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Employees used to get a slap on the wrist for booking at the last-minute, but that could be about to change.

As companies plot their return to travel, policies that stated bookings had to be made 14 days before or longer — primarily to keep costs down — may be ripped up due to the ongoing coronavirus outbreaks.

While most organizations keep their generic travel bans in place, which increasingly look likely to last for the rest of the year, travel managers and other players in the sector want to make life easier for those taking “essential” trips.

“One minute a country can be open, a week later it could close its borders again,” said Ann Dery, director, global travel and meetings at market intelligence firm S&P Global. “We have situations where people are working virtually, in different countries and different states. They may have to make those decisions at short notice.”

Dery also said the new mindset was a significant change for her company: a disciplined financial organization with equally disciplined travelers.

“Around 60 to 70 percent of travel was booked between that 14 and 21-day window. We were very compliant in that area, and last year we had actually started an enforcement effort,” she said.

However, in the new environment Dery said it would become more about on-demand travel.

“It’s a different environment, with more short-term planning,” she added, speaking at Gett‘s “Explore the delicate new art of defining essential business travel in a Covid-19 world” webinar last week. “As a procurement professional, you do focus a lot of your time on savings. Not to say savings are out the window, but it’s all about the wellbeing of our traveler now, and that wellbeing comes at a cost.”

Redefining Travel

There’s little doubt air fares will rise in the short term, in particular with the limited number of flights, and seats, available. Hotels may also need to hike rates to cover their cleaning costs.

“Cost control doesn’t come first, it’s not the most important thing for companies,” said travel industry consultant Wolfgang Strasser.

“Under coronavirus, every business trip represents some kind of risk for the traveler. Companies accept that the travel booker or traveler chose the most convenient trip in these times.”

Strasser also argued that having saved so much money within travel budgets so far this year, most companies would be hard pressed to deny the higher cost for short-notice bookings.

But what kind of short-notice travel will be required? When quizzed by Keren Fanan, Gett’s chief commercial officer, on what travel S&P Global is allowing, Dery defined essential travel as the type that maintains a competitive edge; impacts financial viability of the organization; or has some sort of significant operational safety impact on the company if that type of travel didn’t occur.

Adding a Dynamic Touch

As organizations come to the realization coronavirus will remain for longer than hoped, travel will slowly start to pick up, pending different countries’ attitudes to the pandemic. As a result, now is a good time for programs and policies to be refreshed, with some booking platform start-ups eagerly watching from the sidelines, ready to step in with more agile processes that reflect the need for speed.

“Many travel managers are working on dynamic policies to be ready for some form of resumption in wider travel, with traveler health, safety and wellbeing as the most important factor rather than cost,” one travel manager at an investment bank, who wished to remain anonymous, told Skift.

“From speaking to industry colleagues, it’s a case of finding the sweet spot where traveller wellbeing is balanced with other factors such as cost, duration of trip, on the ground situation in the destination — for each corporate that sweet spot is going to look different.”

One corporate travel startup, Fairjungle, founded by several former colleagues from McKinsey and Apple, thinks it has the answer. It launched a new platform in September last year, and claims to already be benefiting from the uncertainty Covid-19 is creating, having amassed 100 clients.

“What we do best is enable travel managers to dynamically control their travel program with a high level of granularity,” said co-founder and CEO Saad Berrada. “For instance, they could change the booking window period in seconds, and choose the level of control they need, such as direct, notification, approval or banned, without touching other settings.

“We also simplified the approval process and built a one-click approval process, where the travel manager gets a notification on their phone with trip qualification details and lists of potential policy breaches, and can approve or deny directly on their phone.”

To further speed things up, Berrada said Fairjungle was building in Slack integration to allow travel managers to approve, or deny, directly from the popular internal messaging tool.

Today’s modern travel programs are rarely black or white, but companies now have the perfect opportunity to update them to allow for even more flexibility; there’s a strong chance it will be needed in the future.

Photo Credit: Company employees need to book meetings at shorter notice due to coronavirus-related travel restrictions. Bram Naus / Unsplash