After a year at the helm of the Global Business Travel Association, CEO Suzanne Neufang this month spoke with BTN editorial director Elizabeth West to about the pace of business travel recovery, changes in travel managers’ responsibilities and the responsibilities the industry must shoulder as we step out of the pandemic and into the future.
Let’s get the crystal ball. what is the outlook for global business travel recovery?
Suzanne Neufang: We released our Business Travel Index [in November] in Orlando, which was pre-omicron. We’ve learned that while omicron delayed the return to office, companies that were traveling didn’t put their travelers back in the bunker. 2021 was about a 33 percent lift from 2020, which was slower than we expected because of the delta variant. For 2022, we expect another 38 percent to bring global business travel spend back to $1 trillion. In 2023, it will slow down a little bit, but on a bigger base, so probably 23 percent. And by the end of 2024, we should be back at that $1.41 trillion for global spend.
Forecasts and estimates can age out quickly in this environment. Do you see trends affecting those projections?
It’ll be interesting to see how gross domestic product and other economic indicators track with business travel growth. And, honestly, it will be interesting to see if we’re underestimating 2022 because of the pent-up demand, but there are lots of factors coming into play.
Can we expect the geographical volume mix to change significantly?
We see across all geographies domestic travel came back fastest and steadiest. Cross-border international has been slower to come back. In our February industry poll, 73 percent of respondents said that nonessential domestic business travel was allowed [at their organizations]. Only 48 percent allowed nonessential international travel. There are several countries with [restricted] borders where domestic continues to be strong: Australia, China and the U.S. are among those. We see a few places opening up. The EU has implemented protocols that spanned borders—so cross-regional travel in Europe was one of the first regional markets to open again with some confidence.
"Workers are thinking about their own business travel in new ways, and the travel manager’s job is becoming more complicated, with different origins and destinations but also with creating policies around this kind of blended travel that we haven’t necessarily seen so much of before."
What is GBTA advocating for in terms of open borders or reduced testing?
We see the U.K., Denmark, Canada, and some other countries stepping forward and not requiring that inbound test result for vaccinated travelers or maybe not even asking if you’re vaccinated anymore. That ‘international angst’ will go away [as more countries reduce entry requirements]. The last letter we sent to Washington, [D.C.] was to ease testing rules for vaccinated travelers coming back into the U.S. Business travelers even since last summer were highly vaccinated, and we’ve clarified the difference between business and leisure travel—and that is one of the most important advocacy messages we continue to have, whether it’s U.S. government or Canadian or British or the EU or beyond that to Latin America and Asia-Pacific. Business travelers are traveling with intent and, in all likelihood, they have corporate guidance on their side as well to make sure travelers are as protected as possible. The uncertainty of going to a place and not being able to come back again—that is one of the biggest suppressions for business travel.
The premium leisure traveler is now in the mix. will travel managers have to deal with more competition for traditional business capacity?
Premium leisure filled the gap [and] maybe that will be frustrating for premium business travelers when they come back and find there aren’t a lot of seats at the front if they were used to that. But pent-up demand for leisure travel that everybody needed to get to feed their soul will balance out with [what is now] equally pent-up business travel demand. Beyond that, though, there’s the idea of blended travel. We are now looking at business travelers who may be a little bit of a digital nomad, a little bit leisure, a little bit meetings and events—especially if we now view “return-to-base” travel [for remote workers] as a kind of event rather than a commute. Workers are thinking about their own business travel in new ways, and the travel manager’s job is becoming more complicated, with different origins and destinations but also with creating policies around this kind of blended travel that we haven’t necessarily seen so much of before.
How do you see travel managers dealing with these new combinations and complexities?
We see travel managers with a seat at a more strategic table, where they have more interaction with HR, with finance, with risk management, with sustainability teams … ultimately, with [understanding] their workflow as providing the supply chain of human talent, right?
Tell me more about that concept of human supply chain management.
Supply chain is so much in the news these days, but humans in business travel are [part of that story]. We’re the industry that best connects [people] to collaborate across borders, whether that’s employees to colleagues, corporate strategies to actual implementations or even connecting politicians for world peace. I think the last two years have really shown us how hard it is to maintain [organizational] culture, retention and customer excitement when all interaction is done virtually. When people are left in their silos—and I include government among these—sometimes things don’t work out to the best. Human-to-human interaction encompasses a lot, and it’s ultimately our responsibility to each other and to this industry to make sure … we are doing the best job with that.