•Safety-Centric Policy – Best practices to minimize corporate risk and protect travelers

The Big Story brings together a select group of special reports to take a more in-depth look at trends in the corporate travel industry. In this issue, Business Travel Executive investigates the changes in the industry and their far-reaching impact on corporate travel programs and the business traveler.

As COVID-19 slowly releases its stranglehold on the world’s economy and on business travel, the realization has set in: We are all in this for the long haul.

From creating programs and policies that reflect a new reality to negotiating in a marketplace where no one is quite sure what’s coming next year – or next quarter, or even next week, travel post-COVID will be more complicated and more expensive, and it will be harder than ever to measure the real return on the travel investment. To be prepared, savvy travel executives are looking at the future from every possible angle.

Managing Travel Programs
Is travel policy merely a budgetary tool? That may have been largely true in the past, but this year’s pandemic has spurred new levels of interest in policies related to risk management and corporate liability. Along with some daunting challenges, though, this sea change may also be bringing new opportunities to tighten policy, gain compliance and expand education on the best practices to protect travelers.

While travel policies in the past provided structure and enforced budget, we’re now seeing a shift that’s geared toward health and safety protocols, says Amanda Vining, president of Corporate Traveler, the corporate brand within the Flight Centre Travel Group. Travel managers and executives are faced with the need to mitigate risk in putting travelers back on the road, while ensuring they’re doing it in the most responsible way possible.

As everyone in the industry knows, this is far more than just a matter of image. Unfortunately in corporate advertising at large, you can’t escape inflated claims about the emphasis being placed on safety. But while some claims border on spin, that’s definitely not the case with business travel.

In fact, the shift in priorities has been dramatic. John Rose, chief safety and risk officer at ALTOUR, says that consideration of risk historically ranked somewhere between third and seventh in management priorities for business travel. Price, value and service traditionally headed the list. But with the pandemic, risk is a clear number one.

Yet while there may be no end to the pandemic in sight, we will still need travel, Rose says. That prompts the question, what can we adjust in our policy to make travelers as safe as possible? “You can’t get people on the road if they don’t have assurance they’ll be safe,” he says.

Looking to 2021 and beyond, insuring safety brings an evolving range of challenges. “Risk management takes on a new meaning in the age of COVID-19,” says Teri Miller, executive vice president of global client team, BCD Travel. “Risks are now defined in terms of border closings, quarantine requirements, health screenings and supplier protocols.”

The decision to travel will be informed and intentional, she says – a calculated equation of cost, risk, routes and trip requirements. Trip authorization will become a standard practice, as companies assume more control over risk management and the safety of their travelers. At the same time, virtual collaboration will become a strategic alternative to high-priced and high-risk travel.

This may mandate not just having policies in place, but enforcing them more rigorously. Vining notes that travel has always been perceived as an area where it was acceptable to experience leakage, with a significant proportion of travelers deviating from policy or booking outside the ecosystem of the travel management company. That may no longer be acceptable.

Businesses will have to make individualized choices about the level of risk they’re willing to take on, Vining says. “Some companies can afford not to travel, while others must travel in order to keep the lights on,” she says. Where the need to put travelers back on the road is critical, this raises the bar on assessing and communicating applicable protocols.

“Personally, I have never felt safer traveling, but it was when I was able to take a trip and see it for myself that brought me that comfort,” she says. “I took that trip in June and I’ve been traveling consistently since.”

Enhanced Policy Opportunities
One new reality change is that everyone seems to have an interest in travel-related issues. “Suddenly, travel is on the mind of all senior executives,” Miller says. Questions range from when to start traveling again and how to manage it safely, to how much travel is really necessary considering the wider availability of virtual meeting tools.

“It's a lot to manage,” she says. “As travel returns, companies need to be clear on what’s OK and what’s not.” Among other considerations that means that travel to all destinations, not just the high-risk ones, should be scrutinized as situations change. At the same time, buyers can seize this period of downturn in travel as an opportunity to start making policy amendments to safeguard the well-being of travelers.

Rose sees new opportunities to build a holistic risk management program. “People have to be compliant for policy to work," he says. "In good times, it’s hard to convince people. But now everyone understands the need to reduce exposure."

In fact if health and safety efforts are portrayed in a positive light, travelers won't see policy mitigation strategies as harassment. A response is more likely to be in the order of “Wow, now I know you’re helping me.”

That includes addressing privacy concerns. Rose points out that you need not infringe on their privacy since travelers must opt in. But knowing the location of travelers can be important in relaying timely warnings, whether that's about, say, poor local air quality or a protest three blocks away.

"It's an opportunity to build relationships with business travelers," Rose says. “You can say, hey, we’ve got your back."

As an example, he points to the evolving challenges in managing risks related to lodging, which were already significant before the pandemic. “When you have more people, you have more risk,” he says. Putting the focus on properties that show greater commitment to safety, or alternately giving travelers more flexibility to use alternative lodging, may need to be a basic strategy.

The more confidence travelers have in the information provided them, the more likely they are to follow policy, says Nina Herold, chief product and operations officer for TripActions. Access to real-time data about travelers and travel spend is the key to protecting travelers while optimizing and adapting travel policies for the rapidly evolving environment. "This means that adoption of the booking platform is no longer a nice-to-have," she says. "It’s mission critical."

With estimates of adoption levels of the booking platform varying from 20 to 50 percent, a long-standing challenge is that traveler location and associated spend is not known until after the trip has occurred and expenses have been submitted. “In today’s reality, that simply isn’t acceptable and won’t be tolerated by organizations or their leaders who have a responsibility to fulfill their duty of care in ensuring the health and safety of their travelers,” Herold says.

Along with providing visibility into travel plans, adoption of the corporate travel platform by employees supports the need to fulfill duty of care, manage risk and liability and control costs on the path to business recovery. Similarly, travelers as well as travel buyers benefit from access to real-time data such as reproduction numbers, CDC ratings, local government regulations and restrictions at travelers’ destinations, and supplier safety and hygiene protocols.

Clear Communications 
Despite the challenges of communicating information about situations that seem to keep changing faster than anyone can keep up, striving for clarity in policies and procedures remains an imperative.

“Travelers will want to know how to decide if they should travel or not, which airline is safest, which hotel is cleanest and what they should do if they’re stranded because a country suddenly re-enters lockdown,” Miller says. “A clear and accessible travel policy will give them the information they need to make the right decision and feel confident about traveling again.” For travel buyers, this can mean taking a close look at areas such as trip planning and viability, duty of care, shifting meeting type behaviors, and stricter command and control.

Any revision of policies and procedures should be supported by strategies for engaging travelers in their adoption. FAQs, infographics, short videos and other information can be shared though e-mail, intranet content and other communication channels. “Provide travelers with the tools and the ability to make choices based upon their business needs,” Miller says. “This will ensure they are fully informed and confident in what the policy means to them and what is expected of them.”

To that end, Miller advises surveying employees to determine what travel info they would prefer, making the details prominent on corporate intranets and developing FAQs to answer common questions. Ideally, information should cover the entire trip cycle, from the decision to go to the return home.

Other strategies include building communication templates for easy use across channels, activating risk alert features, uploading policy content and refreshing messaging on apps or online booking tools. Once these and other steps are taken, feedback should be gathered to assess their effectiveness.