As the crisis digs in, BCD Travel's Stewart Harvey appears to be on the frontline in his dealings with the corporate travel agency's customers, which are calling for a clinical travel management approach to emerge safely on the other side.
Running the show for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa isn’t without its challenges.
Europe, in particular, is coping with different pockets of coronavirus, and countries reopening at different paces.
As president for this region, Stewart Harvey has full operational and financial responsibility for corporate travel agency BCD Travel’s activities, and is keeping his ear to the ground with regular roundtable meetings with clients.
“There’s a raw energy about them at the moment,” he told Skift. “These roundtables have got a brilliant edge to them, sometimes a macabre humor, but they’ve got an edge.”
He shared some of the more recent talking points with Skift, ranging from airline refunds, quarantine regulations, and the evolution of the travel manager’s role.
The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Skift: How are you dealing with the complexity in Europe?
Stewart Harvey: In Germany, for example, each state can make its own rules. Our difficulty is how do we stay on top of that. Wouldn’t it be great if we had a more simplified approach in Europe? We make things very complicated, and some of that is predicated on the political structure of nations within a densely populated geographical footprint.
Skift: The UK has just announced a new set of quarantine rules. What’s your take on that?
Harvey: My own opinion is that the message is confused. It’s added fog. It’s made clients think, if anything, that it’s better not do anything right now until more clarity comes.
Rather than try to understand it, they’re thinking maybe it just needs time to clear away, we’ll back off right now. That’s not good for business or industry. The intention’s right, but the application is sweeping and general, and not specific enough. Like an electric fence, it causes people to back off.
Skift: How do BCD Travel’s customers view the current trend of airlines issuing vouchers instead of money?
Harvey: Clients have two views. There’s a simple one, which is fairly legal. On refunds, if they’ve paid for a service, and they’re not getting it, they want their money back.
Clients also want to know if vouchers are transferable to another employee or not. What if circumstances change and there’s no need for those meetings? What if the workforce changes, and some of those people have left the business?
The whole idea of vouchers is viewed by corporate clients as neither practical nor welcomed. They’d rather have their money back. And questions have been asked of us: do you think that supplier will still be around to conduct business or honor that business in the future? What’s the legal tender of that voucher? Most clients want their money back.
Skift: Do any clients hold BCD Travel accountable over the lack of refunds?
Harvey: That came up at one of our client roundtables last week. They asked: what can we do to exercise either your persuasive power, or influence these airlines to process refunds faster?
Some airlines have said they’ve got millions [of tickets] to process. It’s been well noted that they made it a manual process. Clients know what’s causing the delays, but now they’re saying to us, leverage something, get them to honor their obligations.
As a follow-up, clients have asked for reports of how much money is due. Some of these clients want to put a financial value on the loss of that cashflow with those airlines. It’s a heated discussion. We’ve been asked to quantify all refunds by specific airlines now.
Skift: Do corporate customers feel this is cash that’s not in their bank accounts, and so are losing out on interest?
Harvey: Yes, very much so.
CORRECTION: This story originally said will corporate customers look to charge interest, which was a misinterpretation of what was asked on the interview call.
Skift: Can you give a rough number on the amount of money that’s outstanding?
Harvey: We go from some clients that are owed a couple of hundred thousand dollars to a couple of clients, without being overly precise, that are owed around three to four million dollars each.
This is a matter of principle, and a matter of financial accounting. Why are we giving someone else a loan? That’s effectively how it’s seen.
Skift: Will airlines pay interest?
Harvey: At the moment they’re all saying no, of course not. But my own view is that with clients asking for specific reports, by airline, I expect that to become a feature in any future negotiation.
Clients will say: what’s the value in our partnership if we’re not treated in a way that makes us feel different and distinct. What makes our partnership special? That’s my own reading, but I can feel it coming from the tone of conversation. I’m dealing with senior management at fairly high levels in multinational organizations.
They’re looking at it from a business approach. They’re saying it’s our money, why are you sitting on it? You’re either earning interest on it, or using it another way. There’s a ruthless logic to that.
Skift: Are your clients asking for advice in other areas?
Harvey: We’re being asked more and more to curate information. Say someone’s going to Sweden. What are the social distancing measures in Sweden? Or Venezuela. We’re being asked to get that on the desk of someone in Poland or Spain, or Dubai, for example.
We’re seeing a need not just to gather data, but curate it in a way that makes it accessible. Sometimes clients would ask colleagues what the local situation is. But a lot of staff are having mandatory time off. We’re seeing a growing demand for us to be a natural platform for providing good data that’s reliable, informed and up to date.
Skift: Do you think the travel manager’s role is changing as a result of this crisis?
Harvey: There’s going to be less emphasis on how bookings are made. Even that specialization of methodology is not a requirement, it’s not a priority.
A lot of the [travel manager] clients I’ve been speaking with, they’re more connected to their senior managers, and taking part in discussions about how a policy should be shaped for the well-being of their travelers, and the use of company resources. Not just money, but the use of people’s time.
Travel managers are getting a seat at more tables, like human resources, with legal team and technology teams.
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Photo credit: The departures board at Rome Leonardo da Vinci International Airport. Andrew Medichini / Associated Press