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After helping to save the planet from Covid-19, Pfizer has a somewhat different mission now: cutting back on the number of business trips.

The U.S. drug and vaccine manufacturer follows in the footsteps of another pharmaceutical company, UCB, which wants employees to think harder about their reasons for travel.

Pfizer is now rebuilding its travel program, and will begin by asking staff more questions when they book their next trip.

“We looked at our behaviors and the purpose of our trips before the pandemic,” said Tina Quattlebaum, Pfizer’s director of global travel operations. “Now we want to redefine that, starting from the place of: what will you accomplish by meeting in person, or traveling, that you can’t accomplish virtually? That definitely is a shift for us.”

Aspects that were previously measured included whether the trip was being booked at least 14 days out, to save costs. However, it’s unlikely a focus on advance purchasing will be as important in the future.

Company travel managers across all industries are reevaluating their programs, with the theme of “purposeful travel” taking hold. One recent travel manager survey, carried out by Morgan Stanley, predicts virtual meetings will replace 27 percent of next year’s overall travel volume.

After their roles were made more prominent at the start of the pandemic, when staff had to be repatriated, travel managers are operating more strategically in the wake of virtual meeting adoption and a closer look at carbon emissions.

“We’re building some of the framework around what is purposeful travel, and giving colleagues the tools to help them define what is the reason; what is the return on investment on the trip?” said Quattlebaum, speaking at the Global Business Travel Association’s mid-year virtual summit.

As far back as summer 2020, companies have being exploring how business travel could look after the pandemic. Again in the pharmaceutical sector — perhaps no surprise in a sector that’s more regulated than most — the CEO of French company Sanofi declared the end of the single client business meeting.

At the start of the year, consultancy Festive Road identified purposeful travel would be adopted by travel managers following a theme of permissible travel.

“We are continuing to see increased interest from companies in taking a more purposeful approach to future size and shape of their travel and meetings programs, whether it’s called justifiable travel, intentional travel or any other terminology used,” said Paul Tilstone, managing partner.

New Priorities

On top of quizzing employees on the purpose of their trip, another feature Pfizer wants to bring in is how to make sure the managers are also aligned for the purpose of that trip. There’s also risk and safety, as well as carbon footprint considerations, to be presented at the time of booking, Quattlebaum added, speaking during the “Reclaiming the travel budget: how to work with the C-Suite on budget” panel.

Meanwhile, budget allocations will become more sensitive at Pfizer. “We’re as close to zero budgets as most companies that we’ve ever been. That doesn’t mean there’s not expenses, but a lot less pre-pandemic,” she said.

But one area that will be trickier to grasp will be employees’ nervousness. While domestic travel is set to rebound more quickly than international, particularly in the U.S., travel bans largely remain in place across Europe.

“Maybe travelers that were very much road warriors have a level of fear they didn’t have before,” Quattlebaum noted. There’s a lot of effort going into dissuading staff from traveling, but the pendulum may need to swing the other way: at some point, corporations might have to work on encouraging staff to travel.

Whatever the sentiment, travel managers now find themselves working in a more strategic, and less operational, manner. Dell’s global category manager, for example, said the company was moving to a more automated way of procuring hotel rooms in the future, axing traditional requests for proposals.

“It’s a great time to show the more strategic side of travel management and to leverage all those great senior stakeholder relationships built as a result of the pandemic,” Tilstone added.

Photo Credit: Pfizer will ask employees what they want to accomplish by meeting in person, or traveling, that they cannot virtually. Mat Napo / Unsplash