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The days of traveling for a single meeting could soon be numbered as the pandemic shifts priorities and budgets when it comes to corporate travel. The lone meeting may soon be relegated to an extravagance of the past.

Sanofi CEO Paul Hudson underscored this possibility recently in an article primarily about his pharmaceutical company’s race to find a Covid-19 antidote. But speaking at a webinar that discussed the impacts of coronavirus, Rosemary Maloney, global travel manager at software company Sprinklr, brought up Hudson’s comment — and she agreed with it.

“The article said this was the end of the one-client trip, which I think is really true. We’re going to be doing a lot of sales trips that will combine clients more, they’ll be more active,” she said during Goldspring Consulting’s Travel Buyers Talk Task Force & Return To Travel event.

“It’s not going to be fly in and leave the same day. It might be two or three days, but you’ll get more work done in that time,” Maloney added, noting there’ll also be fewer staff flying for internal meetings in the future.

Nearly all companies will likely see some degree of shift to virtual meetings, particularly in the short term. But with many company travel bans still in place, is now the right time to debate the culture of travel?

Back to Normal?

Travel managers, and corporate travel agencies, may well already be debating this topic as they finalize the technical aspects of the return to travel. These have centered around the “how” to travel, so the next logical question is “why?”.

Sprinklr’s Maloney said she was working on a document called “Should I stay or should I go”. “That’s all about, once we do allow travel, is this a meeting you need to be in person for, or is this something that can be done on a webinar or over the phone,” she said.

Susan Lichtenstein, managing partner at DigiTravel Consulting, feels the virtual meeting culture is now embedded: “People are comfortable using video. For external meetings, it wasn’t so comfortable before. But now their customers are also not traveling, so people are aware of whether they need to get on a plane for two hours if they can service this person remotely. Do they need to do that? The answer’s probably no.”

Approval processes are another part of the soul searching, and in the early stages of corporate travel it’s the upper echelons of an organization who get the final say. It will come down to the definition of what makes an “essential” trip. That will vary from company to company, but a common theme will be that it had better be a good excuse.

“If you do a one-client meeting, it’s because it’s your largest client,” said Lichtenstein. What she thinks Hudson’s sweeping statement really means is that the pandemic will lead to the “end of not planning strategically”.

“What’s going to come out of this is that companies are going to share work. It used to be about, it’s my client, or your client,” she said, “but now people are going to look at who’s going where, and what can they do when they get there — for the company.”

The business travel division of Expedia is raising the topic with its customers too, as it helps them reshape the criteria around trip justification.

“Organizations are coming back to business travel with different approaches to relaunch their program, so there is no ‘one solution fits all’ way to getting corporate travel back up and running,” Tristan Smith, vice president of commercial at Egencia, told Skift.

“We’re having conversations with travel managers to frame their approach on the new fundamentals that impact travel policy and booking decisions: what is an essential trip, how to ensure traveler wellbeing, and how to understand new supply hygiene standards and government restrictions.”

Corporate travel agency CWT, meanwhile, said its customers were focusing on virtual meetings. “We’re not picking up on any specific policies being enforced around combined trips among our customers currently,” said Chris Bowen, managing director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. “Instead what we’re hearing is — it’s business critical trips only, with no internal meetings and virtual meetings where possible.

“The key driver to our clients right now in their return to travel decision making is health and safety, which we’re supporting with customized data dashboards and tools.”

Business As Usual

Companies with mature travel programs could well ask what the fuss is about, and argue a trip for just one meeting has never represented value for money for an organization.

“We have always encouraged this way of traveling, so I don’t think it would be any different for us,” said Pam Booth, group procurement manager at recruitment company Impellam. “Although I don’t think we would ever prohibit anyone from going to one client meeting though — unless it involved an expensive flight, but that would have to be approved by the division’s director.

“We also encourage our travelers to look at the cost of traveling the day before and staying in a hotel the night before versus peak time. All of these behavioral elements of travel are our focus.”

Another driver behind calling time on single client visits may be the amount of logistics that currently goes into any corporate travel, with all the hygiene protocols and procedures to follow.

“One of the ideas we’ve centered a lot of our exploration around is this idea that every trip is an event,” Mark McSpadden, vice president of global product strategy and experience at American Express Global Business Travel, told Skift.

“So if you think about the way we look at events, they are very much pre-planned in advance, there’s research that goes into it. Then there is a gathering of people. It’s in line with how do you maximize your experience on the road, and get the most out of client meetings,” he said.

Lichenstein also believes employees are conscious of the work going into travel today. “People are going to be more aware now that if they’re going to a city, for whatever reason, and if they have to get on that plane, they’re going to have to be ready, or comfortable, to visit more than one customer.”

However, McSpadden thinks some staff will want to just get in and get out. “Some of the travelers we’re talking to are also looking at how do I spend the least amount of time in a certain location. So there’s another aspect of whether you can make a day trip out of it, and pick the most important client.”

Facing the Future

Sanofi’s Hudson also said the end of one-meeting trips was important for his 100,000-strong company’s commitment to the environment. Sustainable travel was certainly a talking point before coronavirus, and is now back on the agenda as governments impose environmental clauses with their airline bailout conditions, such as promoting rail travel when possible and forcing closures of certain short-haul rates.

DigiTravel’s Lichtenstein said sustainability would be one of the silver linings from the crisis, with the levels of business travel seen in 2019 never coming back, with just 75 percent returning by the beginning of 2023.

Business meetings, clearly, aren’t going anywhere, and the value of face-to-face interaction with customers and partners will remain. Their shape and size, however, may look a lot different to before and travel managers will find themselves playing the numbers game from the beginning of next year.

Photo Credit: There's a focus on what constitutes a business-critical trip as companies emerge from the lockdown. Rawpixel / Flickr