancillaries? Will your clients pay for the new service expectations, do you need new pricing models, can you afford to give credit again, should everything now be on a purchasing card, can the back office handle flexibility? What training does the retained staff require if the travel consultant role is now about being a consultant than a booker or order taker? What training does the sales and account managers need to meet this new norm and the customer’s expectations? What suppliers do you need to be talking with, what if there was a limited relationship previously, are their account managers working, and can they start visiting to help train staff on product changes and responses to Covid 19? What tools do you need to be giving your teams to ensure they have all this information at their fingertips, that it is the most up to date information and that you feel confident giving this information to the client and the traveller? Are you ready to respond to the potential of new customers looking to engage with a travel management company or those looking to move to a truly differentiated business?

Meeting the Challenges

I have only given a very top line view from a slightly removed perspective of what might be this new norm in the business travel sector for all those involved. Clearly the relationship between client, supplier and Travel Management Company is going to be crucial in ensuring the traveller is as safe, secure and informed as possible and that duty of care is delivered by all.

What is clear is that change is going to happen and some of that change will be at pace. As with any crisis and this being unprecedented, technology will play a crucial part and it is more than likely that the pace of development and implementation will be accelerated as part of this new norm and also as part of business survival.

To adapt to constant change the whole chain of involvement will need to challenge what was in the too difficult category previously, show incredible flexibility and empathy, listen, work in partnership and find simple solutions that are best for all and not for one, keeping joint goals and objectives top of the priority list to allow businesses to do business again, drive economies, secure jobs and most importantly, keep everyone safe.

The great benefit of being part of the Focus Travel Partnership is that you don’t have to face the challenges of any new norm alone; you are much stronger in a collective you know, with joint investment and buying strategies and with a central team supporting you across shared needs and requirements. Now is not the time to be alone or take major business risk around the investment decisions you face. In it together is an opportunity to work through it together.

So to be ready, challenge everything that was the norm, if you agree that there will be a new norm? Engage with the Partnership and the Partners, engage with  your retained staff, get their thoughts and ideas, how service should look, what should change, how you should compete, what your differentiation will be to succeed and get buy in from all. Winning will be about togetherness, flexibility, transparency and the ability to accept and embrace change.

Ready or not…..?