[Q&A] I Can Travel For Business Again....Now What?

As the world recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic and business travel resumes, we are all wondering what changes the pandemic will bring to travel. How do we protect people as they travel or provide the right information for travel? What does business travel look like? And how do we address concerns about a spiking variant in many parts of the world?

In this recent Edition of the Grasp Technologies 2021 Webinar Series, Rick George, SVP of Global Enterprise Sales at Grasp Technologies, speaks with three travel experts Andy Menkes, Michael Hall, and Robert McCoy about their thoughts on these changes.

Andy Menkes, Founder and CEO at Partnership Travel Consulting, is a 40-year industry veteran with experience in e-ticketing and corporate travel. Michael Hall, Senior Manager of Global Travel at Illumina, has vast experience in travel, expense, and card services/technologies in more than 30 countries. Robert McCoy, Global Travel Manager at Perkins Cole, is a global travel management professional with over 20 years of experience.

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Rick George: On my first business trip since November 2019, I had an interesting travel experience with masks and the concern in airports. Has each of you traveled in the last 12 months for business or personally? What were some takeaways?

 

Andy Menkes: I have flown 32 segments year-to-date, lower than the 120 from 2019. However, only two of these were business trips. One was to an industry M&E conference and another to our first in-person TMC best-and-final presentation. I did not have safety concerns because I was vaccinated early on, wore my mask, and kept my distance socially. Even with increased business travel, it will take a while to get back to 2019 levels.

 

Michael Hall: I haven't flown for business in the last year and a half, but I have traveled for vacation in the recent months and found it much more stressful. At my wife's family reunion in Wisconsin last week, every person traveling in had a late schedule change, with one case incorrectly communicated. For my travel to Montana, I had to book my rental car three months out and change the city I was flying into. I also paid about $400 a night for one of my hotels in the middle of Montana. Despite the stressful travel, planes seem fuller. People are also probably stressed out with having to wear masks during their flights.

 

Robert McCoy: I've been on about five trips in the past three months—twice to Atlanta and a few times to Washington D.C. There were no major issues except last-minute schedule changes. Interestingly, every flight I've been on has been only half-full, possibly due to the routing or time of day travel. It was overall a good experience as the airport didn't seem to be too full. When I flew into Washington D.C a couple of times, the airports were very full for the return flights, with longer TSA PreCheck® lines.

 

Rick George: This is very consistent with what we're hearing from our customers and prospects as travel resumes. Andy, as a consultant, are you seeing a greater need for your services, even with the recent diminished travel? 

 

Andy Menkes: I'd hope there's always a need for our services. However, due to the impact of COVID-19 on business travel, two phenomena have generated new interest.

The first is where a TMC says to a client, "Due to COVID-19, we've lost a lot of money on your account because you're on a transaction fee basis. Your transactions are down 90%, and our revenue's down 90%. So, we want to switch you to a new model, which is either a subscription fee or some type of management fee." This has resulted in Procurement and Sourcing saying, "We're considering making a change to the agreement. Let's see what else is out there." This renewed interest in taking business out for bid, especially where there's been pressure or communication from their TMC to change the existing agreement.

 

The second is typically when it's time to go out for a bid on a cycle of five, seven, or eight years. One of the concerns is that it's never a good time to change TMCs if we're going to end up changing TMCs. This typically cycles towards the fourth quarter when travel is slowest. The additional impact is a renewed interest in accelerating bids because a contract is overripe in terms of how long it's been on the vine. Companies might feel that they should make changes during periods of slow travel.

 

Rick George: From a duty of care perspective, are you seeing more involvement of human resources in global corporations? If so, to what level are human resources involved in discussions either with you or future vendors?

 

Michael Hall: In January of 2020, we started to have daily meetings with HR and our Environmental Health and Safety. We still have them twice a week. During these meetings, HR and Environmental Health and Safety go over our situations worldwide and discuss the results of changing travel in those situations.

 

HR has been heavily involved in helping us to define critical and essential travel and determining who should be traveling at that level. HR is also responsible for approving policies for non-stop travel and determining availability for this travel. We also increased our use of Airbnb as an alternative for people who could not get to restaurants. With ongoing essential travel, HR was very involved in monitoring and addressing situations of mental health concerns and cases of people getting infected. 

 

Robert McCoy: Our firm set up a COVID response team at the pandemic's start, around February 2020. This team has maintained structured health, safety, and wellness guidelines. HR has also been involved in the health and wellness aspect of these efforts. There's also a duty of care team that manages COVID-specific responses--whether it's across office re-openings, access to offices, customer offices, and the travel program. We still have a limited travel program open due to the nature of the firm's activities; the legal process doesn't stop, so some travel still takes place.

But overall, the travel program has been traditionally decentralized. Through the pandemic, the travel program has focused on re-centralizing some of the travel resources, suppliers, and networks, as well as accessibility by members, staff, contract workers, consultants, and partners.

 

Rick George: Who determines critical travel needs within your organizations? For one of our largest corporate clients, the CEO decides whether travel will happen or not, from a duty of care perspective. Andy, what are you seeing from the companies that you consult with? Is it human resources? If it's a very sales-forward organization, is it an EVP or SVP of Sales? 

 

Andy Menkes: Generally, most of that decision is from the C-level but probably in consultation with HR, legal, finance, etc. These decisions revolve around the duty of care and the safety and health of employees. Mission-critical travel depends on who's defining it. If it's the senior head of sales, then an in-person best-and-final is considered mission-critical because sales and revenue are critical. For our clients in the medical devices industry, if an MRI machine is broken, they need to send a tech out to fix it, and that travel is considered mission-critical. Mission-critical travel is based on either a company's or their client's urgent operating needs but not the financial impact on the revenue.

 

Michael Hall: We're actually in the business of medical instruments, specifically those that sequence RNA of viruses. So, we must install these machines all over the world. That becomes mission-critical, especially when we are helping organizations to tackle the COVID pandemic, sometimes in developing countries. This type of travel is considered mission-critical by C-level. Our SVPs had to approve all travel, which was considered critical during the worst of the pandemic.

 

Travel approval also changed from region to region. In some areas such as Asia-Pacific, only the VP has to approve. Yet, for regions like Europe, North America, or South America, it's SVP approval. Sometimes travel approval was on a project level, too. The CEO was kept very involved, and HR was the liaison. HR folks weren't making the decisions, but they would liaise and present the operational and medical risk to the SVP or CEO.

 

Robert McCoy: Pre-June 2021, the travel policy was restricted by travel need, and the C-levels determined travel. Post-June 2021, travel has opened broadly to either contract worker, staff, or partner who can travel, but based on travel eligibility criteria.

Critically, most of our travel is client-facing or court-facing. So, the travelers must follow the guidance and guidelines of the firm, client, or court they are visiting. This will stay in place for now until there's wider reopening nationally and internationally. We see very small amounts of international travel resume, but this is also based on a critical need for travel.

 

Rick George: What type of employee testing (not COVID testing) has been done to gauge willingness to travel? Whether through temperature checks, email concerns, likeliness to travel? Have you conducted surveys or town halls within your companies? Has that changed from 2020? 

 

Michael Hall: As we allow travelers back onto the road, we are stipulating that they should be vaccinated. Our policies say that if they're not vaccinated, travelers need to discuss the criticality of their mission with their management line.

 

But a year ago, we were looking more closely at how safe the situation was in a destination rather than who the travelers were. The situation could vary from city to city. For example, 95% of the ICU beds in Houston, Texas, were full at some point last year. We were getting that intelligence twice weekly and publishing it. For such a situation, we would suggest that the traveler postpones their trip for a few weeks.

 

Our intelligence helped to alleviate some of the travelers' concerns and increased awareness of the situation. In some cases, we were far more involved in discussions about where they were going, what had changed, what their hotel experience was. Previously, this was handled on an automated level, but I think this new process helped the travelers. We also had people taking care of the travelers by talking to them and helping to manage their mental health.

 

Robert McCoy: We have some established testing standards to cater to trips that occurred during COVID. We partnered with a national laboratory to provide more rapid testing results. And they put policies in place to assist employees who did become infected with COVID while traveling on company business. However, it goes back to the requirements of either a jurisdiction, as for a particular court, or a client.

 

Moving forward, these policies will stay in line with the CDC COVID-related guidance, as many other medium-sized and larger companies have done. We also track vaccination status and have wellness checks for people working in facilities or offices and some of the remote hybrid workforce.

 

Rick George: As you look back at your specific programs, and Andy as you're consulting with your clients before COVID, what one or two things could you have done differently or put in place? 

 

Robert McCoy: I'm new to the program that I'm running right now. For other programs I was involved in, it would have been beneficial to have more face-to-face discussions with the airlines. The airlines took long to decide what to do with large banks of unused tickets, and there were no previous existing policies for this situation. There will also be changes to the relationships between TMCs or contract owners and their partners in the travel programs, such as airlines, hotel providers. These changes will put stopgaps to future issues like this.

 

We also realized that travel policies could have been stronger. I would have gone back much earlier in the process to revisit travel policy parameters and standards. I would have tried to centralize more of that upfront at the beginning of a pandemic versus trying to figure it out later. There could have been many policy revisions over the months in which the pandemic unfolded weekly.

 

There should also have been some stopgaps to protect suppliers, the company, and the contracts from further dilution or cancellations and to prevent subsequent rollover. I would have gone back and renegotiated airline contracts much closer to the shutdown versus later like they're doing right now.

 

Andy Menkes: Our company was founded in January 2001, and I decided then to do a PTC conference in November. A few months after 9/11, this was not the best time to hold a boondoggle in wine country. So, we had events planned for this year, and I naively moved them slightly. I would have pushed them out by at least half a year instead of a few months had I known the impact.

 

Michael Hall: Even with the pandemic, we're all sitting here and communicating far more comfortably than we would have last year. We can certainly better differentiate between the needs and benefits of a face-to-face versus not having one. If I were to go back 18 months ago, I would ask psychologists and sociologists how to measure the effectiveness of remote travel over the next months.

 

We don't have that many indicators to show us the ROI of travel. This last year has prompted us to ask whether meetings are more effective in person and to determine which engagements to travel for and which to handle remotely. In the future, are we still going to travel two days across the globe for a two-hour meeting? 

 

Rick George: When figuring the ROI of travel, when to and not to travel, what metrics are involved? Is that something you're actively talking about now with your leadership? Have those discussions already started, or is that something that's ramping up?

 

Michael Hall: It's something I brought up a year ago when I was part of a team called the "New Normal Team." We were wondering whether we would be working remotely a year from now. I was trying to understand if there was a way to reinforce corporate culture in a remote environment. Can we translate a physical corporate environment into a remote one? And how can we ensure that we still feel the same sense of loyalty or cohesion with our companies in that remote environment? We can never get rid of travel; however, we can certainly do a better job of saying travel works here but not there.

 

Robert McCoy: It's a little bit different in a law firm because there are many required face-to-face, one-on-one interactions that are either client-facing or court-facing. In terms of work culture in a TMC environment, especially on the travel management side, we've been used to working in a hybrid remote environment for many years. It was not too complicated to move our employees to a remote hybrid structure.

 

The broader implementation of video calls and conferencing for one-on-one face time has elevated the communication between our suppliers and partners. It has also increased internal company communication and the corporate culture in each company. It has enhanced both our client and supplier relationships on our supplier side, and we have more efficient, effective, and streamlined communications. Five years ago, we might have done that through a trip or traveling. Now, we can streamline and use our time more efficiently to accomplish more using some of the technology we can access. It will be an evaluation process based on a particular client or the client group and how much travel will be necessary to achieve their end-product.

 

Rick George: You have all mentioned vendor and client relationships, which involve disparate, internal corporate, or external vendor data. The global environment in which you operate requires bringing together this disparate data effectively. 

 

Is there one of those data sources that I didn't mention that you feel a company like Grasp Technologies will need to look at? Whether based on your company representation or just from observing your internal constituents? Is there a nontraditional data source that you think might be more prevalent for either your organization or the travel industry?

 

Michael Hall: One piece of data we bring in twice a week is the percentage of ICU beds in a city or a state that are full. If we see a new variant in a city, we'll have to know the availability of ICU beds. Based on this data, we can determine the risk of sending someone there. Even if they are fully vaccinated and won't get sick from COVID, if they have an accident, we're going to have to medevac them because there aren't any ICU beds to take care of them. We need to get a better grasp of both the security and health risk of travel.

 

Secondly, one critical piece of information that we've always collected is trip purpose. We manage it through our current Grasp feed. In the past, if a manager was going to approve a trip, they wanted to know where or how much? Now, if a manager's authorizing a trip, they want to know why. "Is this trip essential or business-critical?"

 

Andy Menkes: Two things come to mind. One is that bringing in a third party provides not only validation but also enhanced data integrity. We recently had a client implement this, and Grasp Technologies was part of the process. I saw an email today from the TMC that said, "After chatting with Grasp, there's a few things that have to be tweaked." What they didn't say is that these things had to be tweaked by the TMC.

 

Another example is if a traveler makes a roundtrip booking, the ticket is issued, and then a day later, the traveler uses the tool or calls the agency to book their hotel. Unless the agency invoices that hotel, the data doesn't go anywhere, except if Grasp captured it.

 

The other one is this acronym called RUT—Reimbursed Unmanaged Travel. Upwards of 50% of the spending on a hotel that doesn't go through the TMC or the OBT remains in the expense system. But if there's an incident in Lyon, France, you may only be able to track 75% of your travelers in Lyon, those who just left Lyon, or about to go to Lyon. So, we need to capture 100% of the spending and focus on getting better credit card data early. Especially if it's not the approved payment—it's the only way to find these travelers.

 

Robert McCoy: The leakage and visibility into a duty of care program is a big issue. COVID was an eyeopener to the need for HR, finance, and C-suite to know and understand the positions of their employees and partners in this process. We focus on resolving this leakage by centralizing travel through multiple TMCs, getting better credit card data, establishing reimbursement programs, and parsing information out of these various systems.

 

The other data element is having better data come from hotels. Because we're finding, from several situations, that hotels are starting to mandate vaccines for guests who are checking in. It would be good to have visibility and accessibility into those systems to see which properties require these mandates before guest arrival. This will depend on the GDSs and the TMCs figuring out how to make this data more visible through the online booking tools, the agents booking travel, or the companies contracting with the hotels.

 

It's a complex issue, whether someone can travel if there's going to be vaccine mandates. For example, New York has this requirement to go into a restaurant, a hotel, a bar, or do anything in a social environment. When you have a large group of people traveling into that particular market, it's tricky to maintain compliance with HR, benefits programs, health and safety, and duty of care programs.

 

Rick George: The one thing that I hear from all three of you is there's been a lot of thought around this, in addition to proactive measures and future planning. However, many companies are still taking a "wait and see" attitude regarding travel.

 

Our message as a supplier is not to wait—travel is going to come back. It may be different for a little while, but data will be so essential for agility. It won't be easy to ramp up travel quickly if you don't have your disparate data contained or have the necessary duty of care for your company, HR, or C-level. If you are interested in this type of consultancy, like Andy, or the technology that a company like Grasp Technologies can offer, please get in touch with us.

 

Rick George: Just one final question to wrap up. What would be your dream trip? When we can travel again to anywhere in the world, or space if you want to go in that direction, where would it be? What is the bucket list item that you're going to take advantage of?

 

Robert McCoy: Going back to explore more of Asia and Southeast Asia would be on my bucket list right now.

 

Michael Hall: While we can finally go on planes, I would like to do a road trip to Colorado to hike part of the Colorado Trail. Part of that has to do with some of these trails being closed earlier in the pandemic. However, they're opening now on a limited basis.

 

Andy Menkes: A safari in Africa has always been on my bucket list. If I had to pick a second one for a pleasure vacation, I'd go back on a small ship cruise to the Mediterranean. We did one a few years back, with 50 cabins, 100 guests, and 50 staff.

 

Rick George: Well, those are great locations. For me, it would be back to Italy, and the hill towns of the central and southern part of Italy, with my wife. Hopefully, we'll be able to get there soon.

 

Rick George: There are a few more questions coming in. This first one is for Andy Menkes. Where do you see meetings going in the next four to six months if the new Delta variant is controlled?

 

Andy Menkes: Assuming the Delta variant is controlled, I see a reduction in the number of approved attendances at big meetings unless there can be a proven ROI. However, there will still be many meetings for life sciences companies as a means of revenue production. While revenue-producing events will continue, expense events will need to justify the ROI for travel: what's different about this trip? What's the ROI? What's the business purpose?

 

Rick George: Do your clients require that you show evidence of vaccination before they meet with you?

 

Andy Menkes: It hasn't come up yet because we have only had one in-person meeting at the TMC best-and-finals in a year and a half. If they required it, I don't have a problem as I keep that vax card with me whenever I travel.

 

Rick George: One more question for me. Other than back office, credit card, and GDS, what do you recommend to your clients? From our perspective, meetings and GD data will continue to be prevalent in over 100 countries and all the clients we represent. There is a need to consolidate disparate data into the total cost of the trip. This will be critical to managing compliance leakage and informing a comprehensive duty of care perspective.

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