By Priyanka Lakhani
In just a few short months, COVID-19 has suspended business travel worldwide and brought the world to a grinding halt. Previously, the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) predicted that annual business travel spending would top $1.7 trillion in 2022, but today the prophecy is all the more uncertain. With close to 90% of the world’s population living in countries with imposed travel restrictions, airlines, travel companies and the tourism sector as a whole have borne the brunt of the impact.
We cannot predict how the coronavirus outbreak will play out — but what we do know is that business travel will undoubtedly change. It is important for GCC companies to take a moment to consider what these changes will be, what they will mean for business and business travellers, and what useful action can be taken in the short term.
Questions around the value of business travel
A recent GBTA poll showed 70% of companies worldwide are developing contingency plans involving teleconferences and video meetings, to get work done in the interim. With business travel and face-to-face meetings increasingly improbable, technology is the only way — and many people are wondering if on-screen interactions will continue to be the norm even when social distancing measures are lifted.
Face-to-face interactions are a critical and irreplaceable ingredient in doing good business. After all, humans are social creatures, and in many cultures social interaction is a corporate culture must. You can’t read body language over a screen, it’s hard to catch nuances and easy to interrupt, and the technological frustrations can quickly eliminate any efficiencies of not meeting in person.
A survey by Business Traveller found that companies still see face-to-face meetings as “essential” to meeting business objectives, and indeed, even Apple founder Steve Jobs famously said, “Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions.”
It may well be that colleagues are yearning for face-to-face interaction as we move out of the COVID-19 world, and that clients and partners are equally be looking forward to human interaction once again. Business travel and the face-to face meeting are deeply ingrained in regional corporate culture. According to a 2018 study by Amadeus, one quarter of GCC nationals’ surveyed travel on business three times per year, while another 15% travel four times per year.
Call to action for businesses: When travel is back online, be wary of strategies that completely substitute business travel for tele and video conferences. While tele and video conferencing certainly have their place, the value and power of face-to-face interaction cannot be understated.
Clearer definitions of essential travel
As the option for business travel returns, employees and businesses will inevitably be tentative at first about taking trips. This will create a need for stronger mechanisms around defining and authorising “essential” business travel. How is this decided, and who owns the final decision?
In many companies, questions on business travel have fallen between the cracks of job roles — but in the future, clear processes and ownership of responsibility will be necessary to meet employee expectations and ultimately protect brand liability.
We may see more firms employing travel managers or bringing in new corporate assistance schemes to ensure that the right decisions are made, and employees are protected. There are a number of factors to consider, such as the physical and psychological health risk to the traveller as well as the destination risk — including local healthcare standards and anticipated government response should more outbreaks occur.
Wellbeing for business travelers must not be allowed to come second to price, as research already shows that 39% of business travellers have suffered lack of sleep and 35% have felt mental health impacts as a result of frequent business travel — so a more robust focus on traveler health and security can only be a good thing.
It may also be worth reviewing the duration of travel and asking whether or not long trips are necessary — the regional Amadeus study from 2018 found that 56% of business trips last 4-7 nights.
Call to action for businesses: Create a strategy and process to define essential travel for your organisation and decide on an ownership structure for key decisions.
Calls for more clarity around travel assistance
A recent global survey from Collinson found that while half of business travelers say their employer has invested in medical and security assistance to support them, 51% of those aren’t sure what it means or offers.
Many employees are apprehensive about making use of the traveler assistance and support services they’ve been signed up for, with only a fifth saying they were confident using their 24/7 medical and security assistance in the event of something going wrong while abroad.
While it’s great news that so many employers have signed up to medical and security assistance services for their employees, it’s also evident that more action is needed for staff to realize the full potential of these services.
Especially post-COVID-19, business travelers will be looking to their employers and travel providers for clarity on how they are being protected.
Call to action for businesses: With travel offline, now is a great opportunity for companies to take a step back and evaluate how travel assistance offerings and communications can be more robust.
Wellbeing for the “bleisure” traveler
Millennial and Gen Z travelers are keen on mixing business and pleasure. They often extend the corporate trip into a personal one, and this may be even truer after COVID-19, when people who love to travel have been unable to do so for such an extended period.
These co-called “bleisure” travelers will naturally be more concerned about health and safety following the COVID-19 pandemic. They will be asking new questions around where their business insurance ends, and their personal travel insurance begins.
Businesses must strive for full clarity around what’s covered and what isn’t, from a monetary and protection perspective. This information should be widely accessible and understood by all employees.
It’s also worthwhile to consider how the business can show employees that their health, safety and wellbeing are paramount any time they’re abroad; for example, the company might have a preferred personal travel policy to recommend for workers wishing to extend their business trip.
Call to action for businesses: Ensure there is no middle ground when it comes to “bleisure”, making distinctions crystal clear to all employees across the business.
Ongoing vigilance and adjustment
As a return to normalcy resumes, the transition phase will likely continue to involve an increase in social distancing, increased hygiene measures and disease surveillance, whilst allowing international travel.
During this time, businesses will need to be agile in evolving their own policies, as things change fast. This includes many factors, from how corporate travel is approved to what advisory measures employees receive — whether that’s a recommendation to wear facemasks when visiting certain countries, or a reminder to leave more time for airport security and screening.
It is also recommended to check ahead with the chosen business travel airline to understand the safety measures they have applied.
Emirates airlines and Etihad airlines have both implemented in-air distancing tactics that do not allow online check-ins or seat selections. Instead, seating will be assigned by the crew at the airport in order to follow physical distancing rules in the air.
If and when an effective vaccine is developed, which experts are hopeful will happen by early 2021, businesses can continue to learn from the COVID-19 experience and be more prepared for adverse events and their effect on corporate travel.
The question of how to balance employee comfort, experience and safety while travelling will continue for some time, and companies must be prepared for those ongoing conversations.
Call to action for businesses: Take stock of the learnings from COVID-19 and see where these flow out to overall crisis planning for the business. And, consider looking outside the organisation for extra help across medical and security assistance and insurance — as it’s not a time to cut corners.
— The writer is commercial director Middle East and Africa and director South Asia at Collinson.