While the Covid-19 crisis stopped most business travel in its tracks, travel managers have stepped up strategic thinking for their companies. They’ve engaged in critical work groups charged with getting employees back to physical offices where possible and, ideally, back to travel. Many travel managers realized from the outset that recovery would have a ripple aspect, with certain markets emerging from lockdowns as others dipped deeper into infection.
Wrapping a pandemic-oriented travel policy around that reality must start with an understanding of what government will allow. The International Air Transport Association offers a borders regulation map with ongoing updates and an option to license the data for internal or commercial use. Other data providers have similar capabilities and corporates with travel management company relationships can look to those partners for integrated information solutions. This type of regulation is the first restriction that will prohibit a trip or, with a quarantine requirement, make the trip prohibitively expensive.
Just because a country will allow travel, doesn’t mean traveling to that location is in the company’s best interest. For business travel, it is crucial for companies to set their own policies about infection rates and what is considered high risk. To act on such policies, companies must have access to data beyond border closures. Again, many TMCs have layered this into their information services, as have specialized travel risk management companies, aggregating data from sources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, World Health Organization and Johns Hopkins University.
To drive policy and compliance based on this data, it’s ideally integrated into the self-booking workflow, alerting travelers to the Covid-19 situation. In addition to origin and destination, also consider transiting locations required on the trip. Airline capacity, frequency and route maps have changed dramatically and policies around traveler risk need to account for connection points. Messaging within the booking tool or automated workflows—like trip approval triggers or even blocked bookings—should alert travelers to next steps in the travel booking or approval process. Few companies are allowing travel bookings to go unchecked by at least a direct manager and potentially up to the CEO.
Companies have pivoted to conversations around “essential” business travel, yet defining those criteria can be challenging. One formulation is “a trip which, if not taken, would harm the business/organization.” While still somewhat subjective, that definition sets a high bar.
Still, the traveler needs to be willing to undertake the journey. This is an area where travel management must lean into human resources. If travel is critical to an individual’s job, but the person has reasons not to travel, that isn’t the purview of travel policy. It’s an HR issue, and may be considered in the same light as a disability, according to corporate legal experts who deal with such emerging issues.
Most companies won’t force the issue on travel; they are providing options like desktop videoconferencing, which have sustained remote working during Covid-19. Travel managers should consider how pandemic-oriented travel policies should divert potential trips to technology and automate it. For many organizations, though, deep partnerships and project work still require in-person interactions.
Given that, specific policies do require amendment. But don’t ditch the traditional policy—you’ll want to get back to it eventually. Think of the pandemic policy as a layer that you can use when needed, now or in the future.
Buyers BTN has spoken with are giving extra attention to ground transportation policies, looking to extend mileage limits on road travel should travelers feel nervous about flying and extending how long travelers may hire rental cars. They may also consider deepening relationships with chauffeur ground transportation providers for such trips to increase productivity and doing the same for train travel, particularly, in Europe, going so far as to restrict short-haul air travel in favor of rail. Public transport and ride-hailing policies also must be considered.
Air travel policies require a revamp as well. Companies may strongly prefer nonstop direct flights if they are possible and may look to book pricier but refundable fares, as infection flares could reverse trip plans. Utilizing unused tickets will be a priority.
Ensuring social distancing on flights may be an issue. Most carriers will not guarantee an empty middle seat in economy class. Therefore, premium economy and business class tickets could become more prevalent. These policies will increase trip cost and, therefore, could raise the justification threshold.
For hotel stays, the main concern is compliance with preferred partners, which presumably are vetted for hygiene standards. One additional concern may be choosing a hotel as close as possible to the meeting location to minimize ground transportation needs. But paying for car rental and parking or black car service, even in urban locations, may be the answer if hotel locations aren’t amenable.
Finally, personal protection policies will be important. Many companies are providing PPE kits that include a mask, hand sanitizer, sanitizing wipes and other essentials that will help travelers practice good hygiene. The kits may include instruction about detailing airline seats or hotel rooms, and travelers will take that guidance or not—but the company will show its duty of care by providing it.