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New directions: Travel managers give policy a post-Covid makeover

When the coronavirus disrupted business travel in 2020, many companies effectively adopted a one-sentence travel policy. Across Europe they sent messages to employees that workers should limit travel to “business-critical” purposes only.

But what does that phrase actually mean? “When we said ‘business-critical’ we meant: something to do with keeping our plant running, or with safety,” said Patrick Cuzzeau, BASF’s global travel manager. “Going to a supplier meeting would not be classified as business-critical.”

Thinking a little more precisely about the semantics, what BASF and many other companies actually mean is that lockdown travel can only be for reasons important to their business. In the immediate short term. Arguably the big lesson learned about policy is that all travel should be business-critical even post-Covid, whether for the immediate needs of the company or for longer-term viability.

“Policy has become more about making sure employees think about how and when they travel and return on investment,” says Festive Road consultant Carol Peter. “There’s been a push to make sure people use virtual meetings instead of hopping on a plane; And there’s a message around travel with purpose, to make sure it’s purposeful.”

The biggest policy adjustment in Peter’s view is an overemphasis on pre-trip authorization. “There was once a pre-trip sanction for non-compliance in the policy,” she says. “Now we’re looking at approving the cost of that trip. Pre-trip authorization has become more popular since the pandemic as companies really want to understand why their people are traveling. I think keeping pre-trip approval is important and is here to stay.”

A textbook example of the trend identified by Peter is BASF. “We wrote into the policy that travelers should think about how and why they travel,” Cujiu said.

To aid that thinking, an intern helping Kujiu used Microsoft Power Apps to create a decision tree. “It works because of the travel, the duration, the location and the cost,” Kujiu says. “The tool will then say ‘We recommend meeting virtually’ or ‘We recommend traveling for this meeting.'” If the employee elects to travel, a line manager’s consent is required.

Denmark-based pump manufacturer Grundfos also requires pre-trip approval, though only verbally from a line manager. As with BASF, “We now have a sentence in the travel policy that emphasizes very strongly considering whether you need to travel or whether a virtual meeting will suffice. It’s the first sentence of the policy,” said Aniko Nagy, senior global category manager for travel.

Grundfos also requires line manager consent, although it can be given verbally. However, there are other levers to control demand. A consulting exercise in 2020 determined that Grundfos was making twice as many trips as comparable companies. “When it was confirmed, the management decided to cut the budget, so people are really aware and already know about their plans [to be careful about when they
travel]Nagi said.

Online adoption has not returned to our preferred level as people are used to booking offline

Businesses are adjusting post-lockdown travel policies for other reasons as well. One is driving travelers to online booking after the rush to go offline during the pandemic when organizing every trip has become a complex undertaking.

Now, says Mihai Dinu, global travel manager at robotic process automation software provider UiPath, acute shortages of reservation workers at travel management companies are providing strong pressure to swing in the opposite direction. “If you have online booking at this time when you can wait for an hour for an agent, it can be a mess, so it is important to encourage online booking for easy point-to-point routes,” says Dinu. “Offline is also more expensive.”

Kujiu is among the travel managers solving this problem. “Online adoption has not returned to the level we would have liked because people have become accustomed to booking offline,” he says. “We will reiterate what people need to do. Word has always said that wherever possible you should book through the travel service provider’s online solutions. It’s just trying to reclaim it a little bit.”

Peter believes the labor shortage also helps adjust policy to allow more flexible ticketing. “One client changed to allow business class because there were too many flight disruptions, so it’s much easier for passengers when they want to change their tickets,” he says.

Naturally, upgrading to business class adds cost but Peter draws a direct line to pre-trip approval increases and only travels when it’s really important for business. As a result, although the cost per trip may increase, this is offset by the reduction in the number of trips. “Maybe you only need to have that rule for a short period of time but if you’re going to get an ROI on the trip, maybe it’s worth making those changes,” he argues, adding that upgrading to business class helps companies meet their employee wellness aspirations. A cruel bonus.

But for many businesses, the biggest trend today is not the lack of employees but the growing risk of an economic downturn. So it’s very likely that some companies will turn off the travel tap again in early 2020, albeit for different reasons.

BASF cut its bookings by 90 percent when it switched to “business-critical” travel in 2020. The company is currently back to 60 percent of 2019 levels. “By 4Q we were hoping to get back to around 75 per cent but that’s not going to happen in the current economic climate; We’re going to hover around 60 percent,” Kujiu said. “Some countries have actually imposed travel bans again due to budget constraints and the need to make sure we don’t spend too much.

“We will not write it in the policy. The board said we have to cut costs. Travel is not specifically mentioned but travel is one of the first things to be affected whenever this happens,” Kujiu said.

More such orders are likely to be issued by various European companies in the coming months.

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