Further Covid travel restrictions, mutations of the virus, border closures and compulsory hotel quarantines mean non-essential business travel is unlikely to resume for some time. Do you think that travel managers’ jobs are going to be adversely affected by the continued pause on business travel?
We would like to think that travel buyer and manager roles won’t be too adversely affected in the coming months primarily because preparation is still going to begin on how companies return to travel. Now that the vaccination programme is underway, travel managers can start to rebuild their travel programmes. The title of ITM’s annual conference this year is ‘Revive’ in recognition of the need to focus on supporting the rebuilding of the business travel industry. Travel managers’ roles are flexing and adapting to reflect on this rebuild. They are also starting to focus on helping ‘return to office’, because their skill set is well suited to that as travel managers are connected with stakeholders across their business. For business travel to resume, firstly people need to get back into their offices after working from home for so long. Business travel needs an office destination. You can’t always hold meetings in hotels.
The general opinion is that business travel will not return to pre-2019 volumes as companies have adapted to virtual meetings throughout the pandemic, and also successfully reduced their carbon footprint. Does that mean there will be fewer travel manager positions in future?
I don’t think there’ll be fewer positions because there will always be challenges to managing business travel, such as Brexit, data privacy, PDS2, employee wellbeing, which require specialist skills. I am always in awe of travel managers and how they can manage such complex priorities constantly. If you are a travel manager nowadays, you have to be an expert in so many areas. Travel managers are very adaptable and knowledgeable professionals and their skillsets are valued by companies. There will also be new priorities placed on travel managers, such as sustainability. More than 60% of our buyers in our trending survey stated that sustainability was a higher priority for 2021 than pre-pandemic, so buyers are going to have to help their companies manage that goal. Many companies pre-Covid had stated objectives to reduce travel or make it sustainable, but were struggling to make it happen. Remote working and virtual meetings forced that reduction and accelerated sustainability targets in 2020. But as companies start to resume business travel, albeit not at pre-Covid volumes, travel managers will play a key part in ensuring that travel still meets sustainability goals.
What can travel managers do to ensure they make themselves even more valuable to their employers?
Firstly, make sure you stay plugged into stakeholders in your business and be part of conversations in different business units, especially whilst everyone is still working remotely from home. Speak to budget holders, travellers, business unit leaders, so you understand their needs. Travel managers are also morphing into other areas, for example ‘Meetings Effectiveness Management’. Where previously they were facilitating bring people together through travel, now they are helping companies understand how to have the most effective meetings in the most effective way; deciding the best format for a meeting. Is it best served by in person, virtual, or hybrid?. The people who travel might be different. Whereas it was the sales person or senior manager. It might be the person who is best placed to coordinate everyone’s contribution to a hybrid meeting.
Secondly, travel managers should stay plugged in and well connected with their peers. This has never been more important. Buyers have always been historically good at benchmarking and sharing what benefits they are driving for their business. Travel buying is a non-competing discipline and we strongly recommend buyers stay connected to each other. When someone has researched and digested a challenge, and found a way forwards, it’s so helpful to share that information so that other buyers don’t need to reinvent the wheel.
Have many of ITM members been furloughed or displaced? What is ITM doing to support them?
Through 2020 for the most part it was the supplier side of our membership that was more impacted with furloughs and redundancies. In Q4 we started to see some impact on the buyer side, but still noticeably less of an impact than suppliers. Some of the larger travel teams restructured, but it was Q4 when we noticed that. ITM has strived to support members throughout the crisis. For example we removed the paywall for the vast majority of our events and educational resources in 2020 and set up fortnightly Buyer Knowledge Exchanges to focus on the impact of Covid. As the uncertainty around business travel continues, we have launched ITM Community, a series of initiatives that includes four months free membership for those who have been furloughed or displaced, and a new six-month Business membership plan.
Where do you think business travel is going to go from here? When will non-essential travel return?
It’s difficult to say how and when travel will resume around the world. Rapid roll out of vaccinations is a positive step but return to travel needs other conditions, such as reliable and standardised testing protocols in place at airport hubs. It also requires companies to have the budgets and willingness to send their people travelling again. We routinely ask our buyers what their travel spend predictions are for 2021 and only six weeks ago they were suggesting 25-50% of 2019 levels. But the exact time frame for return will be different for different countries. One thing that is certain though is that when volumes start to pick up, there’s going to be a lot to sort out. Travel has been gone so long, that there will be an awful lot to fix, meaning companies are definitely going to need the skills and expertise of their travel managers. The challenges of Brexit haven’t been felt yet in terms of work permits, visas, and so on. But this will be huge once people start travelling again. PSD2 in another complex area where the full pain-points haven’t come to light as travel volumes are supressed. Last but not least, there is the whole issue of winning back traveller confidence. The role of the travel manager is going to be even more vital.
To learn more about what other business travels professionals have to say on travel managers job security, read this recent BTN Europe article https://www.businesstravelnewseurope.com/Travel-Procurement/Job-security-Travel-managers-must-diversify-for-that