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Travel will look a lot different at pharmaceutical company UCB once restrictions ease, because employees are about to be quizzed when they book a trip that doesn’t involve an overnight stay.
The decision to question their motives comes as the company strives to make meetings more meaningful, and lower its carbon emissions — but it could backfire, as experts warn the trend might lead to staff manipulating the system.
UCB’s volume of corporate travel was down 90 percent in the first quarter of this year, compared with the same period last year. Like most companies, it adapted to virtual meetings.
Advito, the consultancy arm of its corporate travel agency, BCD Travel, is now introducing a new question in the company’s online booking tool, and for agency bookings. When staff book a one-day trip, a pop-up will appear: Are you sure you could not do this over a Teams or Zoom meeting?
“The first screen they will see is: have you reflected whether the trip you are planning is an essential trip,” said Geert Behets, spend journey lead, global travel and meetings, at UCB. “We want people to start thinking: what is essential travel? What travel brings value?”
At the same time, UCB is tagging this purposeful meetings push to becoming a more sustainable company, with Advito developing a dashboard that looks at trip emissions.
Advito offers a platform called GATE4 that helps customers track emissions across air, hotel, rail and car travel to gain a better picture of their program’s environmental impact, and identify where to make meaningful changes.
“We want to keep people thinking, plus we are linking this with our environmental targets. UCB wants to become carbon neutral by 2030,” added Behets, who was speaking during an online webinar held by consultancy Festive Road. “We want to take this opportunity to keep the momentum going.”
New Pandemic Patterns
It’s not the first example of coronavirus, tinged with a growing conscience of climate change, stamping its mark.
“I will do fewer trips for longer. If I go to Singapore, for example, for Davos, I’m not just going to go for that, I’m going to spend more time there,” said Sir Martin Sorrell, frequent flyer and former CEO of advertising giant WPP, when discussing plans to attend the World Economic Forum (which has since been canceled due to Covid-19 concerns).
And as far back as July last year, the CEO of another pharmaceutical company predicted the demise of the one-client business trip.
However, there could be pitfalls when clamping down and adopting “blunt” tools, according to one consultant.
“Something as simple as challenging the booker if a trip doesn’t have an overnight stay could help to address the challenge, but feels a little of a blunt instrument, to be honest,” said Guy Sneglar.
He added he was seeing more tailored and specific policies to address the same objective. This can include asking bookers to specify the reason for the trip at the start of the booking process, with a prompt for the user to consider a virtual meeting if they try to book travel for a single day trip if its purpose is given as internal meeting.
“Back that up with an approval process which requires a more stringent level of approval if they do go ahead and book — and of course make sure the traveler knows that,” he added.
Meanwhile, those employees who have been pining to hit the road will find ways to bypass any bans on one-day trips.
“Restricting same-day travel is not new and runs the risk of people saying they need two days when one would suffice,” said independent consultant Chris Pouney.
Travel managers may then start seeing costs soar quickly once restrictions ease.
“It’s not hard to imagine arranging a meeting for early in the morning, so you would have to travel the night before and stay overnight in a hotel, or adding on a number of those ‘as I’m in your area’ meetings, which don’t necessarily have a specific purpose or sufficient value,” Sneglar added.
Timing is Everything
For now, as most international organizations keep their travel bans in place, there’s still some time to reflect.
UCB’s Behets said that departments would need to define essential meetings and travel themselves, but in the future travel managers may be called on to help them define what constitutes a worthwhile meeting.
From a sales perspective, presenting in front of a large prospective sales opportunity could arguably be the very definition of a worthwhile trip.
“The urgency is not immediate, but we want people to start thinking about it,” he said. “We expect it will have an impact of course, but we will only see when people start traveling again.”
According to a recent industry poll, three in four (74 percent) of buyer and procurement respondents belonging to the Global Business Travel Association feel their employees are “willing” or “very willing” to travel for business in the current environment.
The results are the most positive since the pandemic began, with increasing optimism ahead, the association noted.
“I think it likely we will see an overall decline in the one-day-trip as executives seek to align with sustainability objectives and ensure trips are really seen as valuable, but if there’s real purpose to the trip then it will go ahead,” said Paul Tilstone, managing partner of Festive Road.