In the midst of a crisis like no other, how corporate travel is responding and what to expect next
By Fatima Durrani Khan
The business travel industry is taking its biggest blow ever, according to experts. “The slump in travel will cause a $910 billion hit to the US economy alone; that is seven times the impact 9/11 had on the industry,” according to the US Travel Association.
This is devastating news. However it’s important to note that human beings and the systems they function in – whether business or society or the family unit – are basically resilient by nature. In other words, although some business travel organizations are witnessing their revenue streams come to a temporary halt, many are likely to find ways to survive in the short term and even thrive over the long haul.
Others aren’t slowing down at all, and are simply going “deep” within their area of expertise. One such category is among risk mitigation companies such as International SOS, which has provided aeromedical transportation for confirmed COVID-19 infected patients by air ambulance.
Closing the Gaps One of the most important things COVID-19 is teaching the industry is how to scrutinize gaps in travel risk management procedures and policies. Fortunately, there are plenty of travel industry leaders who are assisting in filling these much-overlooked cracks – and thereby transition to a new “normal.”
Over in Annapolis, MD, WorldAware president and founder Bruce McIndoe and his team have been exceptionally busy, providing “essential” business travel services to clients worldwide. Services include checking on local personnel in COVID-19 stricken areas, and offering on-going, daily intelligence reporting on a host of business-critical issues – such as travel restrictions, air, sea and land supply transportation issues, and industry/country economic forecasting – via their COVID-19 Crisis Command Center Support.
Leaders in the meetings and events industry are also occupied, transitioning their face-to-face meetings into virtual ones. “Our teams have had to pivot and upskill quickly into the world of virtual meetings,” says Shauna Whitehead, VP, global account management at BCD Meetings & Events. “We are spending time educating clients on what an effective virtual meeting looks like beyond the use of technology, and the services that are required to support meetings – incorporating pre-planning, registration and communication, through production and content creation.”
Other transformations are happening in the world of aviation. “This crisis has travel risk managers looking into private aviation as another prong in their emergency response planning,” according to Greg Raiff, CEO of Private Jet Services in Seabrook, NH. In fact, the COVID-19 era may lead the world of on-demand air transportation to undergo a perception change – adding to the understanding that private jets aren’t just for the rich and famous or the C-suite anymore.
“We’ve assisted large numbers of people, including oil/gas crews stuck on rigs and mining crews on rotation to get back home,” Raiff says. “In one case, we transported hundreds of cruise line employees from the Bahamas back to the Philippines and Indonesia. In another scenario, we moved 3,300 people within 72 hours using 11 airplanes across borders, clearing international paperwork, collaborating with authorities at both departing and receiving countries, and then disinfecting aircraft afterwards.”
And while we know that hotels are one of the most impacted sectors in the travel industry, COVID-19 is also providing an opportunity for them to take a holistic view of their programs. For example, HRS, an end-to-end global lodging technology provider, is advising their clients on how new offerings can potentially fit into broader corporate RFP’s (enhanced cleaning/sterilization procedures for rooms, expanded touchless services, etc.).
“For those who still have necessary travel or need for space capacity near impacted areas, we’re sourcing hotels near hospitals or other key staging areas, helping hotels reopen with appropriate service levels,” explains Jonathan Hamblett, HRS SVP of hotel sales and market management.
Strategic Forecasting At the core of the COVID-19 crisis lies the need to communicate facts and educate businesses. “We’ve been educating in a number of key areas such as the importance of having traveler tracking, a solid communication plan, and a reporting mechanism in place. As an intelligence provider in the business of ‘people risk management,’ we’ve been providing executive level briefings to major companies and offering strategic forecasting on what are possible outcomes for the future,” says WorldAware’s McIndoe.
“In a nutshell, we are looking at the next 18-plus months with multiple waves of the infection necessitating suppression actions – like work-from-home, physical distancing, stores staying closed – being ramped up and down,” McIndoe says. “Separate from that is the actual recovery of the travel industry. Climbing back economically will take years once people are comfortable getting back out on the road and countries open up to allow free movement.”
Why use the next 18-plus months as a timeline? This is based on several assumptions. “One is that when enough of the population – possibly 60 percent or 80 percent – is resistant to COVID-19, we may enter a state of ‘herd immunity.’ Unfortunately, no one knows exactly how long this will take because 1) we don’t know who is infected 2) who has recovered and become immune and, 3) who is still susceptible. This information can only emerge from widespread testing. We also don’t know if an infected person can get re-infected,” he continues.
But what about those rumors of life “returning to normal” by summertime? “The data doesn’t tell us that COVID-19 is seasonal – or that it’s not. So it’s unclear how we can release millions of people from their homes and risk infecting them,” McIndoe cautions. “Best case scenario is to allow certain cohorts to go back to work, like we did essential hospital, police and fire staff, etc. But for the majority, work from home will be the norm,” he says.
“The same goes for the fall of 2020. With the regular influenza season in full force then, and a likely second COVID-19 wave, any relaxation may be short-lived, with us having to ramp up similar suppression strategies. This will have a major impact on students getting back to school and the November US elections.” All this will likely happen in fits and starts around the world, and it will be a bumpy ride.
So, for the foreseeable future: •Work-from-home will be the norm now, perhaps till the end of the year, through the recovery phase and likely into the future as companies become comfortable with a distributed workforce. •Businesses must pivot and focus on employee wellness and stress coping mechanisms. •Life will slowly return to “normal” in waves with periodic lockdowns – only “essential” or “certificate of immunity” personnel may be able to travel freely. •“Back to the future hypothetical:” It could be eradicated, or we may live with COVID-19 like we do the seasonal flu.
Let’s Keep Talking In a world of unknowns, it seems the best way to utilize this time of uncertainty is by reviewing your business resiliency plan and retooling your travel program for the new realities. For travel risk managers that means developing a coordinated policy in collaboration with HR, Medical and Security, within the backdrop of duty of care. It’s imperative to launch policies that are adaptable and proactive – not only if/when the next COVID-19 wave strikes, but when any other type of crisis hits.
TRMs should also focus in on travel data and travel budgets. “Travel will be uneven across the globe. For example, what do TRMs do when travel opens up in the US, but is shut down in another region, or vice versa? They need data to drive decisions, inform their TMC and impose policy rules through their booking tools,” McIndoe advises.
For the meetings and events industry, the post COVID-19 era will have virtual as an ongoing strategy across the meetings landscape, and content creation will be key. “I anticipate a large number of companies that did not have a strategic meetings management program in place, bringing a renewed focus on standing this up in their organization as an essential business category, just like travel is today. The risk of no visibility and control in a time like COVID is too great for most organizations to have to face a second time around,” notes Whitehead.
“This is a time for rebound,” reaffirms PJS’s Raiff. “TRMs know the rules are changing and are searching for cost-effective, out of the box solutions. While flights are reducing capacity today, they will soon be at higher flight loads again. Scheduled airlines will raise fares. Think about the exposure reduced, the time saved, and the non-cash value of delivering employees straight home without a connection in a large hub nor hotel accommodations.”
When the pandemic turns the corner and business stages a comeback, how will this global experience have permanently altered the travel landscape? “As the COVID-19 crisis spread, we had a lot of healthy members anxious to get home,” says Michael Hallman, CEO of Medjet in Birmingham, AL. “When business travel does resume, I think there will be a much higher focus on health and safety solutions for travelers. End-to-end, door-to-door travel planning, vetting ‘safe’ destinations, ‘clean’ hotels, ‘trusted’ restaurants, ‘known’ cars and drivers, and elevated health event solutions.”
As hotels plan for the different ways they will address post-pandemic traveler needs, there are several scenarios. “In the near term, one example is the development of unique rate offerings for full-service hotels that are similar to extended-stay packages,” says Hamblett. “This addresses an anticipated scenario for the return of cross-border travel, as arriving travelers may need to self-quarantine for a period of days before being able to work at local offices/facilities.”
As we can see, life will march on. The time is now to prepare for that inevitable re-emergence of business. That said, COVID-19 is going to be a big part of the travel conversation – perhaps for decades to come.