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These travel managers have no regrets in keeping things hush-hush among employees, because why risk everything when all it takes is another variant to emerge? Backtracking after a two-year hiatus is, understandably, not something they're prepared to do.

Some company travel managers are ringing in the new year with a relaxation of strict travel bans that had been around since March 2020. But for now it’s something they’d prefer to keep on the lowdown.

Such is the chaos that the new Omicron variant caused at the end of last year, companies are reluctant to broadcast the fact that staff can travel domestically, with the risk of having to backtrack deemed too high.

One global entertainment production company has had a four-phase approach for its return to travel program in place since the pandemic began, covering critical, essential, important and minor travel.

“For the longest time we were critical only, and towards the tail end of last year we opened it up to essential,” he said, preferring to withhold his company’s name. Critical travel is classified as a business trip that would prevent the collapse of the firm, while the essential category includes any form of travel that helps it generate revenue.

The company, which has more than 2,000 employees, was just about to relax the restrictions even further to “important” so staff would be able to attend conferences and events without needing permission. However, with many industry events currently getting cancelled at the last minute, the travel manager has put this new phase on pause.

“We raised the level to important but we were very quiet about it. We didn’t publicize that, and only the executives and business continuity taskforce know. As far as the company at large is aware, travel is still banned,” he said. “Even people who do revenue-generating trips, we haven’t been proactively communicating that they can travel. It’s more a case of them having to come to me, and ask me about it.”

The Omicron Effect

One global analytics company with 13,000 employees is also playing it very quietly.

“One thing my company hates doing is putting out a message and then backtracking,” said its UK-based global travel manager, again speaking on condition of anonymity.

The company in question is now allowing domestic travel in China, despite rising cases in some locations. “We don’t really want to put anything out yet, because a new variant might come up again and we’d have to scrap all the comms,” he added.

For other countries, in particular the U.S., restrictions were set to be lifted a few weeks ago but Omicron derailed that plan. As a result, executive leadership approval is required mainly because the company’s “return to travel” program is closely aligned with its “return to office” program.

It’s now monitoring the number of Covid cases at a local level across 80 locations around the world. It’s leaning on its real estate services provider, which has 300 employees updating a shared Google document with numbers on a daily basis. When they reach a certain threshold, they close the office.

As well as tracking the numbers, the travel manager is battling Covid disinformation. “The new variant really set everything back. There are things about it, whether it’s rumor or not, that have got a lot of people worried. You have to go back to the drawing board,” he said.

Wait and See

There’s still that question mark over international business travel because employees have generally figured out how to do most tasks virtually, despite preferring to travel. However in the UK, which has ran the gamut of travel restrictions thanks to a universally despised traffic light system, the pent-up demand is showing.

“For smaller domestic events taking place in the next four weeks, some corporates are allowing these to go ahead if attendees feel comfortable,” said Scott Davies, chief executive of the UK’s Institute of Travel Management. “It’s a case of watch this space for a little while longer before any decisions about lifting or easing travel bans can be taken.”

The institute’s travel buyer members generally haven’t lifted international travel restrictions for non-essential travel, with large-scale meetings either being postponed or switched to a virtual format, Davies added.

On a global scale, corporate buyers belonging to the Global Business Travel Association are optimistic that the travel recovery will be quick, and some are poised to lift their bans this month, according to Suzanne Neufang.

“The approach is very much wait and see with government guidelines remaining a key determiner and corporates waiting for guidance on the return to office and travel,” she said.

For Clive Wratten, chief executive of the UK’s Business Travel Association, the government’s recent axing of pre-arrival testing and return to lateral flow tests has given the travel sector a significant boost.

“There has been a marked uptick in business travel bookings for February and March,” he said. “However, companies are still being cautious as there is little confidence that restrictions won’t change abruptly.”

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Tags: business travel, coronavirus, corporate travel, corporate travel management, covid-19, omicron variant

Photo credit: Companies are nervous about broadcasting the news employees can travel, because there's no certainty Omicron will be the last variant we'll see. Jida Li / Unsplash

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