April 23, 2024

First off the blocks

SMEs are generally way out in front when it comes to getting back to business travel, but there are still many hurdles to overcome

It’s no surprise that the more nimble SMEs, with their flat hierarchies and quick decision-making skills, are leading the charge back to business travel. Return-to-travel policies have been created, pre-trip approvals tightened up and third-party providers engaged to share the latest on quarantine rules, certificates, vaccination centres, new testing requirements, safety protocols and the like. 

James Mcilvenna, Corporate Traveller Head of Account Management, neatly sums up the sentiment: “SMEs are done with the pandemic. They’re all hyper-focussed on growth and getting back to normality.”

The situation is particularly acute for those companies who acquired other firms during lockdown and haven’t been able to meet any of their new employees or colleagues. In contrast, the larger PLCs are slowed by their structure, believes Douglas O’Neill, Managing Director of Inntel. 

“Our larger corporates (generally plc level) have very strict internal governance that is restricting travel and meeting enquiries being placed. Overcoming this internal governance or the changing of it does not happen very quickly.” 

Maggie Monteith, Client Services Director – Corporate at VENTUR, believes the large PLCs have another reason to be slower off the mark. “Some larger, blue-chip companies may hold out a little longer as they’ll have the financial luxury to do so,” she says. 

“SMEs are done with the pandemic. They’re all hyper-focussed on growth and getting back to normality”

Wyndham Hotels, however, has witnessed a mix of demand for hotel stays from both SMEs and large corporates, “which is a good sign of economic recovery momentum,” says Julie White, VP Commercial, EMEA. 

Leading the way by sector are the IT, creative industries, media, entertainment, sport, training, HR and consultancy companies, while critical oil, gas and energy workers had no need to dust off their suitcases as they continued to operate throughout the pandemic.

The early push was domestic travel and the end of quarantine for fully-vaccinated journeys between amber-list countries announced in early July gave a fillip to international travel. The EU vaccine passport kickstarted frantic intra-European travel and the UK has now reached agreements so foreign vaccination records can be recognised. 

A corporate travel ban is still in place at Inchcape Shipping services, a global maritime services company with offices in 68 countries. Simon Potter, Group Procurement & QHSSE Officer, says the ban won’t be lifted until the passport vaccination scheme takes off. “Clear guidance from government would make my life easier and an international vaccination scheme recognised by all the major nations,” he says. It is the vagaries of different countries’ restrictions he finds the most challenging. His costs have also increased, not only for PCR testing but from higher hotel rates and the need for more hotel stays.

All companies are keen to fill their business pipeline, while British companies must find new markets for their goods in a post-Brexit world. They have overcome huge challenges to get back on the road, exemplified by SME corporate Samantha Matthews, Admin Manager/Engineer Supervisor at LBBC Technologies. 

“To start with it was understanding the travel rules, reference isolation periods, what and how many PCR tests are required, what supporting paperwork is required to get our engineers safely through the borders and what PPE equipment is required,” she says. “We also have to make sure our customers have their Covid measures in place in preparation for a visit and sometimes we have to educate them if they’re unsure. Essential workers letters are required from every customer for overseas work, so there is a lot of prep work involved.“ 

To add to the strain, government websites are sometimes not very clear and offer conflicting information, she says, causing a lot of confusion for both LBBC and its TMC, Good Travel Management. 

Helping hand

Corporates are relying heavily on their TMCs to ensure clients are prepared and their travellers kept safe. Sourcing and understanding the current guidelines is a minefield because of the uncertainty. 

“As long as there is confusion and disparity between governments globally we’ll be needed,” says Corporate Traveller’s Mcilvenna.

“TMCs have performed miracles to survive on meagre volumes and will need support and understanding to regain their strength and service levels”

Much of the groundwork was undertaken during lockdown. TMCs helped travel managers update travel policies, with stronger pre-trip approvals, shared links to official sites and communicated a clear process flow from approval to journey end.

“Robust travel policies are a must,” adds Emma Louise Forrestall, Head of Service Delivery at VENTUR. “We are considering things such as accommodation requirements in a Covid world, the process for booking travel to amber or red-listed countries, and ensuring bookers leave flexibility in their plans should things needs to change. 

“We can provide quotes and route suggestions, which then change in less than 24 hours, so we need to be on top of the current recommendations around entry requirements and tests, always.”

Starting bookings much earlier than usual is key, largely to satisfy the ever-changing testing requirements. TMCs are generally outsourcing this service to third party providers but corporates are footing the bill.

LBBC Technologies’s Matthews says: “We are taking the hit. There are lots of extra costs, in the hundreds for each engineer for each visit. There is much more prep work for engineers planning a trip, to make sure they have the tests done within the required travel windows.” 

LBBC has a big US customer base and has had to apply for visa entry for each trip, not only a long process but not always successful. “This has had a big impact on our scheduling and planning work. We have a massive backlog due to all the postponed visits. The list goes on….” says Matthews. 

Travel managers, bookers and PAs are also having to balance a return to travel with ESG (environmental, social and governance) agendas to reduce unnecessary travel. Bill Gates’ gloomy prediction that 50% of business travel will disappear permanently hangs over the industry and many corporates are grabbing this once-in-a-lifetime moment to use their zero emissions status as a new sustainability baseline.

Sense of purpose

All corporates are deciding what travel is really critical. Blue Cube Travel, for example, ran a series of client webinars earlier this year to re-set expectations and challenge the purpose of travel. Corporates are also asking TMCs to cajole reluctant travellers. “We’ve been helping to restore traveller confidence as they’re reticent over their safety,” says Blue Cube’s Managing Director Bex Deadman.

“What Covid has done is allowed travellers to spend time with their families and they’ve bought into working from home so they don’t want to travel as much,” she says. Blue Cube has also been helping clients to change the office environment, adding Deliveroo services, pop-up cafes and the like. “Some clients want to make their office a destination,” she says. 

Inchcape is moving offices in London, triggering such a re-think, explains Potter. “There was quite a lot of uproar when we first sent staff home and I think we will probably experience a reluctance to come back but it’s the commuting before the travelling that is the challenge,” he says. He hopes new offices with a more open-plan workspace, no fixed offices, more Zoom booths and a social area will entice them.

“Starting bookings much earlier is key, largely to satisfy the ever-changing testing requirements”

Blue Cube Travel books the flights to manage the crew rotations and Potter and his 30-strong team manage the journey between the airport and vessel. “It certainly hasn’t got easier,” he says. But the logistical nightmare that is now corporate travel has an unlikely silver lining. 

Kevin Harrison, Managing Director of Good Travel Management, points to a closer engagement between TMCs and clients. “Our Account Managers and Relationship Managers have been able to step up further in their consultancy offering and this is now starting to translate into an improving trading environment,” he says.

The right balance

While the value proposition of a TMC has been perfectly demonstrated over the last 15 months, questions remain whether they can handle the surge in demand as travel resumes. TMCs have empty coffers and many staff are still on furlough, so tough decisions have to be made on when and how many staff to bring back to meet demand.

“The hardest time for TMCs is coming,” reckons Clive Wratten, CEO of the BTA. “There is a lot of work going on to get the balance right; it will be tricky,” he says. He cites urgent training issues of TMC staff who have been out of the business for 15 months and others who have lost confidence. “It’s going to be a long climb out,” he says. 

But Douglas O’Neill, Managing Director of Inntel, believes TMCs should be primed and ready to take on business. “We have all had enough time to think about it and to train our teams to be ready for it! – so there can be no excuses. Furlough etc is no excuse.” 

ATPI has brought all ops staff back, despite not having sufficient demand, and will bring a further 25-30 staff back in September. “We’ve had to invest in bringing more staff back as we can’t manage on the same staffing levels so it’s an investment decision for the longer term,” says Adam Knights, ATPI Regional MD Europe & Middle East. “We’ve budgeted for travel not to come back to 2019 levels but bookings are taking six to 10 times as long. It’s very, very difficult to make a booking. We say, ‘Bear with us’.” 

ITM’s CEO Scott Davies agrees: “TMCs have performed miracles to survive on meagre volumes and will need support and understanding to regain their strength and service levels.”

What is taking the time is the more labour intensive, white glove, offline service. “People are avoiding booking online,” says Wratten. “Bookings are so complex that service will certainly be high-touch to start with.” 

“The average booking took 2.5 minutes before and now it takes an hour,” says Blue Cube’s Deadman. That is labour-intensive and the company is busy recruiting, having made 50% of its staff redundant. 

“I’d rather the headache of a smaller TMC who can scale up,” says Barry Fleming, Head of Marketing at Blue Cube. “There is a pool of incredible talent out there without jobs.” Some TMCs are starting to charge for calls; others are looking at costs as a short-term pain. 

“To recover quickly, the temptation would be to hike fees and I can see that appeal but our model is not a high-volume, sausage factory,” says Fleming. The company offers a pay-as-you-go/transaction model and a subscription model. 

Good Travel Management’s Harrison says business models need to change. “We are seeing that travel managers and PAs are far more reliant on their TMC and are looking for guidance in aspects far deeper than it had been pre-Covid. That creates an opportunity to look at consulting and financial models that truly reflect what customers need and places a value on the expertise we provide.”