< PrevNext > The Path Back to Business Travel The Covid-19 pandemic halted the vast majority of business travel globally for more than a year. Here's how three crack-shot travel managers are getting their companies back on the road. By Elizabeth West / June 18, 2021 / Contact Reporter Share Randstad director of travel transformation Yvonne Moya, ITM board member and outgoing Willis Towers Watson global travel director Emma Jones and Takeda global head of travel Michelle De Costa spoke with BTN editorial director Elizabeth West about how they are handling the return to travel for their respective companies, their accomplishments during the Covid-19-induced travel hiatus and how the pandemic has given travel managers more scope than ever to pursue strategic opportunities within their organizations. The discussion offers context for travel buyers looking to build programs for the first time in a post-pandemic environment and for those looking to use this moment to optimize programs they already have in place. BTN: Have you traveled for business since the pandemic hit?Michelle De Costa, Takeda global head of travel, United States Yvonne Moya, Randstad Director of Travel Transformation, The Netherlands Emma Jones, ITM board member & Willis Towers Watson outgoing global travel director, United Kingdom Michelle De Costa: I have not, but I'm looking forward to it. I did take the airline "clean tours" they had been offering. As a matter of just being in the airport and seeing the work they are doing, it's been fantastic. I visited one of our hotel partners … to understand what they are doing for meetings and events and the return to travel. So I haven't physically been out on the road yet, but I'm really excited and I feel safe being able to do so. Yvonne Moya: The last time I traveled was to the Business Travel Show in 2020. That was my last business trip. BTN: Culturally, how has your company regarded business travel? What have volumes been like in the past year?De Costa: Takeda travel is down about 80 percent overall, using 2019 as a baseline. 2019 was a busy travel year for us. That's a baseline, but an elevated baseline, so our return to travel will be an interesting number for us and one we are trying to figure out.Emma Jones: If you think back to 2020, for us China was impacted first, and from Q2 for the rest of world. We've had an essential-only travel policy in place since then. Some markets are opening up now, and we've seen China domestically come back, with Australia, New Zealand and some U.S. domestic as well. Last year we were down over 75 percent compared to 2019. We were down further in the first quarter of 2021 because the first quarter last year was quite buoyant through March. I think we'll be looking to see travel progress further in the second half of the year.BTN: Yvonne, your program is new, and you were new at Randstad right before the pandemic. Moya: I'd been helping Randstad before as their management consultant. … They asked if I wanted to join the company permanently, and the task was to build something up from scratch. I love that. There were local programs but nothing consolidated from a global perspective. The program [annual volume was] in the three-digit-million area. Right now, there's not a lot of travel. We're down about 80 percent. The U.S. is our biggest travel market right now, but we're seeing a little bit of activity in Asia and domestically in the U.K. and Germany.BTN: As you position your companies to scale up travel, how have you equipped your travelers? Are policies allowing essential travel only, or can employees decide to travel?De Costa: In travel, you get into this role where people are looking to you for guidance. The idea of the decision tree is one we borrowed from a counterpart in the pharmaceutical industry, and we worked on making it much easier for travelers to get through it. At first, there were two [aspects to the decision]: Is Takeda OK with you traveling? You may think it's essential, but does Takeda? Who makes that call? It's not the travel team, and it's probably not the traveler. The other most important piece: Even if everyone thinks you should travel, can you get in and can you get home? Like a lot of companies, our security team spent a lot of time trying to get people home when everything shut down. We want to make sure that before you go, you can get home. And even when we had everything lined up, it became really difficult, like a traveler spending six hours in Japan trying to clear customs. [Because we had some people traveling], we were able to give [prospective travelers] stories of people who were really sure, and they had a lot of trouble getting back. The travel team wants to put all the tools in someone's hands to make an informed decision. We can't be the ones to say you can go or you shouldn't go.Moya: [We want to] really think about when people need to travel. We want people to go to client meetings; [you need to travel in person] if you are signing a multimillion-dollar deal. If you need to see your team, you just go. We are all grown-ups, and we can make this decision. But we now need to think about [whether we can] do this as well from home. This is where our return-to-travel policy goes—it's around the "should I stay or should I go" element. We want to empower our people to take these decisions. Our board [of directors] says that we've shown we can do it differently. We have saved the environment, we have saved money, and we have supported employee well-being. So they are doing it for the right reasons. I would not have loved to hear that we cut travel by 90 percent. The board was clear in what they wanted, and it was fair, and that's how we built our return to travel policy. BTN: Did you put a framework around that or just describe it in guidance? Moya: We have put a one-pager together—something like a decision tree. It's a little workflow where you say, OK, these are the buckets of travel that we see. You need to see your team … or is it client-related, or something you have to do to sign a contract or a legal obligation? We have worked on those buckets, and we have put the "should I stay or should I go" element out there. If the answer is yes, then here's the policy and the tools. And if not, we have a fantastic suite of videoconferencing tools.BTN: Emma, the framework at Willis Towers Watson seems similar to Randstad. You and Yvonne each have a touchpoint with Festive Road, which created the Purposeful Travel framework. Jones: [Willis Towers Watson] has a really strong stakeholder network within our business and socialization to stakeholders has been a large part of what we do. That has really helped to set the foundations of discussions on the future of travel. This is not talking about the logistics and operations of the return to travel, albeit that is critically important. We've used a working group to start looking into the value of face-to-face interactions and determining groups of interactions that the business feels absolutely warrants face-to-face and in-person meetings versus those that could be done virtually using technology.BTN: Where has that discussion netted out?Jones: On the back of what Festive Road did, they have three areas: customer, people and organizational. But we've taken it to four: external engagement, collaboration, learning and development, and culture and community. Those wouldn't necessarily be the words I would have utilized, but those were the words that resonated with the business. We were very conscious that this had to resonate with the business so they understand the parameters in which they are looking at the future of travel. … There also will be things that sit under those four areas. It will be very clear the framework under which they should operate, and it should be clear when they should be traveling—with the value of face-to-face interaction—and when they shouldn't. We give individuals thought lists and checklists around what they should consider. We are quite far down that path now. The next steps will really be to pull that together in a cohesive communication that will go out to the business. BTN: Michelle, you were looking at potentially implementing a tool to automate similar decision-making. What is that?De Costa: We've talked to [tClara founder and consultant] Scott Gillespie, who is doing some really great stuff. We saw a prototype of his [trip-justification] tool. What I really love about it is that you answer a series of questions, and there are algorithms behind the scenes that evaluate and say, "Hey, this sounds like a pretty important trip, and you should take it." That gives you something tangible to go to your manager with. Can you game the system? Probably. If you didn't want to take a trip, you could probably slide the levers here or there. But it's pretty solid. We heard from travelers who enjoy not being on the road all the time, but we also heard from travelers [for whom not traveling] has dramatically changed their ability to do their jobs. So a tool that supports whether you should or shouldn't travel, or one that gives you food for thought like sustainability or wellness, could be helpful. We've talked about virtual and whether that belongs in a policy. Probably not, but in a guideline? Maybe. BTN: Let's talk about travelers. Are they ready to go? Do you see pent-up demand, or a more gradual ramp-up?Jones: We don't know what demand will look like and how quickly it will come back. We don't think it will be a big bang. We instigated a welcome-home survey during the pandemic to survey the travelers still going out there. It wasn't a big number, but we wanted to have a survey and highlight three things: First, any points of friction related to suppliers so we could feed that back to suppliers around the traveler experience before we saw travel at any real volume. Second, traveler sentiment to gauge comfort on a scale of one to five, and so far everyone has been a four or five. And third, how productive the trip was. That goes back to thinking long-term about the purpose of the trip and has informed those processes. De Costa: For the most part, people are pretty excited to get back on the road. It's been challenging to do the work we do—meeting with patients and doctors. Face-to-face is such a big part of what we do. The expectation is that we would ramp up gradually. We've been doing some forecasting with our business units trying to understand [volume expectations].BTN: Given all the hits the industry has taken over the past year, are your travel partners and suppliers ready? How are you helping to ensure they are?De Costa: As we ramp up, we want to make sure our partners ramp up. With BCD Travel, our travel management company, we need to make sure they have agents back on staff and ready to go. [We need] preferred hotels to have staff back in place; same with car rental and airlines. It’s a big production. We've gotten good forecasting from our business units. We are looking to gradually ramp up in the June-July timeframe, based on where people can travel. We'll see more domestic than international. And in China it's been business as usual for a while.Jones: We are very conscious and sensitive to the fact that a lot of our suppliers have gone through a difficult 12 months. A lot have had to furlough staff and make changes to operations. It's very important to us that our suppliers are our partners, and when there are changes in our business, we share those directly through quarterly business reviews or monthly updates. They are all reaching out to find out—as I'm sure they are with my peers—when we expect travel to resume. That's such a difficult question, and I know why they are asking it because they want to manage demand and give the best customer experience they can. I know that's going to be difficult. So I've socialized in our business that there may be some bumps in the road while [our partners] try to balance demand and supply. It's really down to communication and making sure we are sharing as much information with our suppliers as we can, and vice versa, to drive the best experience for travelers. BTN: Yvonne, you have been negotiating and trying to establish partnerships and a new program during this time. What were those conversations like and where did you end up?Moya: It was a very frank and open conversation. Everybody has the same issue and situation, and nobody has the crystal ball. So we had to be really open with our partners. We don't know where it's going, when or if we bounce back, and to which level. We want to work with you, we want to work in partnership. What can we do? We gave 2019 data. With great respect to all the partners, no one said, "We are quoting you on this. We want this today." It was really [about having] the transparency to say, "We want to do something and create a new program. Are you with us?" That was a very good starting point.