Skift Take

Travel firms are gearing up for a busy year booking company retreats and off-sites, because team meetings are moving on from U-shaped tables and an overhead projector to ranches, sites in the woods and beyond.

Series: Future of Work

Future of Work

As organizations start to embrace distributed work and virtual meetings, the corporate travel and meetings sectors are preparing for change. Read Skift’s ongoing coverage of this shift in business travel behavior through the lens of both brands and consumers.

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Salesforce’s upcoming “Trailblazer Ranch” represents the beginning of a new trend that will see some companies build their own retreats to host offsite meetings for their employees, according to the world’s biggest corporate travel agency.

American Express Global Business Travel’s meeting division is in talks with some of its larger customers about round-the-calendar management of such facilities, while specialist group booking platforms are reporting an uptick in demand.

So-called “team travel” is becoming a major priority as organizations keep their offices closed.

Salesforce first touted the idea of a ranch for team-building last year, but has now confirmed it will use an established 75-acre site run by educational non-profit 1440 Multiversity in Scotts Valley, California, on an interim basis. It will develop employee engagement programs, and start onboarding, training, skills building and talent development from March. More “Trailblazer Ranches” are planned globally.

“Trailblazer Ranch is an exciting new gathering place where employees can forge trusted relationships with their colleagues, learn from one another, get inspired, grow in their career, get trained on the company, and give back to the community in a fun and safe environment,” said Brent Hyder, president and chief people officer, in a blog post.

Other tech companies may soon join Saleforce, either building their own offsite facilities or refurbish existing ones to offer employees, according to Linda McNairy, vice president Americas, American Express Meetings and Events.

“We’re being asked about our ability to manage events at these facilities,” she said. “They don’t need us to find the venue, they’ve taken care of that bit, but what they’re looking for is someone to run the events. This is a dramatic shift in thinking. It used to be around having U-shaped tables and proper AV, and now it’s a conversation around a ranch.”

McNairy said Amex GBT was seeing a spike in demand for offsite meetings caused by delays in companies reopening offices. “May seems to be the month, in all parts of the world, where everyone is throwing a pin in the calendar,” she said.

But that delay is sending mixed messages to the wider industry. McNairy said one client was told their offices wouldn’t open until April, but they had just spent the week in L.A. hosting clients at the Super Bowl, before traveling to Phoenix to review a site for a “top performers” event scheduled for March. It seems any health risks associated with buildings outweighs the risks for other gatherings.

“When Covid first happened, people said internal meetings would be the last to come back, from a cost-savings driver. But then what we’ve learned from all this isolation and separation is that meetings drive culture,” she added.

Teaming Up

Amex GBT isn’t the only agency reporting growth. TravelPerk developed its own tool called Events to help its corporate customers host offsite meetings in November last year, and now plans to scale it up. It’s designed to help them organize any type of event, such as sales kick-off, off-sites or seasonal company parties in a seamless way.

More than 400 businesses have used it to collaborate by sharing trip deals and connecting remote teams globally, the agency said. Around 150 new events were created in the last two weeks of January.

TripActions told Skift bookings made with its new Team Travel planning tool were growing 30 percent week-over-week. Themes included internal team events, sales kick-offs, president’s clubs and training, while the time between sending the invite and booking is about 10 days, with the lead time two to three weeks between booking and travel. For groups under 25 people, the platform has been used by 1,000 customers already.

Specialist group booking platforms are also seeing an uptick as customers seek to offer more experiential meetings rather blank walls and an overhead projector. Troop said it recently won a client in the computer gaming industry which wanted to plan events to engage with gamers, as well as hold internal and project meetings.

It has also signed up a major consulting firm that was trying to figure out the best place for its partners to meet. “A big driver is that their people were spending so much time working out where people are allowed to travel to, based on Covid restrictions, and it’s taking them hundreds and hundreds of hours,” said Spencer Brace, head of growth strategy. “When you’ve got a 100 or so offices, they’re working out which destinations are possible.”

Troop this week added a Covid 19 data layer, so users can check entry restrictions to destination and departure countries for their group of attendees, but alongside NextRetreat, it’s rethinking pricing models to accelerate growth as clients start using the platform in unexpected ways.

Where Next?

“We’re finding multiple use cases across the business,” Brace continued. One aviation consultant used Troop to model a new travel program for a corporate client that was thinking of changing its policy to business class from six hours minimum to eight hours. “You could put in all of your key routes and destinations, and analyze that, and re-analyze based on an eight-hour cut-off point. You could compare the two data points and think wow, we’re going to save a million dollars by doing this.” And with so many flight schedules disrupted due to Covid and pilot shortages, its platform was even more in demand. “That 9.30 a.m. flight you used to get, it doesn’t exist anymore,” he said.

Troop is continuing to develop a new tool that will allow users to book instantly, and will initially partner with Spotnana for fulfillment (they share an investor, Concur co-founder Steve Singh), but it also plans to integrate with other corporate travel agencies. “If you plan something, but then have to go to another channel to buy it, it’s like moving from one spreadsheet to another,” Brace said.

It will also release a free version of its trip planning tool, and a small business version, “to drive product led growth,” he added.

Niche team travel booking tool NextRetreat is also tweaking its pricing strategy. Founder Martin Studencan said it will soon be adopting a new pricing solution with three packages: annual, quarterly and concierge, which includes support finding and booking the location.

It is also launching a side product called “feature venues” which will showcase the best venues in Europe and North America, following growing numbers of independent property owners who wanted to host meetings. It would act as a “teaser,” he said, with browsers invited to sign up if they can’t find what they’re looking for. “It works as an incentive to get more users,” Studencan added. “Content is king. It serves a marketing purpose.”

Meanwhile, other offsite and retreat planning platforms are waiting on the sidelines, including Sprout, which is being developed by tech vendor Gordian Software, which works with the likes of Lufthansa Group, Priceline and Hopper. Co-founder and CEO Stephen Grabowski told Skift it was currently testing the platform with customers.

Amex GBT’s McNairy said the agency was also looking to evolve its Workspaces tool to help clients plan off-sites and retreats, making more use of its Green Compass tool to help track carbon dioxide emissions and set goals.

As with Salesforce’s ranch, more companies will ultimately create more experiences around team gatherings. Troop’s Brace said meetings could even be based around factors gastronomy, with the platform using metrics around restaurant ratings and reviews. “Hopefully it will help finish those moments where people stand in a faceless meeting space, and say: ‘Why am I here? Why did we choose here?’ We want inspiring places, where people can do their best work,” he said.

Sidenotes

Most companies are still finding their feet when it comes to remote working, but not this tour operator, which thinks it’s cracked it.

Amtrak Vacations, part of Amtrak, and Railbookers shifted to remote work during the pandemic but decided to make it permanent.

Frank Marini, president and CEO of the two companies, was apparently against the idea of people working remotely before the pandemic, but six months in changed his tune and drove the decision to become a virtual company.

It’s not gone quite as far as dating app Ashley Madison, which shared its policy with Skift last year — no unlimited vacation policy, for example — but for a tour operator that type of perk may lead to trouble.

The policy rules include …

Everyone needs to have their video on, the company dictates, but on the plus side this has given them a window into each other’s lives, or so it claims. “They will routinely see a cat cross a desk, a child come into a room, or someone’s guitar collection. They have learned more about one another by interacting from their home spaces than they ever did while working in the office.”

Marini also schedules in “random coffee chats and social time” with groups of up to 10 people every week to discuss whatever’s on their mind. Pets and musical instruments probably spring up a lot.

And technology wise, each staff member is allowed a generous “three to four” computer screens to check in on various systems and customer service call boards.

The upshot? The decision to go permanently comes as the company reports 2022 will already be a record year in terms of revenue (no mean feat considering it’s only February.) Employees are also using up fewer sick days, while staff turnover is at its lowest level ever. In fact, there’s no sign of a labor crisis because the company claims the new policy has boosted recruitment: “Word on the street has also created a huge influx of applications from people who want to work for the brands because of the WFH opportunity.”

The group currently employs staff across 26 states in the U.S. and in four countries — and counting.

10-Second Corporate Travel Catch-Up

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In Brief

Yatra Strikes Deal With Cleartrip

Indian corporate travel agency Yatra has partnered with Bangalore-based Cleartrip. Cleartrip was bought by Flipkart Group, part of Walmart, in 2021. As part of the deal, Yatra can offer its inventory of 94,000 hotels and homestays in 1,400 cities and towns to Cleartrip customers. The deal also expands opportunities for Yatra’s hotel partners, which now gain access to Cleartrip and Flipkart’s growing customer base. “By partnering with Yatra.com, we will be able to further strengthen our existing vertical of hotels and accommodation, enabling us to offer a wider selection of stay options at the most competitive rates to our customers,” said Cleartrip CEO Ayyappan Rajagopal. Yatra recently settled a quarrel with investor Maguire as it prepares to go public in India.

Collinson Turns Focus to Asia Pacific 

Collinson has partnered with Singapore security services firm AETOS and risk manager Crisis24 to boost its presence in Asia Pacific on a new service called AETOS Assist. It will offer pre-travel risk assessment, real-time security intelligence and people tracking through to crisis management, emergency evacuations and global medical assistance. AETOS Assist is designed for business travelers and expats.

South Africa Set to Launch Digital Nomad Visa

The South African government is set to offer a new remote work visa to offer stays of more than 90 days. The National Government needs to amend Section 11 of the Immigration Act, according to reports. The visa would require applicants to provide evidence of employment abroad and sufficient income, proof of accommodation and medical insurance, medical certificate and police clearances. It would also allow dependents to accompany them. “The world over, the ability to attract skilled immigrants is the hallmark of a modern, thriving economy,” said president Cyril Ramaphosa in a recent speech. “We are therefore streamlining and modernizing the visa application process to make it easier to travel to South Africa for tourism, business and work.” The visa is being spearheaded by Alderman James Vos, Cape Town’s mayoral committee member.

Update: An earlier version of this article described Amtrak Vacations as a travel agency.

The Future of Work Briefing won’t be published next week, but returns March 4.

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