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The foundations have been laid. Supplier sanitization programs and protocols are now working their way into travel agency Covid-19-ready platforms, policies and frameworks — but is the corporate traveler ready?

That’s the question travel managers are asking themselves from the sidelines as they watch countries reopen their borders.

Travel managers certainly aren’t lacking the resources to get employees moving safely and securely again. Consultancy Festive Road is offering them a free travel framework to help tick all the right boxes. “As a team we pooled our ‘hive-mind’ collective knowledge and worked with our outsourced travel program clients to fine tune a Permissible Travel Programme to help our sector prepare for the return of business travel,” the company said.

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FCM Travel, meanwhile, is launching new content almost daily for its clients, and has made a new interim travel policy downloadable. Its corporate traveller division also hosts five-minute sessions with suppliers, asking them how they’re preparing for business travel to return.

Click Travel even launched a new platform, ClickCare, this week. Free for the corporate travel agency’s Enterprise customers, there are tools to support risk management, advice on responding to hotspots and traveler tracking.

“As business travel starts to return, it will remain far from normal for quite a while,” the company said. “For travel managers and procurers, that presents a whole host of new challenges, with the prospect of varying travel restrictions and pre-travel requirements by area, country or even traveler demographic.”

On the technology side, Corporate Travel Management has just added airline reassurance data into its online booking tool Lightning. This allows CTM’s customers to view COVID-19-related airline service features alongside flight search results at the time of booking.

The data is powered by ATPCO’s Routehappy rich content, and incorporates its  Reassurance Universal Product Attributes from more than 100 airlines (representing over 70% of global flight schedules). The data includes measures such as airport and cabin cleaning, health screening, food and beverage hygiene, passenger and crew wellbeing, as well as flexible booking conditions.

And earlier this week Amadeus added Covid-19 information into its Mobile Messenger tool. Developed with consultancy Riskline, it integrates real-time status and alerts about specific regions and countries at risk, offers travel restrictions updates, and has information on borders closing and opening.

“This means companies and their travel managers can follow, in real-time, the evolution of the current situation in one tool. And, as the current situation hopefully improves, it will be easier for corporations to identify when employees can travel and to which countries,” Amadeus said.

Are We Safe Enough Yet?

The initiatives are just a handful of a growing number of resources, but represent just one piece of a bigger picture, according to one industry observer.

“They’re absolutely necessary, but they’re no way near sufficient,” said Scott Gillespie, consultant and until recently, vice president, innovation and analytics at Airlines Reporting Corporation.

He warns Covid anxiety is the real issue travel managers need to face up to, among other areas out of their control. “It’s really about the mental state of the traveler, and the budget owners, and the governments, and the families of those travelers, and the hosts,” he said.

As the lockdown enters its third month, an element of cabin fever is beginning to take hold. Many employees will even be looking forward to returning to an office.

“I’m so desperate to have some sort of normality and do things other than what we are currently allowed to, I’d accept a less-pleasant traveling experience,” said Cristina Saviotte-Wood, group architect at restaurants company Zuma.  “However, safety is my greatest concern. I would make sure  my company is aware of the government and World Health Organization advice to book the different parts of the trip accordingly.

“I feel much more concerned about planes and being enclosed in a small space with other people for many hours, compared to staying in hotels. Even if the airlines claim the air in cabins is renewed many times an hour, you can’t help but think the virus is easily spread in that environment.”

Airlines Reporting’s Gillespie thinks workers will constantly have the question of “are we safe enough yet?” in the back of their minds. “And until that gets brought down to an acceptable level, there’s going to be a significant dampening effect on travel,” he added.

He admits new corporate travel tools should be developed and made readily available, “but is that going to make anybody feel better about traveling on a crowded plane? No,” he said. “This is a much wider problem.”

Imperfect Host

Despite the supplier cleanliness programs, corporate travelers also know the main purpose of their trip is to visit someone. While the traveling may be deemed as safe, how they perceive the risk on the other end of the trip will be another factor.

“What really matters is the sentiment of travelers about their willingness to travel. Until you get that solved …. it’s a large puzzle to put together,” Gillespie said.

This traveler sentiment also takes into consideration factors such as government action.

In Europe, there’s still confusion over borders and in particular the UK’s upcoming 14-day quarantine rule. BCD Travel said some of its clients had given up on all travel planning until these sorts of issues were fixed.

Gillespie also said the traveler’s emotional attitude counts: ”If they’re not willing to travel, no one will make them travel.” Meanwhile, also consider the budget owner, he said, as those executives who sponsor the travel take on the responsibility of the risk of those travelers.

Coping Mechanisms

Although countries are now taking steps to reopen, many organizations have still frozen international travel.

And when there’s been a need for domestic travel, it appears there’s been little demand to update policies or programs, with travel managers relying on the simple pre-approval process.

“Nothing’s really changed with our policy,” said Mark Ziegler, senior travel manager at cloud data company NetApp. “The only thing we reinstated is pre-approval. Every single travel piece has to be pre-approved by a vice president.”

Speaking at GoldSpring Consulting’s “Travel Buyers Talk COVID-19 Emerging Strategies” webinar earlier this month, he added: “I’m not a fan of pre-approvals. We had removed those in December, after three years of it. But we were ready [to bring it back] because we already had a template. That was quick and easy to do. We didn’t advertise or market it, because people were already not traveling.”

Another travel manager said the CEO’s word was enough for her company.

“When they say no international travel, and business-essential only, people stop,” said Lisa Wilke, corporate travel manager at insurance and financial services company Nationwide.

“We didn’t have to update any policies, it was communicated out. We didn’t need pre-trip approval. People just step in line, that’s just the kind of organization we are, so fortunately we didn’t have to update anything. We’ve done a lot of work on the policy, but it’s more about high-speed internet on planes, and TSA pre-check, those types of things, but nothing COVID-19 related.”

Nationwide’s corporate travel agency was also informed that it couldn’t take bookings without the pre-approval form.

Far From Home

BCD surveyed business travelers for its “Post-pandemic impact: What are your travelers saying?” webinar on Tuesday.

It asked what airport and airline measures were important to them. Top of the list was frequent enhanced airport and cabin disinfection, as well as new boarding procedures to accommodate social distancing.

Temperature checks were seen as moderately importantly, just beneath rapid COVID-19 testing for passengers.

But once travel is made possible, the measures suppliers are putting in place to encourage it could, at the same time, deter it.

“So much for the traveler experience we were all talking about not so long ago,” said Marc Zuber, global travel category head at Nestle, during the webinar. “It’s clear that travelers expect much more procedural experiences and controls than any time before. This means the traveler is much less in control of their travel, and personalization is also off. They’re being told how to behave and what to do, and we have to take this into consideration.”

As a result, he questioned if the drastic measures will end up being counterproductive.

“For me, going back to the hotel is basically like a home-from-home,” Zuber said. “But if there’s no social interaction, you sanitize the experience. It will be a sterile environment. Is this really an experience we’ll enjoy?

“It might actually be psychologically putting pressure on the travelers, who will feel lonely and isolated from their families and friends. Networking is also one of the reasons why we travel. If restaurants and bars are closed down, it’s another reason why travel loses its purpose.”

Zuber also noted that medical services will also soon be falling into the travel category, and Nestle staff could be given medical packages and protective measures to keep them safe when traveling.

Source of Truth

Zuber, like Gillespie, thinks anxiety will outweigh a lot of the suppliers’ efforts, and mostly because of the plethora of schemes being promoted. Is there information overload?

“There’s no understanding of where this source of truth will be coming from,” he said. “You hear so many different opinions, and measures coming out. How do I ensure it’s accurate? This will need to be addressed.

“Is this helping to build trust, or will travelers still question it and say no one really knows what is required, and that means I’m unsafe in this environment.”

However, another BCD poll of business travelers revealed having information to hand was one of their top requirements.

Travel managers may not be able to win this battle any time soon, but could take heart from NetApps’s Ziegler comments.

“It helps if you have a relationship with the travelers,” he said. “I’ve been with the company for eight years, so I know a lot of people. They know me, they trust me, and I’ve been there for them in the past. So I think they will listen to me in the future.”

Photo Credit: United Airlines has deployed sneeze guards at key interaction points at airports as part of its CleanPlus initiative with Clorox and Cleveland Clinic. United Airlines