Covid-19 presents challenges and opportunities, says Abby Penston, chief executive of the Focus Travel Partnership

I thought I had seen every potential threat to the long-term viability of the industry, and then Covid-19 happened.

Talking to Focus partners, suppliers and consultants I have questioned whether we will bounce back to the ‘old normal’ or will the business travel sector look completely different?

It’s no secret that the pandemic has accelerated technology trends, but the security concerns are providing unusual opportunities.

In some ways, closing everything down was a simple process, but re-opening economies and companies is proving more complex and recovery will be slower than first anticipated.

Revenues and volumes have disappeared and restarting business travel means re-igniting confidence.

As corporates begin to decide how and when they send travellers back on the road, safety has become top, front and centre of considerations.

Many corporates, where travel is part of business, have worked on the assumption that everyone wanted to travel. It was an enjoyable part of the job and corporate processes were installed to provide justifications and budget caps.

Now, with heightened risks, many businesses are wary of sending their valuable assets on the road and individuals are nervous about travelling.

Visiting restaurants and bars could now provide risk. With social distancing, cabin crew wearing what amount to hazmat suits, heightened hygiene processes and additional checks at airports, travel doesn’t look quite so appealing.

As a result, we have seen decisions about travelling elevated to the C-suite. Who, for example, will take responsibility to approve travel for someone who may not be fit to travel?

Approval processes have tightened up; CEOs and CFOs are looking to take ownership of travel policies and asking for more detailed reports from travel management company (TMC) partners, questioning who and why their teams are travelling.

It is anticipated travel policies will change and, in the meantime, organisations are starting to look at temporary travel/Covid-19 policies in preparation for a return of travel.

We have also heard of some larger organisations turning booking tools off on staff systems to force teams to get the right advice and not go online and just book something without speaking to a reservation agent or consultant.

Opportunities to move away from transactional model

All these developments provide opportunities to move away from a commoditised, transactional model to an appreciation of value for money and service delivery and to different payment models – perhaps even to subscription models.

The pandemic and the risks of a second wave underpin why it is so important to use a TMC.

It’s not just about the booking process and reducing cost. TMCs provide value by ensuring travellers are taken care of and offer solutions to get the workforce back on the road while keeping them safe.

Good TMCs have always provided this value-added service, and now they are working even more closely with suppliers both through close, established relationships and through artificial intelligence and innovative technology to ensure they offer clients right-time information and intelligence about how they keep their teams safe.

TMCs, working with their clients, can design processes to reassure them travellers will have a safe, secure, seamless, comfortable and efficient travel experience.

With added service, there is a potential impact on price, but partners are alert to their price-sensitive market, especially with the wider economic outlook seemingly so bleak.

They have also been heartened by corporates taking a serious look at travel risk management programmes with travellers at the centre of those plans.

Who will be travelling?

When it comes to who will be travelling and when, the consensus is that volumes in the short and medium-term will be reduced and international travel will focus on essential travel for activity that can’t be done remotely.

Airlines are focusing on stimulating trust and confidence too.

They acknowledge the importance of working with their TMC partners to ensure travellers get the service they require as they fundamentally believe that more routine travel is going to fade and the new business-travel customer profile will change along with a different set of customer service requirements.

For example, those undertaking essential travel will include travellers undertaking due diligence tasks or site inspections – oil workers, engineers and charity workers.

Meetings and events will take place online in the short-term and slowly return. However, business travellers meeting with suppliers and customers are increasingly using face-to-face technology platforms.

All our partners have been in constant touch with clients over the course of the lockdown and we have found the more mature companies say they will encourage travel while SMEs are looking more closely at safety protocols.

Business travellers who fly will choose airlines and routes that provide accountable safety measures.

Airlines like Singapore Airlines are putting in huge efforts to ensure hygiene levels are at the highest levels. They tell us they are seeing business travellers choose premium cabins which provide good levels of social distancing.

Much has been said about how recovery in the leisure sector will start with domestic travel and business travel is following the same route, which will mean TMCs taking more rail bookings.

Focus Travel Partnership has a great Covid-19 hub on its extranet continually updated with the fast-changing information and data on rail.

Booking portals and client feedback

Online booking tools, such as those offered by TMC technology platform ATRIIS, are giving information at every point of the booking process, and whether bookings are made online or through email or phone, they can all be booked through the same tool.

The tighter policy restrictions and change in culture will mean there will be fewer bookings going outside agreed protocols. Before Covid, leakage had been up to 40% in some countries.

Conversely, under new Covid-19 safety rules, every part of a trip will be subject to approval as part of the travel policy. This should benefit all as customers will know where to go for safe bookings and TMCs be reassured by less leakage.

If travel is funnelled through a portal, including ancillaries, then TMCs need to ensure they are the portal.

TMCs also need to ensure travellers receive information flows on all ancillaries which could include food as well as transfer services.

As content aggregators, TMCs need to provide all the right information and all the required steps for post-Covid travel.

Technology and AI can help with productivity and speed and new platforms are providing warning systems in real-time for bookings, which can be refreshed just before travel. This can speed up agents’ productivity, although experienced TMCs will always manually check details.

Reliable information will be key. With the introduction of new distribution technology (NDC), there will also be better functionality to give updated status reports on flights with rich media and information provision.

I have been heartened to hear of the amazing feedback from clients of Focus Travel partners during the pandemic, thanking them for their know-how and the money saved because of their efforts.

The TMCs’ business proposition has always been ‘Making sense of a complex travel world’. Right now clients need this even more.

The pandemic has changed the landscape, I won’t say it is for the better, but there are opportunities for TMCs which are nimble and fleet of foot.

Brands that can illicit trust will be more valued and customers will make choices based on trust.

Abby Penston is chief executive of the Focus Travel Partnership