While U.S. government actions in the past couple months have caused upheaval in the business travel world, the Global Business Travel Association executive director reminds us that the industry is dealing with all kinds of change at the moment.
Editor’s Note: A year ago, Skift expanded its coverage of corporate travel with more frequent stories and a dedicated newsletter. The Corporate Travel Innovation Report focuses on the future of corporate travel by examining the big fault lines of disruption for travel managers and buyers, the innovations emerging from the sector, and the changing business traveler habits that are upending how corporate travel is packaged, bought, and sold.
In this series of stories and one-on-one interviews, we explore some of the latest trends, technology, and external forces causing corporate travel to evolve. You can read the rest of the articles in this series here.
After the 2016 presidential election, Skift asked leaders in corporate travel what they hoped to see from President Donald Trump.
Most said they would welcome an end to divisive rhetoric and an emphasis on policies that encouraged economic growth and the free flow of travel.
Michael McCormick, executive director and chief operating officer of the Global Business Travel Association, told Skift in an email in November that the most important thing Trump could do for corporate travel would be to “ensure the safe and expedient travel and freedom of movement of all travelers.”
Three months later, he was speaking out to urge Trump to re-think an executive order that had stirred up uncertainty for business travelers, led to millions of dollars in lost bookings, and discouraged foreign business travelers from making future trips to the U.S.
That late January order, which banned travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries, was blocked by courts and later withdrawn. A new, slightly narrower ban has also been put on hold amid court challenges.
We spoke to McCormick before the second order was signed. Since then, he has also had to address a security measure banning personal electronics larger than phones in the cabin on flights to the U.S. from certain airports in the Middle East and North Africa — a move that also has ramifications for business travel.
Although he described the travel ban as one of the biggest recent disruptions to corporate travel, McCormick has other issues on his mind as well. He also spoke to Skift about the move to add more personalization in business travel, the slow pace of change when it comes to technology, and the continued rise of the sharing economy.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Skift: What do you think are the changes that the corporate travel industry is having to adapt to the most, especially over the past couple years?
McCormick: The three big themes that we are talking about lot right now, and kind of seeing across the entire business travel industry in a number of ways, would be risk, mobility and personalization, kind of on the spectrum of I would say more negative to more positive.
I mean, certainly risk is a huge issue for everybody: buyers, suppliers alike, right? It certainly has a big kind of almost defensive element to it in terms of having risk management programs, procedures, processes — you know, everything to try to continue to make the business travel experience safe and secure, and all that goes with it.
More in the middle is mobility, where it’s just a fact of life, of business, personally, professionally, the fact that people are working, living, and using the capabilities that they have to really tether and un-tether themselves from a necessarily formal office environment. Be more productive, be more flexible in terms of how they spend their time. With that comes responsibilities, right?
I think on the more positive side is the personalization, where both, again, buyers and suppliers alike are trying to make the traveler experience more personalized, more customized, where they can, right? Because it’s something that we now are very accustomed to personally, and like to see in our business world as well. And when you think about it, specifically where travel is concerned, personalization could be empowering, and also get better results for the company. Because people can pick and choose and be good stewards for their business, you know drive the [return on investment] that the company is looking for, because they have some of that flexibility, because they can tailor travel to meet the needs of what they’re trying to accomplish. I would say those are the three big themes we’re seeing right now.
Skift: You mentioned mobility, and people maybe not always be having to be chained to a desk all the time. Are there other types of traveler behavior that are forcing employers to adapt? And especially as younger workers are coming online, moving into positions where they’re maybe more likely to be traveling? Is there a generational shift that you see in traveler behavior, or just kind of traveler behavior across the board?
McCormick: There are differences, certainly, but I think fundamentally, there’s a lot the same — I think more the same than not. In terms of the desire to travel, the value they place on travel as part of their business, accomplishing their business, is very much the same.
But I think you do see it play out in different ways, in terms of adoption of things like [TSA] PreCheck, for example, where there’s more penetration with older travelers than younger. There are areas like that that still, there’s opportunities, right? Where programs can be more effectively marketed, that will help millennials, help others that aren’t using the programs today.
Skift: What do you think is the biggest, I guess I would say challenges, but also opportunities, or biggest advances still for players in the corporate travel industry to make? I know everybody talks about creating the perfect online booking tool that gives travelers flexibility, but also stays within policy. That’s just one tiny sliver of an example. But when you look at how companies are trying to evolve, what do you think are some of the biggest bridges still to cross?
McCormick: Well, there’s a bit of it that I think is still kind of a little bit of what’s old is new, right? We’ve come so far in terms of the tools that are available, the adoption of those tools, the integration of the tools and capabilities that exist around the distribution system….You have the ability to have many different ways to accomplish your objectives. That’s great.
But I think you’ve still fundamentally got, it goes back to a fundamental set of needs in order to accomplish your business objective, to manage risk, to have a really efficient reporting and expense process. A lot of the fundamentals, I don’t know that there’s any silver bullet in any of these areas. There’s no perfect tools, right? There never will be.
It’s just been a lot of hard work, a lot of continuous improvement over the last fifteen years or so.
Skift: When you look over the past year, what do you think has been the biggest or the most unexpected disruption in corporate travel?
McCormick: You know, I’d have to say the one that’s freshest on my mind now, which is the [first] travel ban. Again, not so much because of the topics that are involved, meaning issues around immigration, around security. Those were certainly well talked about during the campaign, during the primaries, and up to and after the general election. I think it was the kind of surprise of the scope of the initial executive order that was issued. Even when there wasn’t the team in place, the resources in place, to implement it. I think that one was certainly the most disruptive [situations] we’ve had in recent months.
Skift: Yeah. I’m not sure that you were expecting to have to kind of take a position on a presidential decision so early, or that this would have been your preference at all to get involved. How have you navigated that high wire act of wanting to not pick a fight with the president, but also in trying to get across your message that you are very concerned that this order, and this kind of an order could be harmful to the industry?
McCormick: Yeah, so as a trade association, I’ve been talking to a lot of our members, and out talking in our chapters, and certainly in the media, about our position, our approach. I think it comes back to some really, I’d say, basic approaches to what we have to do. One is, our positions need to be fact based. We, like I said, really have to listen to our members. Because like a membership of our size, I mean, personally everyone has diverse views. They personally have their views. And what I’ve told everyone is that this isn’t about those views. It’s very much about what it means to our industry….
We have to talk from this perspective of what does it mean to business travel. But in this case, I mean, like we said, I think the two things that were concerning about the initial executive order was that the scope of it, in terms of impacting business travelers directly and indirectly. And then also, the fact that it was again done with a sense of urgency to implement before operationally anyone was ready to implement. That caused further distraction.
We were able to quantify that not only by talking to and surveying our members and getting information from them, but also by doing outreach to companies and partners in this space, and collecting data to really try to understand that initial impact. That’s where we came with our position. And as you know, in the world today, everyone wants answers and opinions and views an hour after anything happens, or less. We had to be patient.
Patient, in today’s world, means waiting days or even a week, as opposed to hours. But I thought it was really important for us to take the time to make sure we did that. Then again, when we came with our position, it was one that we could really support. Again, it wasn’t about ideology, and about personal views. It was very much about industry impact, and being able to be strong in that message.
Skift: That’s a literal meaning of disruption, actual disruption of travel. What about maybe disruption in an innovation way? Anything you can call out over the past year that’s been unexpected in terms of just changing the mindset in corporate travel, or throwing something kind of new but interesting into the mix?
McCormick: Yeah, I mean I would say I think we’re still working through a lot of the impact of the sharing economy models, as much as we, I think, have become more accepting of and understanding of what’s happening with those. Companies are coming to grips with the elements they have to deal with, about risk, about integrating or not those businesses, and those products, into their offering, into what their travelers are allowed to use. I mean, I think if anything else, it’s just there’s a process that the industry goes through. I think we’re in a different place now with that. Some of the issues, these issues are very fresh, and companies are still grappling with those decisions and policies. But I think a lot of work has been done to where there’s a better understanding of all of that than certainly where we were even a year ago.
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Photo credit: GBTA executive director Michael McCormick says the big trends around business travel are risk, mobility, and personalization. Global Business Travel Association