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The future of executive travel

With face-to-face meetings at a minimum, Insider Engage asks what the impact will be on business travel and events in the longer term

Business people in front of private jet at the airport
Credit:
izusek/Getty Images

Travelling for business may seem an outlandish concept in mid-2020, but conferences and international meetings are a central part of many company calendars.

So, as the world outside the office seems to have fundamentally changed, what will executive travel look like post-Covid-19?

Martin Ferguson, vice president of public affairs at American Express Global Business Travel (Amex GBT), says the first thing that needs to return is confidence – and information is crucial to that happening.

“Companies have a duty of care towards their employees, making sure they are extremely well-informed,” says Ferguson. “Approval has always been a big part of travel policy, but there is more emphasis on this now. The travel manager has to be on top of that.”

For example, Amex GBT recently launched an online portal for travellers giving them information on all their potential routes, including what flights are banned or where quarantines are in place.

Such updates are now vital, according to Ferguson, who adds: “Booking a trip used to be quite a seamless exercise but now it’s a far more rigorous process, making sure people are complying with public policy and ensuring there is visibility of their travel plans.”

With such a fast-changing situation and new restrictions potentially being brought in on an immediate and regular basis, CT Business Travel managing director Clare Collins says the issue goes beyond just booking the tickets.

“It has always been our job to provide more than ‘travel’, the pre- and post-departure advice is key,” she says. With this now evolving almost on a daily basis, Collins says the company needs to empower its clients with up-to-date information relevant to their trip.

“This is a real challenge, the situation is changing on a daily basis, lead times are short and all trips are taken with an element of risk,” she says. “So, we put a lot of work into ensuring we are ready to act at any moment and look after our travellers where possible, 24/7.”

Many routes are being suddenly and directly impacted by government measures, such as mandatory quarantines upon return or regional lockdowns even within the UK. This has meant thousands of leisure travellers cancelling trips entirely.

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But with fewer people, and therefore planes, in the sky, business travel has the potential to become more exclusive. Kathy Leroy, VIP charter manager at private air carrier Chapman Freeborn, says it has seen a 15% increase in bookings since the start of the coronavirus crisis.

“The main reason is the ease and convenience of secluded transportation with minimum exposure to other passengers one would find in an airport terminal,” says Leroy. This, of course, comes at a price, but is perhaps a sign of a new normal.

“As flight volumes recover it will be interesting to see if private flights become more widely adopted once travel volumes return to normal,” she says. “If so, we could see a pricing gap closing in from first class, scheduled airline ticket prices versus the cost of chartering a private jet.”

Venue change

Travel may be one thing, but what about the destination? Many conferences have been cancelled during the pandemic and questions are now being asked about whether international events have a future. CWT vice president Ian Cummings, who works in its meetings and events group, is aware of the challenges but is optimistic given the innovation he is seeing.

“We are hopeful conferences will return in 2021, but with new spikes [of coronavirus], caution is coming back – and that’s a concern for a lot of the big conferences,” says Cummings.

“There is some fantastic information coming out of the hotel groups, which are publishing how they are going to host these events,” he says. “One-way systems, temperature checks on entry, online meetings being booked by an app.”

Measures have also included hand sanitiser stations throughout premises, socially distant configurations to minimise queuing, regular deep cleans, the use of screens and greater access to outdoor areas for socialisation.

While the return of large conferences may seem far away (just 30 people can meet in the UK from October), Cummings says the biggest firms may be able to achieve greater security for events through entire hotel buyouts.

Interestingly, such a bold tactic may not be as expensive as it initially seems.

“We are seeing more requests for complete buyouts,” says Cummings. “In terms of cost, it’s not unbelievable. [The client] would pick a property size that could suit them, and these hotels are trying hard to attract business so they will be competitive on the pricing. For example, Hyatt has confirmed it is slashing its prices by an average 37-55%, which is substantial.”

Virtual takover?

Yet, with the success of virtual events, many people may be asking if executive travel (as we knew it) needs to return at all.

Ferguson acknowledges his bias but thinks corporate travel still has a place in post-pandemic society: “Video conferencing has been super useful for so many people but if we’ve learnt anything it’s that when people’s movement is restricted it’s bad for economies, society, culture and people.”

Essentially, there is no real substitute for meeting in person.

“While many of our clients are quite rightly scrutinising their travel policies, the overwhelming consensus is they will have to get back to where they were because it’s the best way to grow a business and compete,” says Ferguson.