Setting the Stage for Travel’s Return

A BTN Buyer Conversation

Travel managers throughout the United States, Europe and elsewhere are preparing for an increase in business travel after two pandemic-plagued years, as employees return to offices and Covid-19 travel restrictions begin to fall away. Two longtime travel managers, Priscilla Campbell, senior manager of global travel for Cambridge, Mass.-based technology firm Akamai Technologies and Sheila Kittle, director of global travel, for St. Petersburg, Fla.-based manufacturing company Jabil Inc., late last month spoke with BTN managing editor Chris Davis about their approaches to managing travel’s return, including developing cross-departmental processes and engaging with suppliers. Edited excerpts follow.

What is the state of play at your companies regarding the return to office and to travel?

Priscilla Campbell: We are definitely starting to see an uptick in travel, and it has been most notable in the second half of the first quarter. We didn’t have any additional restrictions put into place around travel, but our employees were being a little bit more cautious and selective about the trips that they were taking. Akamai is technically still in a travel restriction mode; it was due to expire on March 31. But in spite of that, we have seen travel start to pick up again, primarily driven by our customer-facing activity as well as some other critical components.

We have been returning to office in waves, since it may not seem practical in one country to open up and allow employees to come back, but it might in another country. Here in the United States and in our headquarters in particular, our offices are officially opening up. We can go in on a limited basis. There are still some capacity restrictions, and there will be a more full opening May 1.

Sheila Kittle: We are a large global manufacturing solutions company, and we are subject to the restrictions and protocols in all the various countries that we travel, but Jabil never stopped 100 percent. We had our manufacturing sites to support, [and] a lot of those pivoted to an emphasis on the healthcare industry, especially in China. 

The freeze at [the pandemic’s beginning] was business-critical travel only and approved at the VP level. It went to an SVP-level approval model approximately a year and a half ago, and that is where it is today. However, we are definitely seeing an increase in travel.

During the pandemic, did you bring in any additional tech to facilitate that sort of pre-trip approval process?

Campbell: Our culture has always been, even prior to the pandemic, kind of a pre-trip-approval type of a of a culture anyway, so we actually designed and developed our own internal pre-trip approval tool that fed in from our HR. So there was a lot of visibility into who was traveling.

Were there other changes you made to the travel program process to support the return to travel?

Campbell: I can’t say that there’s anything new in particular, but I think that there has been this heightened awareness between our teams that are responsible for employee duty of care, employee health and wellness, and that involves our risk management and security teams on one side and HR on the other side. We have been working much more collaboratively. We’re emerging from the pandemic with a new sense of appreciation for each other’s views. We’ve had really purposeful discussions around making sure that, if an employee is on the road who needs assistance, it’s one phone call—they don’t have to call three different places or have to wonder who to call.

Kittle: As Priscilla said and as we’ve heard from so many other travel managers, what did change was how closely we started working with employee health and safety and risk management. I report up to the chief supply chain and procurement officer, and our leadership and HR in the very beginning [of the pandemic] had daily phone calls to get information on what was happening at our sites, and that moved to weekly and bi-weekly meetings. That kind of collaboration, in my 35 years in travel, I have never seen anything like it, and I have been so impressed by the way Jabil has come together. I think a lot of travel managers have seen that elevation of our roles. It’s an interesting and a good trend for all of us in travel management to see happen. I fully expect it to continue through those bonds that have been created. 

“I think a lot of travel managers have seen that elevation of our roles. It’s an interesting and a good trend for all of us in travel management to see happen.”

Jabil’s Sheila Kittle

What about meetings? In terms of in-person vs. virtual vs. hybrid, have you had any new approaches?

Campbell: That has been a proceed-with-caution approach for us as well. We are looking at holding our first in-person meeting, and it is a smaller meeting, but it is global. So we have already seen the impact of how the pandemic is in a different state in different countries, so those employees were given the opportunity to opt out of attending because it was just too much of a hardship for them to travel and return back to their home countries. We are at this point proceeding with the meeting but all other meetings at this point are planned to be virtual. We’ll see if that changes as the year goes on, but for now, we are kind of keeping things virtual.

Kittle: We do not mandate any of the meeting policy. That is handled at a regional level. But everything was virtual in the beginning except for in-plant meetings that had to happen with the personnel that needed to be there. The procurement department that I’m part of had our first in-person meeting with our suppliers in November. But it is definitely proceed-with-caution, and we’ve all gotten so comfortable with the virtual environment. It’s not like it was two years ago. We definitely encourage everybody to embrace a virtual meeting whenever possible. 

How have your suppliers reacted so far in 2022, in terms of your discussions and negotiations with them?

Campbell: It’s been interesting to listen to suppliers’ perspective, where there’s definitely an eagerness for them to get back to travel for obvious reasons. And I have felt on many occasions it definitely wasn’t aligned with the reality of where we were at and how ready we were. We would like to see things go back to the way that it was before, of course, but it’s not going to happen before, from a company perspective, it’s safe to do so.

But our suppliers have been great, I have to say, from the flexibility they’ve extended to us, understanding that everything that was written into our contracts in 2019 simply doesn’t apply today. We can continue to extend those agreements, because we’re preserving the fundamentals and the foundations of those partnerships. But we know that at some point, we’re going to have to revisit them and look at where we are.

Kittle: Because we continued to travel throughout this pandemic and our chief supply chain and procurement officer was very concerned with making sure that we were supporting our suppliers—they were hit so hard—we took a little bit of a different approach. 

We engaged a consultant to talk about hotels and air and in 2021 we went with a full air [request for proposals]. It was based on the analysis that was done prior to test the market to say: “Would you look at 2019 rates and honor that volume, knowing we’re not going to be at 100 percent in 2022 or 2023, but we’re going to get there within the lifetime of a new contract?” We were wonderfully surprised how many carriers came back to us and said, “absolutely.”

We did the same thing with hotels. We were able to provide some of the room nights they were looking for, though certainly not pre-pandemic levels. We also had great working relationships with individual properties. We had to create more direct relationships as the chains pulled away from some of the direct negotiations.