Predicting trends in corporate travel space in these uncertain times revolves around more than one aspect of travel, with employee safety being the foremost. As the world is accelerating the vaccination drive, business travel is returning in 2021 – slowly but steadily. However, it calls for a deliberate plan to make corporate travel safer, easier, seamless and more adaptable than ever before.
The travel industry is full of ingenious professionals with technological abilities to help businesses plan a safe return to travel for their employees. Considering the pandemic environment, the travel policies are evolving constantly and redefining major travel trends across the globe that would include more employee safety, personalised experiences, cost efficiency and productivity.
The following trends, supported by emerging technologies, are poised to redefine the travel industry in the coming year:
Safety & Security (duty of care): Following a catastrophic event like the COVID-19 pandemic, organizations will have an obligation to make sure their employees are safe during business travel. After all, the health and safety of their employees is paramount for any organization. Although safety measures like wearing masks and ensuring physical distancing will continue for the foreseeable future, we will see organizations planning to minimize touchpoints all through the customer journey. For instance, corporate executives would opt for direct flights rather than with layovers/stopovers, ensure they stay at verified properties and travel insurance will become more pervasive. Moreover, organizations would want Travel Management Companies (TMCs) to fulfil services such as renewal of passports, applying for consular services, submitting health forms, procuring forex, and even performing check-in prior to departure. Additionally, more organizations will focus on monitoring travel alerts, integrating technology to track employee location and incorporate ‘duty of care programs’ to protect employees in emergency situations.
Mixed bag for corporate travel ramp-up: Organizations in the areas of E-commerce, Food Processing, Logistics, Delivery, Event Management which are highly dependent on travel are expected to witness a sharp growth in Business Travel. However, there will be others who have had a disastrous year and want to curtail discretionary travel spend by allowing travel only based on a strong business case – in many cases the trips would get downgraded from Business to Economy by change of policy. So, although the trips may remain intact the dollar value is expected to go down. Also, travel is expected to be more department dependent with departments such as Sales & Marketing continuing to spend more than some others. Bunching several meetings on a single trip to improve cost efficiency will be promoted. Cars will be preferred for shorter distances with expense & reimbursement policies being restructured to accommodate this.
Acceleration of organizations to move to managed business travel: Many organizations have suffered financially during the pandemic. This will bring cost efficiency and productivity to the forefront. While 60% of the business travel is still served by a fragmented, unorganised sector, the trend by these organization will be to move towards managed travel. This will help them reduce their costs and improve productivity due to better co-ordination & cheaper prices. Secondly, moving to a managed travel helps organizations to tighten their travel policy, provide more control on discretionary spend and implement more rigor in managing their budgets in real-time.
Merchandising will pervade business travel tools & systems: There has been a significant growth in the merchandising revenue as a ratio to the ticket price in the last couple of years. This includes marketing ancillary services and branded fares. While the area is still evolving, we may well see an acceleration as we begin to come out of the pandemic, with more and more players seeing this as an opportunity to enhance their margins through differentiation. While it provides an enhanced shopping experience through rich content and personalization for the corporate traveller – such as choice of amenities like legroom, Wifi, inflight entertainment and other attributes – it also provides airlines and the Travel Management Companies a channel for upselling. The IATA’s New Distribution Capability (NDC) program is a step in this direction.
Adoption of automation: Automation is permeating in every sector and Business Travel will be no exception. As corporates have been hit by pandemic year, the speed of adoption of new technologies that can bring value and flexibility will be in demand. Many start-ups in the travel space will be integrating new technologies such as machine learning, AI and robotics to cater to this demand. There will also be an increased focus on advanced analytics to guide and help organizations take quick decisions.
Personal/Leisure travel facility: Employees need an escape from the everyday grind. The pandemic has only exacerbated this. The pent-up demand for leisure travel means that more organizations would be ready to amend their policy to blend employee’s business travel with leisure. While this helps the employee in cutting expenses and satisfying the emotional needs & well-being, it also promotes employee retention at a strategic level. Technology that can support such policies of providing mixed itineraries will be more sought after.
If the pandemic has underscored one reality, it is that the players in the travel industry are quickly transforming to meet the changing needs of consumers of the “new normal”. Different countries will continue to have varied travel restrictions and protocols for visitors. Organizations will be focused on introducing policies and programs that ensure employee safety, increased adoption of technology and collaboration with Travel Management Companies to help them personalise travel experience while promoting cost efficiency and productivity. A pandemic such as the one we are witnessing has forced many changes, some of which will be here to stay for the foreseeable future. But the silver lining is that it will prepare us to be ready and stay ahead of the game when it opens fully!
(The author is Founder at The IncBuddy. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online.)