Gearing up for business take-off

Business travel bubbles bring a dawn of hope to the global MICE sector, but the still-salient risks mean that organisations must update their travel policies in tandem. Low Kiang Wei, medical director at International SOS, explains why.

Looking at the recent increase in possibilities for business travel, how feasible and airtight is the strategy of a business travel bubble?
Various processes and protocols have been implemented to minimise the risk of the virus spreading internally within the bubble and externally, into the community. These facilities are also testbeds for governments and immigration authorities to try out certain processes as they take steps towards the resumption of travel at a larger scale.

While the measures that constitute a business travel bubble are generally well planned and do mitigate risks, there is still a chance of virus transmission. Businesses will still require a robust and flexible travel policy to ensure the health and safety of the travelling workforce, and ensure that business operations remain resilient and productive no matter what threats arise.

Considering the safety measures for some of these bubbles that are already in effect, what foreseeable risks are still present?
Travel bubble measures and border arrangements will continue to undergo constant reviews as the global Covid-19 situation evolves, as evidenced in the changes in travel bubbles like that of Singapore and Hong Kong’s, as well as Singapore’s suspension of Reciprocal Green Lane arrangements with Germany, Malaysia and South Korea. These unexpected situations are likely to cause challenges for both employees and businesses, which will impact business productivity and overall workforce resilience.

In a survey conducted by International SOS in late August, we found that three major concerns that employees have regarding the resumption of travel include getting stuck in a destination country (81 per cent), adhering to varying guidelines on safety and health practices (57 per cent), and safety and hygiene levels in accommodation and transportation (52 per cent).

For a company sending its workforce overseas during this pandemic, why might the benefits of face-to-face meetings outweigh these uncertainties?
While many businesses have shifted to virtual meetings, which have been productive in the short term for some business functions, they are unlikely to replace physical meetings and business travel completely. One of the main reasons is that there is a big difference between a conversation and a relationship. Anyone can have a one-off chat on Zoom, but that is unlikely to convert into a longstanding business relationship or closing a large account.

In these situations where organisations deem it necessary to travel, it is important for businesses to be able to confidently assess the risk-based upon the most up-to-date and verified information, so that they can make an informed decision based upon their own risk-benefit matrix.

This will require regular surveillance of all potential health and security risks through trusted channels and having a plan of action in place to manage any disruptions. We have also been supporting our clients who are facing such situations by providing pre-trip planning and support, on-the-ground assistance when overseas, and safety protocols upon return.

Singapore is slowly working back up to large-scale events of 1,000 attendees or more, including the World Economic Forum. Considering the nation’s stringent measures, contact tracing and existence of bubble facilities, how realistic is this trajectory?
The feasibility of hosting large-scale events largely depends on the progress and success of smaller-scale events. If the protocols and processes for small-scale events prove successful in containing Covid-19 transmission, then it holds promise for other large-scale meetings, conferences and events.

Making this a reality will also require close collaboration between various industry players, to implement solutions that enable safe travel, swift Covid-19 testing and verification, and measures that protect the health and safety of all guests.

What would a robust and holistic travel framework of bubble facilities, and potentially large-scale travel bubbles in Asia, look like?
Travel bubbles and bubble facilities will likely be initiated in countries where transmission is controlled, and public health resources are not stretched. They will be based upon either public or public-private partnership infrastructure, with a layer of regulations implemented by the authorities based upon testing and verified vaccinations.

A robust and holistic business travel framework will need to be supplemented by corporates and would begin by accounting for business needs, varying government regulations and guidelines, on-ground safety protocols, and most importantly, the diverse risk profiles of their employees with regards to health, safety and mental wellbeing.

The rollout of Covid-19 vaccines across various countries will also have an impact on travel policies, as each company will need to ensure that employees have safe and ready access to the vaccines required to resume business travel.

Speaking of vaccines, are we likely to see a return of corporate travel within Asia only, or might there be a possibility for reciprocal longhaul travel?
As the vaccination take-up rate goes up, authorities and governments will certainly be looking at how to safely resume travel, but it will not be an immediate return to how things used to be. The vaccine is however, likely to change quarantine requirements and other border arrangements. For example, Israel has announced deals with Cyprus and Greece to allow vaccinated citizens of the various countries to travel between them without limitations, once flights resume.

The return of corporate travel is also largely dependent on each country’s progress in containing the pandemic, administering vaccines to the population, as well as their considerations to reopen borders and loosen travel restrictions. The amount of trade and economic stakes in opening up of both economies to each other will be the next major consideration within the risk-benefit matrix. These will be the main drivers, rather than geographical proximity for opening up of travel.

In light of this new business travel landscape in the post-Covid-19 world, how would companies have to relook their travel policies?
During trips, we advise organisations to adopt round-the-clock tracking to locate at-risk travellers via real-time updates, to swiftly respond to pressing incidents on the ground, as well as to provide 24/7 access to remote medical and security assistance. These can include remote confidential counselling and telehealth services for anyone who needs help while abroad. Organisations can develop contingency plans and evacuation processes to ensure the safety of their employees and support them whenever and wherever an emergency arises.

Upon return, organisations must ensure that returning employees understand and follow the necessary quarantine and medical screening procedures, in compliance with local authorities’ guidelines. A post-travel assessment will also help to uncover strengths and weaknesses in the travel framework, so that areas of improvement can be identified and worked on to adapt to existing or emerging challenges.

We are also working closely with our clients to review existing travel policies to account for different country-specific vaccination strategies and requirements, and introduce new support measures for the travelling workforce to navigate this new environment. On top of providing existing pre-trip and post-trip preparations, individual travel risk assessments and training programmes, we are also providing constant updates on each country’s vaccination strategy and status, as well as advising for any corresponding change needed to vaccination and travel policies.

To help our clients assess the potential risks of their planned trips, we have developed a Covid-19 Impact Map, which depicts the impact of Covid-19 on health, security and logistics locally. Bearing in mind the layered risks of each location, this map provides access to up-to-date and accurate information to equip organisations with the agility to quickly implement strategies to minimise business impact and protect their workforce.

Considering the greater risks and amount of processes, approvals and paperwork that will come with future corporate travel, how might the role of travel managers become more crucial?
The effect of Covid-19 may impact the way we travel for years to come, and the importance of travel risk management and designing a safe, robust and adaptable travel policy is more critical than ever.

Risk assessment and management will form a large part of the remit of travel managers and HR leaders moving forward. They will likely be required to utilise emerging tools and technologies to keep up with constantly evolving situations, and implement robust and current travel policies.

Travel managers and HR leaders will also need to place more emphasis on the human element. When crafting travel policies and planning for the return of essential business travel, a vital consideration is to manage and assuage the fears of the travelling workforce. These fears are likely to manifest in various ways – employees who are asked to resume travel might fear exposure to the virus while in transit, during meetings, or even staying in hotels.

Others might be fearful of the uncertainties and risks in other countries, which can stem from uneven relaxation of restrictions, international and local transport restrictions, xenophobia, anti-government protests and access to medical care in an unfamiliar place. At the same time, domestic employees might be concerned about their exposure to returning travellers.

To manage these fears, organisations must build a culture that acknowledges the challenges and new realities of business travel and ensure that both domestic and travelling employees feel safe and protected by the organisation.

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