Long return to travel

It is a long road to recovery for corporate travel, and how the journey pans out is dependent on government restrictions, confidence in travel suppliers, access to information and company directives.

Corporate travel in 2019 was on an upwards trajectory, and growth looked set to continue this year, with Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) prediciting that global corporate travel spend would grow to an estimated US$1.6 trillion in 2020.

That prediction was tossed out with the onset of Covid-19 in early March and resulting border closures and restrictions. Worldwide airline capacity has fallen 80 per cent compared to 2019 levels; and almost 90 per cent for international flights.

A sliver of hope
At press time in September, green shoots of recovery have started emerging in markets with a large domestic base.

Greg O’Neil, president Asia Pacific of BCD Travel, expects the return to air travel “to be gradual and slow, starting with the domestic markets”.

In a survey conducted with 100 travel buyers by BCD Travel, essential business travel is slowly resuming (73 per cent), with 25 per cent of respondents indicating they would recommend direct flights to minimise risk.

Jo Sully, vice president APAC, American Express Global Business Travel (AMEX GBT), agreed: “We are already seeing evidence of this demand in the business sector with an increase in domestic travel in countries including China, Australia and parts of Europe.”

FCM Travel Solutions’ State of the Market Survey also showed encouraging travel intentions – 70 per cent of participants agreed or strongly agreed that they expected to increase business travel gradually over a period time with consensus peaking in business travel returning domestically in one to three months (40 per cent), and internationally in six to 12 months (32 per cent).

FCM Travel Solutions’ general manager, Bertrand Saillet, stated that the speed to recovery was dependent on government regulations around border restrictions and quarantine measures.

“In Asia-Pacific, we already see great traction on domestic routes in most markets and particularly in China and Australia. International travel remains extremely limited,” he added.

For business hub Singapore, where domestic business travel consumption is non-existent, rebound is dependent on four key factors.

James Chua, general manager of Singapore’s Global Travel, said: “These concerns include the reopening of borders, lifting of quarantine measures, airlines resuming their flights, and travellers regaining their confidence to fly.

“The quarantine of 14 days in the destination of visit will certainly be a deterrent to corporate travellers. Only if this is lifted or when a cure for Covid-19 is found, demands will be at a minimum at least for the next six months.”

New considerations
With health and hygiene factors a top priority now, corporate travel managers are expecting all travel suppliers – not just airlines – to provide reassurance of their safety and cleanliness protocols.

Another research with 1,260 business travellers that BCD Travel conducted revealed that top concerns included quarantine measures after travel, followed by social distancing and cleanliness of their environment during trips. Nine in 10 also rated frequent enhanced disinfection of airport and aircraft as extremely or very important, followed by new boarding procedures and empty seats on airplanes to accommodate social distancing.

The FCM survey found that 59 per cent of respondents regarded traveller and supplier health and hygiene factors as top priority. When asked what would trigger the prompt resumption of business travel, the easing or lifting border restrictions came in tops with 93 per cent of respondents saying it has significant or some impact.

However, the second trigger is the employer’s travel direction, with 89 per cent of respondents saying that they would travel if their “organisation deems it safe to travel and this is reflected in our travel policy”.

For those that are willing to travel now, Chua opined they will have expectations such as “wanting to know the safety measures that the airline has put in place, and wanting to be updated on new travel requirements for the intended destination including transit”.

Sully shared that her recent conversations with travellers found that “demand is strong”. In fact, most would still consider travelling this year, but would want “to be armed with the right information at the right time”. This is because “potential for disruption is now a constant”.

“Airline schedules, processes and entry rules can change at a moment’s notice in response to local government actions. We have already seen a government quickly responding to risk with the stopping and starting of travel most recently in Melbourne, Australia,” she said.

To keep travellers informed, AMEX GBT developed Travel Vitals, a source of information for use before, during and after a journey. It draws data from hundreds of sources, including governments, airports, airlines, risk management partners and hotels, to provide advice on travel restrictions, and identify Covid-19 infection rate spikes and hot spots.

Similarly, BCD Travel also developed the Informed Traveler, where users will have access to real-time information such as destination risk alerts, airline and hotel policies, ground transportation protocols and travel restrictions.

FCM Travel Solutions has its own information resource too, in the form of Traveller Hub.

Two-way communication
Airlines are doing their part to keep TMCs updated, as well as provide as much flexibility as they can.

Chua shared that his airlines partners were supplying flight restoration updates, travel health advisory, and Covid-19 checklists.

Saillet added: “While airlines are making a lot of changes for air travel in future for all travellers, we are seeing some airlines add specific measures to ensure their corporate clients are being looked after. For example, certain airlines are offering free name changes.”

AMEX GBT’s Sully has also received regular communications from airlines that address the increased measures they are taking, ranging from new cleaning processes and contactless check-in procedures to change fees waivers and unlimited booking changes.

O’Neil noted: “Airlines need to think now how they reposition and market themselves as the industry re-emerges – messages showing a clear commitment to safety (and) hygiene will determine the winners.”

He further opined that for corporate air travel to reach pre-Covid volumes, recovery would probably take two to three years.

“Meanwhile, TMCs must reinvent themselves, adopt new technologies, and increase productivity to stay relevant as the landscape has evolved and will certainly involve further,” Chua added.

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