Steven Zhang, CEO of Trip.Biz, and vice president of Trip.com Group, provides an insight into China's domestic corporate travel market behind closed borders, and how the pandemic has brought about a change in customers realising the true value of travel management companies (TMCs)
What does China’s corporate travel scene look like currently?
China’s business travel market was as seriously impacted as the rest of the travel sector when the pandemic hit. According to GBTA data, after falling significantly in 2020, business travel bounced back to a level of US$0.8 trillion in 2021.
As the world’s largest business travel market, China’s development relies significantly on internal travel as well. China’s domestic corporate travel expenditure growth rate reached 31.7 per cent in 2021, more than twice the global growth rate.
Given the sporadic outbreaks occurring in specific spots around China, the trend has fluctuated over the last two years. Yet, with China’s ongoing pandemic prevention and control measures overall corporate travel has still shown signs of a revival. According to forecasts, by 2024 China’s corporate travel market is expected to recover and surpass pre-pandemic levels, with total business travel spending exceeding US$400 billion.
According to our whitepaper, the main purposes of business travel in the China market in 2021 were: attending industry/professional seminars, sales/customer service, and participating in training/academic study.
Domestic travel destinations are mainly concentrated in first- and second-tier cities such as Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen, while a trend toward lower-tier cities continues to develop. Even as the impact of the pandemic continues, our survey results show that nearly 60 per cent of local companies say their overall corporate travel volume continued to grow in 2021.
Even during the previous pandemic lockdown period, we see that the impact on performance was mainly concentrated in lockdown areas, while corporate travel business in other cities remained basically unchanged.
Trip.Biz’s latest whitepaper reveals that more companies in China are using TMCs. Why do you think this has made a difference after the pandemic?
The pandemic negatively affected the development of many enterprises, and the need for them to reduce costs and increase efficiency has become more urgent. In recent years, the Chinese government has also encouraged enterprises to further embrace technological solutions and has issued a series of policies and measures.
At the same time, from the standpoint of enterprise operations, corporate travel costs are the second-largest controllable expenditure in budget management, and the processes employed in travel management are relatively clear and standardised. Consequently, the application of digital business travel solutions can be seen as a testing ground for digitalisation of their own platforms and internal processes.
Although the concept of corporate travel management was originally introduced into China in the early 20th century, in the past 20 years of development its value has been increasingly recognised.
Given its growing influence, awareness of TMCs on the part of Chinese enterprises has improved, gradually penetrating from state-owned and central enterprises, foreign enterprises, and other large entities into small and medium-sized enterprises. Our research has found that the proportion of small enterprises employing TMC services has increased by as much as 21 per cent.
According to our whitepaper, China’s business travel market was growing by double digits annually until 2020. However, it can be said that the pandemic has, to some extent, even accelerated the development of China’s business travel market.
After more than two years, people have accepted the fact that the pandemic will recur sporadically and they now consider it a force majeure factor in the daily business operations. As a result, the public now needs professional corporate TMCs more than ever to help them focus on things like employee travel safety tracking and pandemic information feedback.
What must be done to spread awareness to encourage more companies in China to use TMCs？
Digital corporate travel management has four distinguishing benefits.
The first is being able to achieve significant cost savings. Many enterprises have now realised that travel will not only include the explicit costs of airline tickets, hotels, and other similar expenditures, but that the reimbursement of employee invoices and financial reconciliation and approval are hidden costs that cannot be ignored. According to the calculations in our report, good management can help enterprises effectively save up to 30 per cent of the cost of these expenditures.
The second benefit is improvement in quality and efficiency. According to statistics, one-stop travel solutions not only enable employees to reach a 99 per cent self-booking rate, but also help finance departments reduce audit volume by 60%.
The third benefit is compliance control, which is also a current matter of concern for Chinese enterprises. Through big data risk monitoring and comprehensive analysis of the entire process, digital business travel solutions are available to help companies negate compliance risks.
The fourth benefit is sustainable development. Our research shows that 67 per cent of enterprises will now focus on and support sustainable solutions, and electronic processes offered by digital business travel solutions will promote green low-carbon travel.
Although our research found that the proportion of enterprises choosing TMCs increased by as much as 16 per cent year-on-year, it will take a long time to be solidly widespread when considering the enormous size of the Chinese corporate travel market, which is precisely what we at Trip.Biz have been working on.
We not only provide services to customers, but also actively invest in the development of “ecological” business travel, joining hands with other ecologically-minded partners in corporate services and the business travel industry to promote the development of a green business travel model in China.
China is the world’s largest corporate market, but borders are still closed. How does this affect the corporate travel sector both inbound and outbound?
Most of the globe will not visit China for business because of the difficult restrictions.
As mentioned earlier, although international borders were not fully open over the past two years, the growth rate of China’s domestic corporate travel market in 2021 remained at more than twice the global rate. For Trip.Biz, the restricted inbound and outbound business travel resulted in increased domestic business travel, and we saw our GMV in 2021 recover to 90 per cent of 2019 pre-pandemic levels.
Nevertheless, for now, our overseas business is gradually recovering, and we are very much looking forward to China completely opening its international borders. After all, international business is an important part of the Chinese corporate travel market.
While waiting for the right opportunity to present itself, we are also actively investing in and cultivating our own abilities and stand ready to welcome international business travellers.
To this end, Trip.Biz increased its investment in technology by 86 per cent in 2021, compared to the pre-pandemic period. This investment is intended to optimise technical support for our domestic operations, and prepare the ground for our strategy of globalisation.
For example, by building a nationwide system that enables multilingual interface support, our platform will also support globalised expense settlement functions in local currencies. At the same time, we are working with international partners to globalise our services. A multi-site service centre offering multilingual consulting services will make our travel services more accessible to global customers.
What are Trip.Biz’s plans for the future?
In terms of business development, we adhere to a strategy of global growth based on the Group’s “Local Focus, Global Vision” approach.
Domestically, our buildout of corporate travel in first-tier cities has become relatively mature and complete. We will continuously track the travel needs of corporate customers in order to develop markets in lower-tier cities, enhance the development of local resources and business consulting support, and contribute strategies for the digital upgrade of corporate business travel by combining regional characteristics, city policies, and digitalistion, among other aspects.
From an international perspective, Trip.Biz will build on the needs of its existing customers in Japan, South Korea, and South-east Asia, gradually expanding into the Middle East, Europe, and other markets.
According to our whitepaper, the Asia Pacific corporate travel market accounted for 48 per cent of the global market, an increase of about five per cent over the previous year. Therefore, our globalisation strategy this year will also be upgraded from serving local enterprises in the Asia-Pacific region to include a wider strategic target.
Any concluding opinions about China and its corporate travel sector?
At present, the global business travel market is in a state of recovery and there are signs of a rebound, but there is still a certain gap in the degree of recovery in different countries.
As the world’s largest business travel market, China’s recovery is, to a certain extent, influencing the recovery of the global market. On the whole, we continue to look forward to seeing global interoperability in the near future, and to the accelerated recovery of not only the China market but the global business travel markets as well.