Companies Grapple with Policies, Procedures for Travel Return

Pre-trip approvals, vaccination requirements, permissive booking policies... what will stay and what will go as business travel returns to business as usual?

Travel managers have spent much of the past two years preparing for a day that, for many, finally appears to be here: the time when their offices reopen, their employees begin traveling again, and they can get back to a professional footing that echoes, if not equals, 2019. But even with two years of preparation, pushing past the Covid-19 pandemic can be an intricate process, particularly as internal and external rules and regulations change. 

Many companies are in the midst of revising travel policies to redefine who can travel and the circumstances under which they can do so, and they are addressing the procedures in their travel programs to help would-be travelers re-enter a travel ecosystem that might be different than what they remember. 

While the ways travel policies and procedures are changing vary by company size, industry and location, most are moving forward with a momentum companies—and their travel partners—haven’t seen during the two years, said Roger Hale, president and CEO of Birmingham, Ala.-based travel management company Adtrav.

“We’ve seen it just come barreling back,” Hale told BTN last month. “More and more of our customers, are saying, ‘OK, April 1, it’s pretty much open season.’ ”

In fact, many companies are beginning to lift the pre-trip requirements they implemented during the pandemic, said Will Tate, managing partner of travel management consultancy Goldspring Consulting, but still aren’t allowing a free-for-all of unlimited business travel.

“We saw huge numbers of people move into pre-trip approval requirements, and now you’re starting to see that dissipate,” Tate said. “I’d say half to three-quarters of our clients came into pre-trip, but now they’re letting it go back.”

Still, Tate noted a level of pre-trip scrutiny that differs from pre-pandemic levels. “It seems like there is a greater scrutiny on the [return on investment] of any particular given trip,” he said. “It seems as if buyers’ organizations are now saying, I know everyone went for whatever they went for, but now I think we do want to know a little bit more about what are we going to accomplish. Do we really need five people going to the conference or will three people do that?”

Mike Cameron, CEO of Salt Lake City-based travel management company Christopherson Business Travel, told BTN in an email that he suggested clients gear re-entry procedures toward the employees for whom business travel is most critical.

“We’re recommending that clients evaluate the types of travel their organization requires to determine what’s necessary and purposeful, and then begin with those travelers re-entering first,” according to Cameron. “This requires alignment among an organization’s stakeholders, as well as engaging and listening to the needs of their business travelers.”

Cameron also noted some employees aren’t yet comfortable with the notion of business travel, and companies should take that into consideration when implementing re-entry procedures.

Companies also likely will have to consider how to approach business travel for another group of employees: those who have not received the Covid-19 vaccine, or a full-course of it. Some companies during the pandemic banned such employees from business travel just as some banned them from onsite work premises.

“A lot of companies are requiring vaccinations,” according to Brandon Strauss, co-founder and partner of business travel consultancy KesselRun Corporate Travel Solutions. For some, “there’s an unwritten policy that says, you don’t have to come back, but you ought to. And if you come back, you have to be vaccinated.”

“We do have some companies that require their people to be vaccinated to travel, and we have others who do not. It’s typically the bigger companies that are requiring the vaccination,” Adtrav’s Hale said, who said the TMC could help companies deploy pre-trip approval systems that can deny travel for any reason, vaccine-related or otherwise. “We don’t know if they’re denying that travel because they’re not vaccinated or they’re just denying the travel,” he said.

“We have entire consulting engagements now that are geared specifically to Covid preparedness for global trips, which are usually multi-legged and more complex.”

KesselRun’s Brandon Strauss

Procedural Changes

Once those who are willing and permitted to travel are ready to do so, there remains a level of work in preparing employees for travel, especially if their itineraries are international. But even for domestic travels, there is a considerable level of detail that must be managed. 

“We’re finding that we need to do some retraining of the travelers,” Hale said. “These travelers haven’t traveled in a year or two. Getting them back on the online booking tool, a lot of their credit cards have expired … it’s getting all that taken care of.”

KesselRun’s Strauss noted that quickly changing entry procedures throughout the world have made sufficient pre-trip preparation for international travel a must, and cautioned that such preparation should be extensive and encompass more than the travel itself. 

“We have entire consulting engagements now that are geared specifically to Covid preparedness for global trips, which are usually multi-legged and more complex,” he said. “What do I need to do or do I need to know, even beyond vaccinations and quarantines, down to the street level: How are restaurants in this particular city? What do I do in terms of reservations? How often is the sky lounge open or closed based on staffing? It’s sort of soup to nuts.”

International travel also requires a level of duty of care by the organization, and Hale said many companies’ attention to the concept has increased as a result of the pandemic.

“There’s a renewed focus on duty of care,” he said. “Companies that didn’t have duty-of-care programs in place are implementing them, and those who have them in place are paying a little more attention to them. They want to know where folks are going, especially when they’re traveling internationally, and how they can get in touch with them.”

According to Christopherson’s Cameron, some of those changes to international risk management are being addressed through policy.

“The pandemic shined a light on the gaps many organizations have in their policies and how that affects their risk management,” Cameron said. “As people return to travel, we’re encouraging clients to review those policies and make sure they align with their new spend and risk management requirements. Rather than reinvent the wheel, some clients have simply added a one-page policy addendum to accomplish this.”

Some policies that govern travelers’ acceptable choices also are changing. While some companies are holding to pre-pandemic philosophies regarding travelers’ choices of supplier and class of service, others are allowing their employees more latitude in that selection for a few reasons, Strauss said.

“We’re starting to see some policies relax a little bit more, to be more generous to the traveler,” Strauss said. “I think a lot of that has to do with the perception of safety. Also, to have flexible travel policies and be able to do more in terms of what they want or giving them more options and more flexibility becomes a job perk.”

Hale suggested such flexibility, however, did not extend to travelers’ choice of booking channel. In fact, he said some clients were tightening policy language around that in an attempt to keep would-be travelers on their radar.

“We are seeing more of a focus on having travelers come through the program,” Hale said. “Some companies now are mandating that you come through the program. No more of this going outside. They want everything booked here because they need to know where you are.”

Flexibility might also not extend to the use of unused flight credits, Hale said. One of the major consequences of the early days of the pandemic were the extensive banks of flight credits gains through cancellation many companies developed, and Hale noted that companies must decide how these credits will be used and the level of leeway travelers will have in their use. 

“Some travelers push back,” Hale said. “It varies by company, but I think the most of them are taking a harder stance of, hey, we need to use this stuff up.”