SINGAPORE - 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.
Novartis, 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 traveller 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 future.
When asked what the next big change in his travel programme 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 programme on our side. We have a team dedicated just on that."
He added that it was looking at "overall effectiveness" of the programme 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 programme in aligning and promoting and uplifting the business objectives of the organisation and taking care of the traveller."
Johnny Thorsen, who moderated the WiT Virtual: "From Days Of Plenty to Time of Austerity," shared his personal experience making a 36-hour journey from the United States to Copenhagen on 28 May 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 travellers to feel safe.
The vice president, strategy and innovation for American Express, 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 Solutions 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 travelling."
Humans do well in times of grey, the future has to be blended
Mr 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.
Mr 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 traveller. We need human support at this stage."
The future lies in blending both human and machine. Mr Saillet says FCM has built the FCM Traveller Hub for its consultants and travellers 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 traveller at the time of travelling.
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 behaviours 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."
Mr Concepcion says the blend of automation and the appetite of the organisation for people to travel would factor into those decisions.
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."
Mr 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 traveller 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 (analyse how many people should meet where)
• Green travel is not going away -- best time to implement a green travel policy, governments are applying pressure
Mr Thorsen estimates that large corporate travel budgets will be reduced by between 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."