March 7, 2021

United front

In its fight to secure a travel restart, the industry has joined forces like never before, says Bev Fearis

It was a tweet of 41 words and three emojis but it spoke volumes about the Government’s complete lack of understanding of the industry’s plight. It was posted by the Transport Secretary on the eve of the ABTA Convention in October, where he was due to address a virtual audience of frustrated and increasingly angry travel professionals.

With apparent disregard for the challenges they are currently facing, Grant Shapps chose the moment to tell his social media followers about progress in space travel, boasting how the Government had taken “another step towards space launches from British soil”. The travel sector was stunned by the insensitivity.

“I simply cannot believe you authorised your PR team to put out this tweet,” said Clive Wratten, CEO of the Business Travel Association, who was one of many to post a response. “The travel industry has been ignored by you and this Government, breaking the hearts and spirits of so many great people and you talk about insurance for space travel,” he said.

Ever since Covid quarantines and travel restrictions took hold, the BTA, IATA, HBAA, other industry associations, consortia, airlines, and everyone else affected have been working tirelessly to lobby those in power to find ways to allow travel to resume and, in turn, secure the future of the industry. Even arch rivals have put their quarrels aside. “While we have our differences, we’re all united in our desire to see the economic recovery of this great nation move very rapidly,” said Virgin Atlantic CEO Shai Weiss. “We’re working across the infrastructure to form a coalition that’s willing to explore what’s necessary for this industry to take off.”

It’s not been an easy task, says Julia Lo Bue-Said, CEO Advantage Travel Partnership, who summed it up nicely: ‘It seems as though this government is hell-bent on keeping the industry on the naughty step, with a complete lack of comprehension on how the industry can survive this crisis.”

The trouble is, says Wratten, the Government still doesn’t recognise the essential nature of business travel for the economic wellbeing of the country.

“They don’t seem to compute that with every export and import, with every manufactured good, there is an element of business travel attached to it,” he said.

“There are many civil servants who absolutely do get it. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office understands the issues from a broader travel perspective, while the Department for Transport really does get business travel and has been asking for data which demonstrates the importance of our industry to the wider economy. The Department for Industry and Trade understands it too, but the challenge is getting the message across to the Chancellor and the Treasury and to Number 10.”

In many areas, the corporate travel sector has joined forces to lobby with the wider travel industry, but one of the challenges has been to make the decision-makers understand the differences between leisure and business travel.

This was one of the BTA’s main objectives even before the pandemic.

“We want to be recognised as a separate discipline,” says Wratten. “But the Government doesn’t seem to fully understand the complexity of what TMCs do, the investment they make in technology.

“We don’t simply book flights. What we do is so much more intricate and far-reaching.”

Indeed, the figures speak for themselves: the leisure and inbound sector is worth over £60bn to the UK but business travel contributes nearly four times that much.

It’s been a long, hard slog but Wratten believes progress is being made. There is now an All Party Parliamentary Group set up to help fight the sector’s corner and – better late than never – the Government has finally formed a Global Travel Taskforce to look at quarantine alternatives.

“There are some encouraging signs,” says Scott Davies, CEO of the Institute of Travel Management. “It will be many small steps that lead to a shift in the Government’s understanding. Sadly, right now it’s still two steps forward and one step back.”

Part of the problem, he believes, is the devolved nature of the Government. “It’s the same as we’ve seen with the health service. It’s so fractured, you have to attack on so many fronts.”

The other issue, says American Express GBT Chief Commercial Officer Drew Crawley, is that the industry’s lobbying has been fragmented. “If you’ve got different delegations going with different messages, no-one is going to make any progress,” he said. “Luckily the business travel industry has now got itself in order and TMCs, airlines, associations are all attacking this with one single voice and with one agenda, making it easier for the Government to listen. It means the Government can’t be confused and the energy and effort of the civil servants can go towards one thing.”

Early lobbying, led by Heathrow, had called for testing on arrival but the consensus now is that tests on departure are the best option. At a meeting in early October, Amex GBT met with airlines, airports and others and agreed that the safest solution is a rapid test, paid for by the traveller, 48 hours before departure and another at the point of departure (see page 29).

The mission now is to persuade authorities on both sides of the Atlantic to establish a travel corridor on the key London-New York route for a small and closely monitored trial using travellers who have booked with a TMC. Amex GBT has been providing data to support the need for ‘Project NyLon’ and, encouragingly, a letter outlining the proposals did actually reach the Prime Minister in person.

Some progress is reportedly being made on both sides of the Atlantic, but it’s slower here. The UK Government is instead favouring the introduction of a home test designed to potentially reduce the 14-day quarantine to around five days. But this, says Crawley, is not a viable solution for business trips, which are mostly only two to three days anyway. He believes departure testing is the only way to get the sector moving again “and the best way to help the sector is to let it help itself”.

Wratten agrees: “Testing has to be the way to get this industry back moving again and, in doing so, this will remove the need for direct financial help.”

While the whole sector is uniting to fight its corner, many travel managers and buyers have found themselves in a similar position within their own companies. An ITM survey of 144 buyers in early September found nearly half feel more under pressure to justify their roles in the pandemic.

The role of a travel manager has been shifting since March, from reviewing supplier deals and policies to handling repatriations to establishing emergency travel approvals.

“It’s now time to pivot and prove,” says Davies, referring to a session at the recent ITM Thrive Conference. “A travel manager now has to force their way into conversations with stakeholders, to confidently insert themselves into the decision making, align themselves with security teams, and the facilities team looking after the return to the office.”

Anyone on LinkedIn will know there have already been casualties in the sector, from redundancies to early retirements.

“When companies are challenged they slash budgets, and one of the most tempting to slash is travel, but forward-thinking organisations with a certain culture will know that it’s vital for their employees to come together and for them to fully connect with customers,” says Davies.

The ITM is allowing those who have been displaced to retain their membership. “We know that those looking for roles want to stay in touch so we’re trying our best to keep the communication going.”

If there is one positive outcome of the pandemic, it’s that it has brought the business travel community together in ways never seen before.

ITM’s webinar and training programme has been adapted accordingly and its monthly buyer huddles are more popular than ever. The BTA has launched an initiative, BTA Cares, to support those who have lost their jobs, with discounted training subsidised by Avis. Consultants at Festive Road have developed a free Permissible Travel Framework to help buyers prepare for a restart, while social enterprise Women in Travel has been offering free training and mentoring. Petitions and campaigns have been shared and supported on social media and travel professionals have rallied to lobby their local MPs.

“There are no hidden agendas, no sense of competition,” says Davies. “Our industry will recover. We all want to find a way through this and a key part of our role is to keep giving people hope, to keep things positive.”