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Corporate travel managers are looking for a magic formula to allow employees to take business trips again.

Many are working on what’s commonly being referred to as a “Return to Travel” document, which sets out approval procedures and other processes to reassure both employees and company bosses.

But with so much confusion over which countries are open, and which suppliers to use, the operation’s becoming a moving target. Should they even bother?

Apparently, yes.

Despite recognizing most types of business travel, apart from domestic, are a long way off, one of the reasons they’re setting out on this path is to spend time training staff — to rebuild confidence.

Just 34 percent of travel and meetings buyers said they felt confident their duty of care program provided all that’s needed, and only 53 percent felt the company was adequately prepared for a return to travel, according to a Travel and Transport survey of its corporate customers.

“We’re in contact with travel buyers in Canada, asking what is their priority when it comes to restarting business travel,” said Nancy Tudorache, the Global Business Travel Association’s regional vice president, Canada, at a recent virtual Town Hall meeting. “We’re starting to see business travel recovery strategies as we approach the mark where companies are taking action to put information in place to get travel started again.

“But the challenge is that, unfortunately, business travel is still a way off and building confidence through this information and through (hearing from) different sectors in the industry is important to get that feedback to companies. We can get business travel going… so in the fall we can see some greater movement.”

what’s on the agenda?

To give you an idea of the level of detail travel managers are facing, one company’s 18-page “Return to travel” document, seen by Skift, has the following sections: Objectives; About Covid-19; Travel booking safety; iSOS Travel and medical risk ratings; Government/immigration restrictions; Air travel restrictions; Arrival considerations; Ground transportation safety; Hotel safety; Office safety; Event safety; Conditions for travelers; Contingencies & emergencies; 24/7/365 Emergency assistance; and Communications procedures.

It’s a living, breathing document that needs to be kept up to date, and it’s one where health and safety has risen to the top of agenda. For example, prior to the pandemic, talk of a “pre, pre, pre-trip checklist” would have been laughable. But for one manager, it’s the reality

“It’s really about the communication we’re trying to put in place,” said Dan Schwartz, indirect commodity manager for global travel at Allegion, during the Association of Corporate Travel Executives’ Preparing for the new normal webinar earlier this month. “We’re giving people pre, pre, pre-checklists to start thinking about travel. Have they prepared a personal protective equipment kit? Have they gone in and reviewed all their profile information to make sure it’s current?”

Many travel managers are also finalizing their pre-trip approval process, where in some cases only the person at the very top can authorize a booking, as well as taking a closer look at the suppliers they use.

The number of levels of approval will be cumbersome at first, travel managers believe.

“We’re embedding executive leadership in the first phase of return. I do worry about speed,” said Greg Wilczek, head of global travel, Credit Suisse, speaking at the same webinar. Credit Suisse already has a framework that’s been signed off by leadership on the return to travel, he added.

“Part of that framework is to identify the factors we will be monitoring before we advocate our first phase of return to travel. Those factors are: easing of government restrictions; the company needs to be ready — we need sign-off from leadership they feel comfortable having employees travel the globe while the virus is still out there; we need the industry to resume service; and benchmarking — we probably won’t be a first move in our return to travel, but we will look to move in lock-step with peer organizations.”

Another travel manager is meanwhile attempting to introduce an element of fun into the training.

“There will be a robust approvals process, and prior to that a training quiz,” Andy Cassidy, corporate travel manager at media company AMC Networks International, told Skift. “It’s a 10-point quiz to reestablish we’re not going back to normal, it will be something different, and less comfortable than before. Once they pass the quiz, they can book travel, with a docu-sign workflow approvals in place. That’s four levels of approval. That might get reduced in layers as time goes by.”

Training is also important, and travel managers will be working with human resources to make sure all staff are aware of the future landscape.

“We’re aligning all our international locations with putting safety standards in place, and making sure there’s a process for training our travelers before we travel,” added Shelby LeMaire, senior manager for global travel at iRobot Corporation, at the Preparing for the new normal webinar. “We’re In the process of finalizing our safety guidelines and training our regional managers, then that will trickle down to training our employees. We’ve also communicated what our phases are. Is it a business critical trip? What are the parameters, and what kind of approvals have to happen before you can actually book.”

Where Do Corporate Travel Agencies Fit In?

Companies clearly won’t all share the same view of when it’s safe to travel again. It depends on their size, culture and also employees’ tolerances to risk. Agencies, for the most part, can offer guidelines and best practice — as BCD Travel has done recently with its own “Back to travel” online guide.

Some travel managers also complain that supplier information is too scattered. Hotel groups, for example, have set up a range of different protocols, and travel managers expect their agency to centralize what’s out there.

Meanwhile, some argue the stricter approvals needed to travel for business raises the profile of the travel management company — finally travel managers are able to get more people to comply with booking rules.

To address bringing standards into one place, a new “Travel and Meeting Standards Taskforce” has been set up, spearheaded by Susan Lichtenstein, managing partner at DigiTravel Consulting. The taskforce is a global, independent coalition of 180 corporate travel professionals, and more than 600 people have joined its LinkedIn page so far.

It wants to define a set of agreed standards for post-Covid travel, and presented its findings earlier this month during a live webinar. While there is a lot of information, AMC Networks International’s Cassidy said this level of collaboration is much needed.

“It’s information overload, but that can be a good thing. As much as I say my document’s ready, my strategy’s ready, there’s usually one thing from a webinar, document or presentation that catches your eye,” he said.

The Travel and Meeting Standards Taskforce is proposing new codes and descriptors that can be used by agencies, supplier and technology firms for post-Covid travel.

A series of codes and descriptors are being proposed, such as APPB for airline protective barriers, or APRB for Rapid Test Require Pre Board.

“The codes caught my eye,” Cassidy said. “That was a really clever idea. It’s an effective way of getting that information across, if the airlines and global distribution systems, and agencies, adopt it. On the agency side, they can make sure that’s translated into real words again, and appears on booking confirmations and tickets.”

Who’s Ready to Go Then?

With preparations and training in place, several agencies are taking the pulse of their customers. According to FCM Travel Solutions and sister company Corporate Traveller’s “State of the Market” study, the majority of organizations will take a phased approach to resuming domestic and international business travel over the next 12 months.

It polled 1,600 business travel managers, bookers and travelers at its clients across Europe, the Middle East, Asia, the Americas, India, Australia and New Zealand. Some 70 percent of participants agreed or strongly agreed that they expected to increase business travel gradually over a period time with consensus peaking in business travel returning domestically in one to three months (40 percent of respondents) and internationally in six to twelve months (32 percent of respondents).

Meanwhile, the Focus Travel Partnership quizzed its member partners, and 71 percent stated they believe recovery will be slow. Some 55 percent have staff who are ready to travel as soon as borders are open. Meanwhile, 97 percent of its agency respondents said their clients would or “possibly” would change their travel policies, with reports that approval processes will become more stringent — more focused on safety while travel requests will experience more scrutiny over budgets and the need to travel.

Another explanation for such diligence could be to do with liability. Should the worst happen, companies will need to have proved they’ve done everything they can to educate their staff on the future risks of travel — which explains why many companies are asking for pre-trip signatures.

“For those traveling to hotspots, we would do one-on-one debriefings with them,” said iRobot’s Shelby. “For places with a low infection rate, we have a pre-deployment process which employees need to make sure they’ve read, and also confirm they’ve read, and undergo a certain number of steps before they can travel, so the company can ensure their safety … it also reduces and mitigates corporate liability. It’s important to have a process in place that you can validate.”

CORRECTION. The original article incorrectly stated the Association of Corporate Travel Executives set up the Travel and Meeting Standards Taskforce, and created the codes and descriptors. The taskforce is in fact a global, independent coalition of 180 corporate travel professionals. 

Photo Credit: Not all employees feel their company is adequately prepared for a return to travel. rh2010 / Adobe