Measuring Business Travel Value in a New Era

August 25, 2021

If planning business travel today brings back memories of 1981 top hit radio, well, you might be among the plethora of folks asking, “Should I stay or should I go?”

With so many factors up in the air and consistently shifting, measuring the value of business travel in today’s Covid era is a feat. But, companies that hope to rebound and hit their 2021 revenue goals know travel and growth often go hand in hand.

Across the board, leading travel, expense, finance and procurement professionals say business travel is still a necessary investment for growth that helps increase sales and profits. But, it’s a delicate matter. Not every trip should — or, quite frankly, can — be approved, at least not presently.

There are multiple parameters that must be set for corporate travel in this new era, including, most crucially, who travels, when, and how. After viewing BTN Group’s webinar, “The Value of Business Travel: Redefining Priorities,” and reading the accompanying white paper that surveyed 101 travel, expense, finance, procurement, and other travel management executives in May and June of 2021, we’ve distilled down the recurring themes they all concur are essential for any organization to consider when it comes to their next business trip.

Travel managers and the new workforce

Companies being forced to reimagine their workforce is one of the main shifts during this last year that most impacts business travel. The priority today is to redesign Return to X plans, such as return to business travel, so they align with their broader corporatewide approaches to return to office. 

Remote positions and hybrid settings come with a new set of demands that are causing travel managers to reconsider their views of corporate trips and what travel is essential for business. Meeting on video chat for 12 hours a day has reminded us all how significant face-to-face interaction is for getting to know peers, clients, and prospects. You just can’t network on a digital conference.

In many hybrid workplaces, approval for domestic business trips only requires approval from a line manager. And the length of trips, the type of trips, and their frequency are likely to all change from previous norms. The idea isn’t to return to constant travel, but to acknowledge its value and balance it against today’s risks. 

For example, travel managers may decide that international travel poses a greater risk than domestic. In fact, many travel executives are still largely restricting international trips. There are many factors to consider: border re-openings, potential quarantines, and inconsistencies with testing and vaccine availability. No one wants an employee to be caught in an international quarantine situation, but where the virus is under control and vaccination rates are high, there is a strong demand across the board to return to travel.

Individuals’ risk and travel preferences matter

While it is impossible to guarantee a timeline on which business travel will fully resume, one fact is clear: it’s changing for the better for employees.

A company’s workplace culture and travel culture often mirror each other. While executives globally point to their teams as the lifeline of their organizations, this shift in corporate travel gives executives a chance to meaningfully prove it. The length and quality of trips are improving, and most crucially, employees’ individual preferences and well being are the ultimate deciding factor.

Still, companies must consider the impact of a trip on the traveler. Family conditions, personal health factors, individual locations, individual vaccination status, and roles within companies all frame the individual risk proposition differently than how they did in the past, and with greater priority than ever before.

It’s about moving from a programmatic stance that considers only the company to the deeper, one-on-one level in which individuals are a pivotal factor. Essentially, travel managers must bake in employee engagement strategies and opportunities to be heard as their organization weighs the risks of any planned travel.

With today’s dispersed workforce, executives must start planning for how and when employees will get back together in person. In other cases, it may come down to where work occurs. For example, Ann Dery, director of global travel and meetings, with S&P Global Inc., said in the webinar that S&P’s objective is to develop a hybrid travel program that focuses on travel for internal meetings. By leveraging video-conferencing and other technologies, or simply reducing the frequency of meetings, S&P hopes to achieve this objective.

Empower travelers with robust solutions

Trip approvals and travel policies are only part of the solution. What ties the solution together is the empowerment of individual travelers.

Yvonne Moya, global travel transformation director at Randstad, said in the webinar that empowering travelers comes down to two aspects:

  1. the organization implements clear travel policies, and
  2. the organization creates a simple, consolidated technology structure.

Decision trees can help employees and line managers navigate the return to travel. As an added benefit, this approach turns the engagement toward employees to put them in control. It invites employees to engage and share their own preferences. 

The bottom line is that the goal should be to create a universal approach that’s both easy to use and understand. 

Pre-trip approvals are often a clunky, rather than helpful, process. And, often, legacy tools and processes don’t pass the stress test and fail to engage employees. These modes are going out the door in favor of technology that meets travelers and executive teams where they are.  

Travelers have unique preferences, and savvy travel managers want to respect individual post-pandemic travel requirements. It’s not just the decrease in individual tolerance for re-entering passwords or following up on approval requests. Tolerance for any source of friction is on the decline.

The allure of the one-day trip

Long-haul, high-cost trips are under extreme scrutiny, but single-day, domestic or regional travel may be more attainable. For example, a quick flight from New York to Boston is now taking a backseat to driving, even though airlines are adding flights back to these popular business routes.

Anyone who has booked a rental car in the past year knows the pain of today’s travel procurement experts. As companies are changing their expectations of how travelers get around, demand for one-day car rentals is skyrocketing. Business travelers are opting for a four-hour drive and the flexibility to travel to one or more clients, partners, or internal meetings as they optimize routes for efficiency and safety.

Anne Feeney, assistant vice president of global sales for Enterprise Holdings, attested to the change during the webinar. She said the company is seeing the return of the business road trip. BTN Group’s survey results back this up: 69 percent of survey respondents said they anticipate less travel by air in 2021 versus 2019, and 57 percent said they anticipate more travel by car.

The challenge with shorter trips is making them worth the complexities of today’s travel experience. When you can stay longer, you may have more opportunities to avoid disruptions or vendor delays. It may also be a chance to combine business and leisure with your family. These factors may cause trips to grow slightly longer.

Who travels, when, and how 

The elephant in the room is determining what constitutes an essential trip and which trips are approved for whom. Many travel executives expect the number of trips taken this year to still be lower compared to 2019. But business travel is picking up again, so it’s important to have these parameters in place. 

Where five or six people were once sent to close a deal, companies may opt to only send one or two. The stakes of the travel are still high, but approval in those instances will often come down to dollars. 

Because senior team members are more likely to generate revenue, companies may move toward approving travel for senior, versus junior, employees. Other revenue-generating roles typically include business development and client-facing roles, such as account managers, sellers, and analysts, as well as customer success and support roles. So it’s likely there will be an increase in approvals for those folks as well.

According to the survey, 41 percent of respondents said their organizations’ current travel policies require travelers to justify each trip request with expected business outcomes. In the end, many organizations will likely develop a decision tree and leave the decision up to the line manager to approve.

It is important that each trip is evaluated based on a multitude of criteria, not just the immediate impact on revenue. Location, such as domestic markets where there may still be some concern about travel, or where travel alternatives exist, such as virtual conferences and online trainings, should be taken into consideration. Employee satisfaction and idea exchange are also worthwhile factors. Employees will notice if their managers are not democratic in their approval approach. 

Where travel fits into business growth

Many companies in 2020 were forced to seek alternatives to face-to-face interactions, but there’s no replacement for in-person connection.

In the survey, 74 percent of respondents said their organization views business travel as a necessary investment to grow. From here, executives must define the type of travel that has the biggest return for their companies.

Customer service and repairs, sales, and executive travel appear to be on the road to a quick recovery for in-person, domestic trips. This type of travel has proven its return on investment for business growth. Meanwhile, internal team meetings, training events, and industry events such as trade shows and conferences will be slower to come back. The return for these types of trips is simply more difficult to quantify as they’re more aligned with reviving culture and engaging a stationary workforce. 

Moya said her organization, Randstad, did “quite OK without traveling.” During that time, issues such as sustainability and productivity started to weigh into the travel program strategy. That experience made the organization re-think how it can shift the way it travels from a sustainability and productivity aspect. 

“But there is the relationship aspect as well,” Moya said. “We absolutely believe in the human-to-human factor. … We will not tell people to stop traveling, but there will be a conscious and cautious way of allowing people to do their trip.”


Find out about the value Etta brings to even complex travel programs.

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Deem Editorial

The Deem editorial team brings important, informative commentary and data to travel managers and everyone interested in technology and the corporate travel industry.

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