Coronavirus has accelerated a range of latent travel trends over the past six months, most related to technology. Now you can add traveler well-being to that list.
Many international organizations have, quite rightly, reacted to the pandemic with a renewed focus on their employees’ safety and well-being.
But some of these new wellbeing pushes, which tend to be associated with the risks the deadly Covid-19 virus can pose when traveling, may end up finding a permanent home in the company travel policy. Because in the same way the pandemic has accelerated virtual technology adoption, among other areas, it’s highlighting the importance of looking after the traveler.
A lot of work was admittedly already being carried out around wellbeing, and mental health in particular, by companies before Covid, but as travel slowly returns it’s back on the radar as they work on policies that will be fit for purpose in the coronavirus era and beyond.
“Covid-19 has changed the health and safety conversation, putting it front and center for all travelers,” according to booking and expense platform SAP Concur. Its recent 2020 Business Travel Survey found that ensuring personal health and safety while traveling was most important to business travelers, with 65 percent placing it in their top three considerations.
For the survey, which polled 4,850 business travelers in 23 global markets, and 800 travel managers in eight global markets, it also found they expressed more positive emotions with the prospect of returning to the road than negatives — but 97 percent expect changes to travel norms, reflecting renewed interest in safety and wellbeing.
“With these changes in place, 45 percent of travelers now say the trip itself is the most stressful phase of travel, a 50 percent increase from last year,” SAP Concur added.
So what is on travel managers’ radars at the moment?
Pre-Covid, few employees would have come across this term in their travel policy, being unaccustomed to the finer details of HEPA filters, nucleic acid tests and Hilton’s latest partnership with cleaning brand Lysol.
Today, of course, it’s all hotels, airlines and airports are talking about, to help reassure guests and passengers.
“We’ve done a lot of work over the past year, like a lot of travel buyers have, about wellness, but it’s been focused on physical wellness, jetlag, fatigue, have hotels got access to a gym,” said Alice Linley-Munro, global travel analyst at Oil Spill Response.
“We’ve started to move more into mental health wellness, but now with Covid, bio-safety wellness as well — because that in itself impinges on all the other areas of wellness,” she added, while speaking at WIN Global Travel Network and Hickory Global Partners’ ITMC Virtual event last week.
“But it can’t just be an add-to the policy. For us, it’s been important to have conversations with our travel management company about how we can really build it in from the get-go so that it just becomes the culture,”.
In other words, companies need to plug their booking systems into a lot of new hygiene protocols, no mean feat when they’re constantly being updated. It’s a lot of work, and one where travel management companies also have a role to play.
It’s more than simply ensuring a traveler isn’t being booked on to a middle seat.
“Customers want more control and predictability over the end-to-end business travel experience, allowing them to better manage essential travel and also reassure their employees that their health and wellbeing is valued over and above cost,” said Manuel Brachet, vice-president of commercial, multinational and global at Egencia. “Travelers want access to essential information, like hotel health and hygiene measures, directly in the booking path so they can book with confidence.”
As well as agencies, medical and travel security services firms are also stepping up.
International SOS, for example, is providing Singapore’s Energy Drilling Management its new ICC AOKpass — an app that stores an individual’s Covid-19 test result. This has helped its employees travel to Thailand, which has strict Covid-19 entry requirements.
It’s not an easy task, but by being able to dynamically feed updates to the traveler, during their trip, they’ll be able to remove some of the stresses and anxieties they may feel, having to keep up with multiple protocols.
“All that information is in different buckets,” said Cindy Heston, director, travel and events at insurance firm Anthem. “It’s great from a buyer perspective, because you really do have detailed information from each supplier, but there are a lot of different brands, and all brands are following different protocols and solutions.”
Also speaking at the ITMC Virtual event, she added that Anthem was discussing how to universally bring all that information together, using a dedicated business information system, and overlaying the data with its booking tools.
“What are the rules in that market, as far as masks, restaurants, temperature checks? They’re changing every day, every minute, so how do you accurately get this information together?” she continued. “We don’t have the solution. The agencies are helping us pull that data together. This has been a great learning experience. When you look at duty of care, protecting your travelers, this is one of the most cumbersome things we’re going to deal with. Partner wise, we’ve found some great solutions.”
In the future, suppliers and agencies can expect to see companies place a greater emphasis on technology and data that can be flowed in to help inform the traveler at every stage of the journey.
Offering The Options
As well as companies turning to agencies for help with the data, there’s also a drive towards greater flexibility emerging. In the current environment, staff are conscious of the risks and employers of course can’t force travel upon an employee. However, certain companies do have cultures that penalize those who aren’t prepared to travel, particularly in high-pressure sales roles.
Covid has now forced companies to be more prepared to learn, or hear, more about the individual’s situation and history ahead of a business trip. And now one mental health expert believes Covid, finally, is opening the door to more of those conversations, where the amount of travel can be questioned, particularly in light of virtual meeting adoption.
“You have to have a conscious awareness of the fact that not everyone will feel the same way about going on a trip,” said Matthew Holman, owner of Simpila Healthy Solutions and co-founder of the Business Travel Wellbeing Community. “How do you manage those people who don’t want to travel again? We need to be able to educate every traveler around what alternatives there are. What are the levers or the pulleys that would make them more comfortable for the trip?
“We need that front-end interface that allows the traveler to say, actually, I don’t want to stay overnight. I’d rather do a day trip return. But maybe that’s not what the policy states. How do you engage that conversation?”
At energy company RWE Generation UK, those processes have already began.
“I talked to 12 of our most frequent travelers, who manage teams of technicians, and who do need to go to various sites,” Holly Bemrose, travel manager energy company RWE Generation UK, told Skift. “We asked how they’d imagine travel post-Covid, in a world where a vaccine has been developed. They were saying they’d like to travel a lot less, perhaps 60 percent less. Before they had the expectation themselves that any meeting had to be face-to-face. They’ve now realized it’s unnecessary. So instead of one night away, they’d do two nights to get more done, and they can then travel less frequently.”
Skift also understands that for those companies where travel hasn’t been curtailed, such as the energy sector where electricity plants still have to be maintained, travel managers have created “pop-up policies” to inform and reassure staff they’ve planned every detail of the travel.
These are implemented for individual projects, where employees work in certain locations for certain periods of times, with dedicated websites or intranet pages packed with safety guidelines and Q&As surrounding travel to that region.
These are yet another example of travel manager innovation — and while they could be perceived as temporary fixes or workarounds for business-critical trips, they’re set to have longer-term implications as corporations rethink travel during Covid and beyond.
As SAP Concur concludes in its study: “The data suggests travel will continue to play an irreplaceable role in meeting critical business demands. However, travelers’ health and safety, and a new era of trip preparation and policies, will be front and center as travel resumes …. Emerging expectations around personal and community health and safety will mean a new era of decisions, processes, and innovations across the travel industry.”
Photo credit: Happy travelers from Singapore's Energy Drilling Management, who are using International SOS's new ICC AOKpass — an app that stores an individual's Covid-19 test result. International SOS