Some corporate travel may not return, buyers and TMCs invest in tech for a new future

The reality is sobering. It’s going to take a
while for corporate travel to get back up, especially that of the major
multinationals. Small and medium enterprises, well, that’s a different story
for another day.

for example, is not permitting international travel for internal meetings for
the rest of the year. Benjamin Concepcion, global head of travel operations, says,
“If a traveler needs to travel internationally, if they are relocating, or
there’s a critical business need, then there’s going to be a need for senior
leadership approval.”

He said Novartis has also invested significantly
in its IT to enable meetings and events to go on during this period, and while
he did not quite spell it out, it is clear that if these tools prove as
effective as physical meetings, then there is reason for fewer trips in the

When asked what the next big change in his
travel program would be, he says, “Novartis continues to be very aggressive and
looking for disruptive technologies out there in all our business areas … and
advancing the travel program on our side. We have a team dedicated just on

He added that it was looking at “overall
effectiveness” of the program and “how did we use all those disruptive technologies
to get to a desired result, for example. So we’re now pivoting from the
traditional call volume or service satisfaction … we’re really looking at how
effective is the whole program in aligning and promoting and uplifting the
business objectives as the organization and taking care of the traveler.”

Johnny Thorsen, who moderated the WiT Virtual: “From Days Of Plenty to Time of
shared his personal experience making a 36-hour journey
from the United States to Copenhagen on May 28 and says the reality was very
different from the information he had gotten prior, and there were
inconsistencies at almost all touch points, something airlines and airports
needed to get right for travel to recover and for travelers to feel safe.

The vice president, strategy and innovation for American
, Digital Labs, says key questions have to be answered.

“Who decides the airport rules and defines the
boarding process, where do I find the latest information about rules and where
can I give my feedback, and how will we manage a return to just 25% of passenger volumes and how can we create industry standards?”

Bertrand Saillet, managing director of FCM Travel
 Asia, was happy because he “approved yesterday the
first trip for my leadership team in China to travel from Shanghai to Beijing,
which I find extremely exciting. This is the new beginning. It’s happening.
Even we are traveling.”

Humans do well in times
of gray, the future has to be blended

Saillet says it was interesting that at the
start of the crisis, clients switched off their online booking tool because the
thinking was, it’s unsafe to book online and “we want to make sure we control
the movement of our employees.”

Now, clients in China have reopened their online
booking tools for most domestic travel. And “they seem to be lifting up some of
the rules around pre-trip approval and coming back to some sort of pre-COVID situation. But this is very domestic driven,” he says.

Saillet says the crisis highlighted the
difference between humans and machines. 

“It’s pretty fair to say right now that machines
in general deal well with black or white but not so much with grey. I don’t
think that customers can navigate through the complicated environment right
now, without the assistance of agencies like ours, who are putting our efforts
and energy in getting the information to the traveler. We need human support at
this stage.”

The future lies in blending both human and
machine. Saillet says FCM has built the FCM Traveler Hub for its consultants
and travelers to have information around border control airline regulations,
airports, land transport, etc. This is being blended into its Sam app to give
relevant information to the traveler at the time of traveling.

However, in Asia, with the different borders,
the situation is more complex, which is why it has stood down and furloughed
the least of its staff there. “A lot of travel now is basically offline so you
need to have real offline experience now.”

Rick Seaney, founder of 3Victors,
which is providing the data being used in Boston Consulting Group’s Travel
Recovery Insights, says the question everyone wants to know is, when is it
going to end? When is it going to 24%? 40%? Across the U.S., as each city opens
up, he says there’s “huge, massive influxes of demand, but not a lot of
ticketing and booking.” In APAC, it has seen huge increase in bookings in
Vietnam and South Korea.

Is that meeting really
necessary or can it be done virtually?

To an audience question, “Is corporate travel
changed forever? Will there be some business travel that never comes back, for
example, board meetings and internal quarterly reviews, meetings between people
that know each other,”Novartis’ Concepcion said there will be behaviors that
will be changed forever as a result of the lockdowns.

“We’ve invested so much on engaging virtually.
In fact, our MS Teams, by the end of the year, will stretch to being able to
support 1,000 attendees in a meeting. So I’d say that it’s more in the
frequency. There will still be a need for business travel and engaging in
person, but maybe there were four leadership meetings and you met them
everywhere in the world, well, perhaps those four meetings are now going to be
one meeting and three of them will be virtual.”

Concepcion says the blend of automation and the
appetite of the organization for people to travel would factor into those

On how he sees his relationship with his TMC
evolving, he says, “We have now integrated travel and expense data and did that
in-house. We definitely have a very strong partnership with our travel
management company provider, particularly during uncertainty, you definitely
need that.

“But I definitely see that there will be …
changes on what we’re availing from the travel management company.”

Saillet says TMCs were also evolving. “It’s
about building a platform that integrates better all the components of travel,
which has been extremely disjointed in the past. It’s about time we get to a
better experience from a traveler standpoint, but also travel managers’. You
shouldn’t have to drive adoption; adoption should be native, because that should
be where you get the information and the experience, and that’s what we’re
doing right now.”

Thorsen notes six buyer trends emerging:

  • A need for “safe travel protocol” – audit
    trails needed, as few suppliers as possible
  • A new library of skills by destination to
    reduce need for travel (best qualified person closest by required location)
  • Trusted data untouched by human hand –
    eliminate data privacy challenges, fully API-enabled with no restrictions
  • New procedures for pre-trip approval starting with
    asking, “Is the value of the trip important enough?”
  • Hybrid meetings with multiple domestic
    meetings connecting virtually (analyze how many people should meet where)
  • Green travel is not going away – best time to
    implement a green travel policy, governments are applying pressure

Thorsen estimates that large corporate travel
budgets will be reduced by 25 to 50% in 2021, with meeting and event budgets
reduced at similar levels. “With more work-from-home, we might see more
internal company travel and customers might value a personal visit from
suppliers higher now. My guess is a 50% reduction in 2021 and a full recovery
in 2023.”

Here are some polls
conducted during the event.

*This article originally appeared on WebinTravel.

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