Traveler uncertainty and lack of trust have been big road blocks for our industry throughout the pandemic. With the promising news of effective vaccines, there is a newly invigorated sense of hope around return to travel. However, the path to well-run managed travel has changed, charting some brand-new routes while requiring detours along some well-traveled roads.

For instance, traveler experience has new meaning. Travelers have strong feelings about hitting the road again. Their questions need answering:
•How can I be safe?
•What information will I be provided?
•When and how will that information be provided?
•What can I expect throughout the trip?

Managing Travel Programs

Leonardo da Vinci said “I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.” This is the time to know, apply and do. Here’s one way to go about it.

1. Know your traveler sentiment
Given the likely phase-in of travel early next year, the time is now to pursue traveler sentiment. Buyers need to understand how travelers are perceiving the current travel environment. The road ahead depends on two key areas: Asking the right questions and getting the answers to pave the way forward.

Enough underlying detail is needed to provide a 360-degree feedback loop. It will take a few obvious levels of questioning along with some subtext to achieve this understanding. Questions to ask may include the following:
•When will you be comfortable with domestic travel?
•When will you be comfortable international travel?
•How long does flight or rail travel need to be for you to want to drive instead?
•When will you be comfortable renting a car?
•When will you be comfortable sitting next to someone on a plane?
•When will you be comfortable attending in-person meetings larger than x-number?
•What cleaning protocols are most important to you?
•What type of safety information do you feel is most needed from your airline, hotel, etc.?

Surveys do not have to be complicated or intricate to be fit for purpose. A well-written survey has three success points: It measures concise, actionable data points, it’s easy to read and comprehend, and it’s easy to take. This can be accomplished (with everything critical included) in a survey that takes no more than three minutes to complete.

Setting up a survey with an eye toward benchmarking results over time or benchmarking against different audiences can lend additional valuable insight. This is especially true when measuring moving targets like traveler sentiment in the COVID world.

Standardization enables such benchmarking. Buyers can then assess progression over time and gaps in sentiment between, for instance, their own travelers and/or general industry sentiment. Theses insights will drive ideas and timelines for program adjustments and changes. Standardization also creates industry measures of all companies to gauge the wider implications so buyers and sellers can reset together.

2. Apply the supply side
Success will be achieved by understanding both sides of the issue: What travelers want and need, and how travel teams and suppliers are prepared to meet them. Once we know traveler sentiment, we can understand how the traveler/supplier relationship may need to change. We will have more insight on issues which may impact our ask of suppliers. For instance:
•Mix of domestic vs. international travel
•Whether driving replaces rail or flying for some portions of travel
•Whether travelers use a rental, company or personal car
•What hotel experiences and amenities may need to change
•Meeting size comfort levels and limitations
•What protocols need to be monitored and communicated – airline, hotel, market specific, etc.
•Other parameters both broad and specific

From these insights, travel buyers will work with key suppliers to obtain current and evolving safety information, rework agreements to fit the new demand patterns and align suppliers to the travel reset. Further, they will tailor messaging content and timing to best meet these new realities.  

Here are some how-to details:
•Assess the changes in spend patterns now versus 2019, looking for mismatches
•Model current discount structures against both patterns to see the gain/loss
•Project return-to-travel rates for the next two years. Use a “ramp up” approach (leveraging traveler sentiment) to estimate the multi-year impacts
•Have the substantive discussions with key suppliers where needed
•Once the contracts are adjusted, new messaging content and cadence can be deployed

3. Do the new managed travel
Supplier responses will be slowed by workforce reductions, communication strategies need lead time and technologies will need programming adjustments to balance the new travel realities. This means it’s paramount to start now.

Application of traveler sentiment will become part of the new travel management model. Again, capturing traveler sentiment on an ongoing basis and benchmarking it with industry-wide sentiment will mold a successful program. To “do” the new managed travel, buyers will not only want a pulse on sentiment but also levers in place to quickly shift policy, adjust supplier relationships as needed and communicate to travelers in a timely manner.

Travel contracting will be different post-COVID. Inclusions of safety content, journey advice and realigned demand patterns will upend current targets and discounts. Be ready.

While buyers are certainly grateful for suppliers who are graceful with underperformance, two inevitable problems arise. First, buyers may not realize maximum value with a misaligned discount/savings contract, thereby achieving less value than possible. Second, suppliers will reach a turning point where grace cannot be further extended. A direct, soon-to-happen result is an urgency for revised agreements, resulting in a flurry of RFP activity.

Astute buyers will be ahead of these issues to maximize their programs and get it done before the bulk of the managed travel community realizes they are caught in the tidal wave of sourcing.

Uncertainty and lack of trust are uncomfortable and often lead to inaction. Successful future programs depend heavily on the merging of certainty and trust into a new single thoroughfare. Know your traveler sentiment, apply the supply side and do the move to the new managed travel model sooner rather than later.

We can agree Da Vinci was ahead of his time. Before the inevitable oncoming onslaught of RFPs, one has to ask: Will you also be ahead of time by proactively managing change now?

 Will Tate is a partner at GoldSpring Consulting and leads a team of dedicated business travel and meetings consultants. Will’s financial background and deep travel expertise accent his ability to aggregate superior travel spend analyses for an in-depth look at travel program performance, resulting in exceptional travel and meetings advice for the firm’s clients.