March 3, 2024

The big dilemma

Unlocking the strategic value of in-person meetings is key to managing responsible business travel, says industry expert Scott Gillespie

“How should we meet?” This simple question is at the root of several complex issues. The answer affects morale, teamwork, culture and trust. Writ large, it shapes recruiting, retention, creativity, innovation and sustainability.

tClara’s latest white paper ‘How We Meet Matters’ reveals a perplexing dilemma for US business leaders. 79% of those surveyed say they want their companies to travel as much as or significantly more than their nearest competitors. Yet 77% admit they can’t tell if their companies are travelling too much or too little, other than by looking at the travel budget. I suspect this dilemma persists across the UK and Europe too.

In effect, these business leaders are admitting that they have no practical way to measure the benefits of a business trip. This is a big problem for all those who wish to see the business travel industry make a long-term rebound.

“While many in the travel industry are pulling for a recovery of travel to pre-pandemic levels, many others are not”

Without useful metrics tied to the value created by business trips, CEOs and CFOs will rightfully challenge the costs of travelling in light of the cost, carbon, time and health advantages offered by meeting virtually.

While many in the travel industry are pulling for a recovery of travel to pre-pandemic levels, many others are not. Stakeholders such as heads of sustainability, security, risk management, talent retention, and even a fair share of C-suite executives, see significant advantages from constraining business travel. They are unsurprisingly promoting a “less travel may be better” view – one that is hard to challenge without better metrics for gauging the value of meeting in person.

Yet managers at all levels of an organisation recognise there are real and significant benefits from meeting in person. The question is how to frame the costs and benefits of virtual and in-person meetings in a way that helps meeting hosts to make better decisions, and persuades senior executives to use travel resources more strategically, more responsibly, and with greater sustainability.

The answer lies in a new goal-based approach to managing business travel. Firstly, you need to explicitly tie each business trip to the one strategic goal that the trip’s purpose most clearly supports. Simply ask the traveller to identify the trip’s strategic goal before the trip is taken. None of this “external versus internal” crap, mind you. Think “win revenue” or “build trust and teamwork” or “improve our workforce”.

Then ask the traveller before the trip to define one criterion by which the success of the trip should be judged. Something like “learn three practical approaches to overcoming price-based objections”. Let the traveller craft their own criterion. This becomes part of the pre-trip justification record. They must know the trip’s criterion will be visible to their manager and others in their chain of command.

Finally, a few weeks after the trip is done, show the traveller the criterion they gave and ask for a simple rating. “On a scale of one to 10, how successful has this trip proven to be?” Insecure travellers might puff up their answers, but provided they realise these are on record and visible to senior executives, one can expect travellers to answer with a reasonable degree of honesty.

“You need to explicitly tie each business trip to the one strategic goal that the trip’s purpose most clearly supports”

Now imagine the aggregated results of this approach over a quarter or two. Senior management will see the travel resources consumed for each strategically important goal, along with each goal’s trip success rates. This is not an attempt to calculate the ROI on travel. This is an easy and practical path toward revealing why a company travels and how effective those trips appear to be.

And to those who fear asking their travellers to spend time on these three simple tasks, you will be relieved to know senior management strongly supports such a request. tClara’s research shows 92% of US-based C-suite leaders say their frequent travellers should spend a few minutes justifying their trips before they travel.

Surely UK- and European-based executives would be at least this supportive of ensuring travel is used for the right reasons.

Scott Gillespie is Founder and CEO of tClara and is an expert on travel management, procurement, analytics and traveller friction. tClara’s white paper ‘How We Meet Matters’ can be downloaded from its  website,