May 28, 2024

Confessions of a travel manager

Leyla Tugwell admits 'everything's still a bit woolly' as she gives an honest account of Covid's impact on her role as a travel manager

I’ve worked in the corporate travel industry for over 15 years, mainly in the UK market but with some global input. There have been many challenges along the way at Buro Happold: three different TMCs, RFPs, tender negotiations, implementations, and before Covid we were about to look again at either going out to tender or extending our current contract.

Then came March 2020. The travel team at Buro Happold is in the same room as the health and safety team, in our lovely offices in Bath on the riverfront, so I was fully aware of Covid-19 as it had been the general topic of discussion since the end of January. Luckily, as a global company our office managers and directors were proactive from the offset. I almost felt that I knew more than most as my colleagues had access to all sorts of websites, showing new cases around the world which were escalating rapidly. Unlike most, I already worked from home one day a week and had just returned from a week’s leave when my line manager contacted me to say that she was putting me on furlough. I wasn’t sure if I should laugh or cry – what the heck was furlough anyway?

Five weeks later, I was finding my feet and discovering that furlough was the new maternity leave without a baby (I have three children at home so I am allowed to say that!). The weather was good so I wasn’t feeling too bad. Then, one Friday afternoon I got a call from my line manager saying they wanted me back on Monday and needed a new Covid travel policy in place for the UK.

Yikes! It’s amazing what five weeks of doing very little can do. My brain had turned to mush, I appeared to know nothing about the travel market and quickly tuned in to as many online webinars I could to bring myself up to speed. However, as we all now know, there was nothing really to learn. Travel just wasn’t happening and after every Team/Zoom presentation I came away feeling no further forward. Don’t get me wrong: the advisory boards and experts did their best and we debated endlessly what ‘might’ or ‘could’ happen with travel, but the truth was that nobody knew. The best we could do was wait with bated breath for each announcement from Boris.

“I wasn’t sure if I should laugh or cry – what the heck was furlough anyway?”

Roll on 13 months and I’ve been fortunate to remain working throughout, sometimes pulled into other areas of the business and developing new skills. I’ve learnt how to create webpages in Sharepoint for our intranet and I created and researched content for webpages where staff could source information not only on Covid-19 but on construction industry-related health and safety guidance. This led me to reinvigorate our existing travel webpages, bringing them alive with visual images and making them look and feel more engaging. For the critical travel that was still required – mainly consisting of site visits and surveys – I became a spreadsheet wizard and created and maintained an onsite safety visit tracker. It was essential that those travellers were aware of the ever-changing Covid safety measures required by themselves, the Government, travel suppliers and clients, as well as having necessary documentation such as permission-to-travel letters.

We still don’t know 100% when travel will return to its pre-Covid levels but we know it will. Although technology is amazing, and we can see and talk to a client anywhere in the world at the drop of a hat, the need for face-to-face interaction, I believe, will still be prevalent going forward. Face-to-face meetings are key in observing body language and for eye contact.

It is interesting how our priorities have changed. We are no longer blind-sighted simply by cost. Now traveller safety, wellbeing and sustainability are key elements. There are lots of positives to come from Covid. We have introduced a ‘Travel, No Travel’ questionnaire to encourage our staff to look at their travel habits and consider other options. It is designed to challenge the way they view travel, not just for carbon but for their own personal wellbeing. Do you really need to fly, or drive for four hours and back to attend a meeting? What are the virtual options? A year and a half ago, it was a usual occurrence for our employees to fly from Bristol to our offices in Edinburgh and back in a day. That would usually mean leaving your house by taxi around 5am and returning around 7pm and then being back in the Bath office the next morning first thing. Not only is that draining physically and mentally, but it would use around 260kg of CO2.

We will monitor our employees’ time spent in the air going forward to ensure they have adequate recovery time between trips. We are cleaning up our global travel policy to ensure it is simpler to understand and easier to navigate. The objective is for staff to locate and search the policy in a minimum of clicks. We have introduced an internal ‘Traveller Toolkit’ website, designed to equip travellers with more comprehensive advice on what to expect when travelling in the future and to direct them to designated government websites for up-to-date information. Informing our travellers about what to expect on their journeys in the future will be essential.

My brain had turned to mush, I appeared to know nothing about the travel market

Following the relaxation of lockdown restrictions, our UK offices reopened in April 2021. Careful consideration has been given to ensure appropriate Covid safety measures are in place and a clear and concise induction document is required to be completed by each person prior to their visit. Air quality sensors have been installed in all studio spaces and meeting rooms. We no longer have dedicated desks. Instead there is an online booking solution and we have been issued with individual lockers to store our office essentials.  Our personal belongings were boxed up and it has been a great opportunity for a clear out. My ever-expanding under-desk shoe collection is a relic of the past!

As a company, Buro Happold has been forward-thinking in setting up focus groups, encouraging the use of in-house ‘smart technology’ to collaborate in new ideas, intended to create an office environment that enhances productivity and wellbeing, as we move towards adopting a new hybrid model of working. I have been going into the office around once a week, mainly to preserve my sanity and to have the joy of seeing other grown-ups in person. On these occasions the office has usually had only around a quarter of pre-Covid staff levels. I’m sure this number will increase in time but it was made clear to us that there is no pressure from our leadership for anyone to attend the office if they do not feel comfortable, something I think many found reassuring.

“Our personal belongings were boxed up and it has been a great opportunity for a clear out. My ever-expanding under-desk shoe collection is a relic of the past!”

My role within the business is also changing. One thing the pandemic has made clear is that I need to unite with my global counterparts more intently. We have all gone through the same series of events and to ensure we come out of it in a positive and constructive manner, we need to continue to share our experiences and learn from them. I need to sharpen my strategic tools and ensure my travel roadmap to recovery matches the strategy and goals of the business.

We may still be waiting for government guidelines to provide further clarity on travel restriction but personally the future is very exciting. This is my opportunity to rewrite and reimagine how our staff travel going forward. People now want to travel: it is no longer just a need. Everything’s still a bit woolly but I know my objective for 2021 is to develop a global travel programme that works for every region, that is aligned with our carbon targets, ensures traveller safety and is efficient in cost. I can’t wait!

Leyla Tugwell is Senior UK Travel & Events Manager at Buro Happold, which provides engineering consultancy, design, planning, project management, and consulting services for buildings, infrastructure, and the environment.