Archaic throwback to the 1980s, or an indispensable service for the Covid-wary business traveler? Possibly the latter, but with a virtual twist.
With coronavirus prompting a rethink around the culture of the traditional office, attention’s also turning to the agency’s on-site travel operation, or “implant.”
It’s mainly the larger corporate travel agencies that offer this on-site approach, catering to high-spending clients that have more complex needs, such as for short-notice, discreet or premium trips.
But in a world of rising real estate costs and smarter self-booking tools, the model could be overhauled by applying some of those virtual technology and hybrid meeting concepts that are proving such a hit in other travel industry sectors.
“The rise in popularity of implants during the 1980s was driven by the physical nature of a traditional business travel service, such as the issuing and handling of travel documents, tickets, vouchers, itineraries and passports,” recalled John Harvey, founder and chief marketing officer at Globalyse.
“At the height of their popularity, a large travel management company would have more implants than owned offices, and especially for servicing large clients, the implant was the favored method of service delivery,” he added, speaking with authority having spent 25 years at Hogg Robinson Travel after joining 1979.
Other benefits include transparency — rather than a call centre, clients could see their agency was 100 percent focused on their needs. On-site advisors also became integrated into the culture and style of the client organization.
Meanwhile, an in-house expert also means the advisor is more likely to proactively stay one step ahead of any issues, hopefully preventing things going wrong in the first place, according to travel operations specialist Carrie Nederpel.
“Travelers don’t have to waste time away from their real jobs trying to sort out their travel-related issues, while an on-site specialist can spot costly non-compliance, an off-site agent has no authority or incentive to do this. And by proactively monitoring the travel data, a good specialist can tailor supplier contracts to achieve the most savings,” she added.
However, with the onset of e-ticketing and rising real estate rents, many clients began to reverse their services team back into the agency. Then the emergence of self-booking and the pursuit of increased online adoption accelerated this change, according to Harvey.
Yet, to date, these developments haven’t quite made the implant extinct.
Take the Focus Travel Partnership for example, which has 60 agency members with a combined turnover in excess of £1 billion. Its own recent straw poll revealed 12 percent of its members have some staff working directly on clients’ teams, either as an implant or fully outsourced to them.
Then Came Coronavirus
Covid-19 is now causing a rethink, according to Focus. In its poll, it asked whether the crisis would increase or decrease the demand. Just 9 percent thought it would increase, 29 percent said it will decrease and 62 percent said it would not change.
“There could be many reasons for the majority saying it would decrease or stay the same, but as businesses question the real estate investment that they have, this could put pressure on office space. But additionally the the travel management companies themselves are generally offering excellent information through their people and technology without the need for on-site staff,” said Pascal Benn, Focus’ business solutions manager.
BCD Travel is currently seeing its implant numbers dwindle. “For years, we’ve seen a declining trend in offices and in client requests for implants,” said Stewart Harvey, president for EMEA. “With Covid-19 social distancing measures, this trend is set to continue.”
Another of the mega-agencies, CTM Europe, also has implants working in situ with some of its clients. During Covid-19, it said a small number of these offices have been closed and, in these cases, the implants have either continued to work for them from home or have been furloughed.
“Where our clients’ offices remained open, our implants have continued to work in their offices and we have worked closely with each client to ensure that social distancing guidelines have been respected and the health and safety of our employees has been protected,” a spokesperson told Skift. “Implant staff who have continued to work have mostly been helping clients with travel changes, refunds, administrative tasks and ensuring clients’ travel policies and procedures are reviewed and ready for when we all start traveling again.”
It said the implant staff were able to offer “invaluable insight” back to its account managers as they continue to review supplier agreements on their behalf.
But Alison Rogan, chair of the Institute of Travel Management, believes some implants can even be nonproductive. “Advisors based in an implant due to the ease of accessibility can be distracted unnecessarily by personal requests from employees, which will have a direct impact productivity and ultimately headcount,” she said,
What Happens Next?
In the immediate future, a sudden revival could be on the cards.
“I’ve heard a number of corporates say that as they’re beginning to bring travel back, a number of them say they prefer to have human servicing, because it’s so complex at the moment,” said Festive Road managing partner Paul Tilstone at WIN Global Travel Network and Hickory Global Partners’ recent ITMC Virtual event. “Many of the online tools just don’t cater for the needs of the traveler.”
An unexpected return to popularity may also be sparked due to a resetting of commercial models. Agencies could move away from the classic transaction fee to a service-based model, and the implants fits well with that. “The opportunity is there for travel managers to break the traditional model to gain increased transparency in their program and stronger relationships with preferred partners,” Globalyse’s Harvey said.
However, some trends are just too big to ignore. With many organizations adjusting to the remote life, so too could the implant’s future become virtual, with on-site presences reserved for those special customers that insist.
“The optimum scenario is a dedicated team of travel advisors with a percentage office-based and working from home, but all of which are plugged in to the agency’s systems, with access to the necessary technology and tools to be effective and efficient,” said the Institute of Travel Management’s Rogan. “As well as support in times of disruption where the office-based colleagues are unable to reach the office, the home-based colleagues will be available to assist.”
But while the events industry grapples with hybrid meetings, conferences and exhibitions, agencies could take a similar approach. “It’s possible we will see a return of the implant concept – both virtually, off-site, and physically, on-site,” said Globalyse’s Harvey.
BCD Travel’s Harvey agreed. “Covid-19 has shown the value of having access to experts aligned with the client culture, who can educate travelers on policy and governance, and help companies fulfill their duty of care,” said. “The next step is to move from a physical on-site implant to a virtual model, giving clients and travelers access to a dedicated team of experienced people from any location.”
A case in point is Travel and Transport. It operates implants, but with offices closed due to coronavirus it’s taking advantage of its LeapAdvisor customer relationship management platform. This means its advisors will automatically recognize business travelers’ booking behaviors and policies, and the agency said this had already offset any disruption caused by temporary closures.
That disruption is set to continue well into 2021, with subdued levels of corporate travel giving agencies plenty of time to figure out yet another industry dilemma.
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Photo credit: With office rents rising, some corporations might think twice about dedicating chairs to travel advisors. Arlington Research / Unsplash