June 23, 2021

To the rescue

Amid all the new complexities, could TMCs be the ones to help travel buyers find their way? Gill Upton investigates

No-one could have imagined the situation the business travel industry finds itself in right now. Travel managers feel organisations are not fully ready to deal with the pandemic, to manage the constantly-evolving needs and expectations of travelling employees, to deal with the mountains of cancelled reservations, processing refunds and, moreover, determine whether it’s safe to travel.

These are the findings of a survey by SAP Concur which neatly sums up buyers’ current nightmares. Conversely, they represent a massive opportunity for travel management companies to be the one vital conduit of intelligence and, in turn, give TMCs a potential new source of revenue.

TMCs’ initial response revolved around repatriation, but the needs of corporate travellers are changing constantly as the world attempts to return to normal.

Countries have been acting separately to protect their citizens, which is throwing up anomalies in quarantine rules, for example. Getting through airports and waiting for baggage sanitising and/or temperature checks will make a nonsense of minimum connection times.

Understanding these disparate and fluid rules falls neatly to TMCs. “The positives are that the situation has heightened the need for professional management services,” says Kevin Harrison, MD of Good Travel Management. “We’re seen as experts and businesses are coming to us asking if they can travel to various places. Online bookings have dropped off considerably as they want to speak to us.”

Many TMCs don’t have enough staff and are not in a cash positive position to bring them off furlough and build something at point of sale. Clive Wratten, CEO of the BTA, is cognisant that the speed of return is difficult to work out.

“The ramp-up has got to be really carefully managed,” he says. “The biggest issue is that travel remains grounded, and that’s what keeps the industry awake at night.”

Buyers’ key concern is traveller safety, followed by the advice on the best way to travel. Pop-up Covid-19 travel policies will need to be created and communicated pronto, pre-approval processes tightened up and so on. All of the above is why a TMC’s account management team will be critical to handle the inevitable flood of enquiries and collate all the intelligence.

“Corporate travel programmes have fundamentally changed in role and scope because of Covid-19, which in turn has changed a travel manager’s role from being one that focusses on cost and supply to one that focusses on reducing risk,” says Alex Kaluzny, SVP and Chief Product & Technology Officer at Egencia.

“The TMCs that recognise this shift and help their customers navigate this change will come out of this pandemic stronger.”

Now is the time for TMCs to articulate their status as category expert, either as white glove-style TMCs with the traveller every step of the way or digitally-advanced TMCs prompting the traveller via apps. Either way, their response has varied widely.

Altour and Good Travel Management have both designed resource hubs online, BCD provides notifications of entry restrictions through its TripSource traveller platform, Egencia has launched a 30-day ‘look back’ capability and extended security approval capabilities, while most TMCs have created a Covid-19 map to track the hotspots.

American Express GBT recently launched an information hub called Travel Vitals. “It allows users to search travel guidelines by destination, airline, airport, hotel, rail or ground transport operator,” explains Jason Geall, Vice President Northern Europe. It displays travel restrictions for specific locations and identifies Covid-19 hot spots, based on data aggregated from hundreds of sources and updated daily.

“For GBT clients, itinerary-specific Travel Vitals information is delivered in digital channels including mobile app, chat and OBTs, as well as via our travel counsellors. This is helping to instil confidence in travellers and their organisations,” he says.

Reed & Mackay has delivered numerous product enhancements, including a pre-travel risk assessment that is configurable to clients’ needs and completed at the point of booking, a global tracking map specific to Covid-19, information to advise clients at point of sale on the precautions and measures each of the airlines are taking when it comes to Covid-19, and info on whether a property has been accredited with the AHLA Safe Stay standard.

“We’ve also been building on our current unused ticket feature, particularly for the U.S. market, to help our clients keep cash in their businesses where it’s possible,” says Julie Oliver, Global MD – Solutions & Operations, at Reed & Mackay.

Caroline Strachan, Managing Partner at Festive Road, believes not one TMC is doing all that they need to be doing. “It’s not just a map with quarantine rules but a range of services, including an enhanced policy tool to accommodate the new rules,” she explains. “The players that are digitised and have a foundation in place to update quickly were the first out the door.”

TripActions has built new features and functionality for the recovery phase, explains Chris Vik, SVP EMEA. These include an enhanced Covid-19 report, deeper policy controls and customisation, real-time data for travellers, automated unused tickets and waivers within the booking flow, a business travel recovery app to assess the safety of planned travel and webinars to log best practice for travel managers.

TMCs are also allocating additional staff to handle the more complex checks required pre trip. “Our travel consultants have been more consultative than they’ve ever been,” says Harrison at Good Travel Management.

“The journey is not the biggest concern,” adds Wratten. “It’s the actual destination that’s the issue.”

Much of the help and advice has been offered free, which is not sustainable. With income decimated, furloughs ending in November and no big buckets of supplier funds to compensate them, TMCs will need to revise their funding model. “There’s great value attached to what they’re doing and smart buyers are open to a discussion on professional services fees,” says Strachan.

Good Travel Management anticipates a retainer fee for the professional advice and lower transaction fees, while Reed & Mackay’s Oliver says some clients want to look at ways to charge for services. “We’re working with them on that,” she says. “It’s not about charging more, it’s about looking at how the client need has changed.”

Egencia is testing alternative pricing models such as tiered packaging, bundling and a fixed flat management fee, while BCD Travel is pushing up transaction fees “slightly” to reflect longer call times.

The BTA is using the crisis to look at what the TMC commercial model could look like in the future. “It comes down to what people are prepared to pay for,“ says Wratten.

Strachan believes the crisis may trigger a wave of RFPs. “The capability requirement of the TMC has changed,” she says. “Who you contracted with two years ago may be a very different TMC to the one you need now.”