Four Trends Poised to Transform Business Travel in 2021
As a worldwide vaccination program gathers pace, businesses across the world are starting to plan for a return to travel in 2021. Although it is challenging to predict how the next 12 months will play out, there are clear trends emerging in the wake of COVID-19.
Some were brought on by the pandemic, some were accelerated by it and others were suppressed in 2020 but will re-emerge once stability is restored.
For C-suites and travel managers looking to build a robust return to travel program, acknowledging and adapting to these trends will be an essential part of building traveler confidence and reintroducing in-person meetings.
1. Unmanaged travel will be "managed out"
The mass chaos and confusion caused by COVID-19 has strengthened the travel manager’s resolve to significantly reduce, if not prohibit, unmanaged travel altogether.
If travelers book flights and hotels directly via third-party sites, then they do not have access to the company’s alerts and advisories on health and hygiene at their destination or to technology that enables their employer to quickly account for and contact them in the event of a crisis.
It is perhaps unsurprising that a recent snap poll conducted in the Egencia Connect Community, a place for travel managers to share insights and best practices, revealed that where companies do not mandate the use of a TMC or travel booking tool, travel managers believe there is now more executive support for doing so.
2. Travel managers will become trusted CEO advisors
How and when employees return to travel is a CEO priority in 2021, providing a unique opportunity for travel managers to act as their trusted advisor. A September 2020 survey of Egencia customers uncovered that 54% of travel managers now have "more engagement with executive leadership" – a jump of 50% as compared to pre-COVID.
In the next few quarters, CEOs will continue to lean heavily on travel managers for guidance on how to rebuild the confidence of their traveling workforce safely and responsibly. This is an opportunity for travel professionals to grow their influence within their organization, as well as educate senior management on the strategies, policies and tools needed to thrive in a new normal.
3. Travel programs will pivot from price to employee experience
Business travel programs have historically focused on controlling costs, but in 2021 there will be a major shift towards traveler wellbeing and duty of care. The chaotic scenes at airports in February as the virus started to spread has reminded senior executives of the weight of responsibility on their shoulders to protect their traveling workforce. It has also knocked the confidence of travelers who will need more empathetic policies and hands-on support to return to travel.
Travel managers will respond by relaxing certain policies such as allowing employees to take a cab from the airport rather than public transport. They will also increase their investment in technologies that support their employees while on the road and enable them to dynamically respond to an ever-changing landscape of restrictions and regulations. These include alerts and advisories integrated directly into the booking path, traveler tracking tools and AI-powered virtual assistants.
4. Virtual cards and AI-driven policy will surge in popularity
The year 2020 should have been the breakthrough year for virtual cards with a series of major industry players bringing out offers. Expect to see their popularity surge in 2021 as organizations look to protect travel program spend and reduce fraud, as well as alleviate the financial burden on employees who might be in debt or struggling financially in the wake of the pandemic.
Similarly, AI-driven policy will emerge as a way to make travel programs smarter. For example, dynamic hotel rate caps that leverage data science to determine the maximum price a traveler should pay for a room at any specific time were starting to gain a foothold before the pandemic struck. These caps will grow in popularity in 2021 as companies look to drive down costs without the effort required to negotiate a preferential rate directly with a supplier.
Dwight Eisenhower once said, “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” While 2020 has taught us that it is impossible to predict the future, it is important for the industry to anticipate the trends that will shape the sector once "business as usual" starts to resume.
The most successful organizations will put the traveler firmly at the center of their plans and seize the emerging opportunities that disruption usually creates.