BTE: Congratulations on taking over the reins at GBTA. What made you decide to take this on? 

NEUFANG: Thanks! When I first started talking to Dave Hilfman about the role over a year ago, I saw an important job ahead to restore member trust and passion in GBTA’s mission plus navigate the challenges of pandemic recovery. I believe that with every challenge comes opportunity, and I wanted to harness these for the good of the industry and future of the association.

My first action as CEO back in February/March 2021 was to actively learn and listen – with staff, members (including ACTE former members), sponsors and suppliers, chapters, volunteer leaders – in Canada, the US, Europe, Latin America and APAC. My goal was to cover as much ground as possible in my first 60 days. My second action was to make sure we had the right priorities, strategy and resources to deliver the mission – education, networking, and of course advocacy efforts to aid industry recovery.

In normal years, my role would involve lots of business travel, but like many I found myself joining a new company and working almost solely remotely from home. I am delighted to say that some things have normalized, and I have returned to travel and in person events with great zeal.

BTE: After a couple of years of turmoil, what plans do you have to re-energize the momentum of the organization? 

NEUFANG: The short answer: We are building momentum daily – and we are seeing results already. My focus is really on the next two years. This year, to get the industry and association on sound recovery footing, first and foremost. I will also make sure we are incorporating the best of the ACTE assets which we purchased last year, especially around education programming and global focus. Year Two will be about strengthening, modernizing and improving on the value we deliver to our members and sponsors, and expanding reach on critical topics like sustainability. And we can’t forget our civics lessons of the past 20 months; advocacy with policy makers needs to keep pace with our industry’s urgent needs around the globe.

BTE: Coming out of the pandemic, what are the biggest challenges you see facing travel management as business travel returns? 

NEUFANG: The impact of pandemic has affected not only jobs, travel companies and the travel eco-system but also the wider global economy. The top challenges include:

One, managing the changing work landscape and the definition of business travel. Working from home and the hybrid model are now widely accepted and in most cases expected by the employee. New ways of living have led to new ways of working, impacting what constitutes business travel and even the roles of business travel buyers and travel managers.

Travel patterns have changed dramatically. Where once we may have taken several short trips, these have been condensed to fewer but longer trips to justify the ROI and expectations of the business. Managing the return to office and the return to travel, and getting the balance right, is going to be a challenge as we all still need face to face meetings.

Another challenge is keeping duty of care top of mind. Public health has put employee health and safety at the forefront of any employee handbook. The corporate travel policy is no longer just about logistics and savings but about minimizing risk. GBTA poll data from September asked our travel manager members how their role had changed during the pandemic, and 70 percent reported that duty of care concerns had taken a higher priority.

Corporate responsibility became more than a one size fits all, taking the individual needs of travelers into consideration. Now 76 percent of GBTA travel managers say they collaborate more with risk and security teams than before the pandemic. This is perhaps not surprising, given the global pandemic, but it has forced us all to question all our policies and protocols to keep our employees safe.

Beyond the pandemic, an ongoing challenge is the return to travel with a sustainability focus. The pandemic has accelerated the corporate buy-in and urgency toward sustainability policies, balancing between carbon neutral goals, budget and business travel needs. And this is set to only grow further as the next generation of business travelers move up the ranks with a growing understanding of sustainable impact.

Pressure is currently focused on the airline industry in particular, and multiple airline companies have announced
goals to become carbon-neutral in the coming years. This is to be applauded, but our industry’s focus also needs to expand to look at the end-to-end travel journey – all the touch points, not just air.

BTE: What makes you optimistic that the industry is prepared for a recovery? 

NEUFANG: I am optimistic because we have recovered before – we saw 20 percent YOY growth trends following big crises like 9/11 and the 2007-08 Recession. This time, with the biggest drop in the past 20 years, we foresee potentially much bigger YOY growth trajectories as our industry recovers.

GBTA has run monthly polls since the outset of the pandemic to measure the impact and member sentiment. In our recent poll, 62 percent of companies have restarted domestic travel and 23 percent international travel. And of those who have not, 28 percent plan to resume domestic and 18 percent plan to resume international travel in the next quarter. These figures continue to improve month on month, and I believe as more government restrictions lift and borders re-open, we will continue to see an immediate up take in travel. There is certainly pent-up demand amongst our members and a desire to get back on the road again – despite the delta variant.

BTE: What do you see as possible setbacks that may be lurking for business travel’s recovery?

Managing the restart between supply and demand is going to be a fine balancing act for suppliers who are having to project future growth in an unknown world, not just in terms of flight schedules and hotel reopening, but also in terms of talent. As the pandemic hit, we lost a number of talented employees from the industry. Attracting new talent to an industry so impacted by the last two years, to meet this demand is going to be a challenge.

BTE: What permanent changes in the industry, and in the wider business world, have resulted from the prolonged pandemic? What issues are flying below the radar that you find most concerning?

A recent McKinsey report states that digitalization has accelerated by 5 years during the pandemic. Our ability to use the digital world for both our private and business lives has allowed us to continue to function during the pandemic. The flexibility to work from anywhere with the use of technology has driven changes in the way we work, and I believe an element of this new way of working balanced with face-to-face meetings is here to stay.

I think sustainability will continue to be top of mind and momentum will grow for alternative, more sustainable fuel and travel delivery options. On the concerning side, I worry about the continuing lack of cross-border collaboration which we saw at the height of what should have been post-vaccination success/recovery among the most developed nations. We hear from scientists and public health experts that this is likely not the last pandemic we will experience. So getting an international approach to a consistent travel policy right is going to be critical to prevent huge impacts from the next one – no matter when it happens.