International business travel fell by 78.4 per cent in 2020, according to the GlobalData Tourism Demands and Flows Database, and a further fall of 7.9 per cent last year dashed the hopes of experts who predicted some recovery in 2021.
According to the June 2022 Business Travel Recovery Poll by the Global Business Travel Association, most global travel managers report their companies are allowing domestic and international employee travel, and travel suppliers continue to cite increased travel bookings from their corporate customers. Conference attendance is also stronger than in 2019 as an overall share of business travel budgets, the report indicates.
Covid as a quantifiable travel risk
“As Covid-19 becomes more manageable in many regions, companies and employees are getting back to travelling for business,” says Suzanne Neufang, Chief Executive Officer, Global Business Travel Association. “There are high levels of optimism and willingness to travel for business, even as the industry faces challenges beyond Covid-19 including rising fuel prices, inflation, supply chain disruption and the war in Ukraine.” Those factors could slow the recovery of business travel, she cautions.
According to a recent report from Cvent, a London-based meetings, events, travel and hospitality technology provider, 75 per cent of European corporate travel managers expect business travel to rebound to higher than 2019 levels. One in three expects business travel to grow ‘significantly’, the Cvent Travel Managers Report: European Edition found.
A report by Deloitte Insights (Reshaping the landscape: Corporate travel in 2022 and beyond), though, suggests that corporate travel spending remains below 50 per cent of pre-pandemic levels and notes that business travel ‘faces a more complex prognosis than leisure travel’. Recovery to 2019 levels is probably at least two years away, the report says, although corporate travel spending is expected to grow steadily, reaching 55 per cent of 2019 levels by the end of 2022. However, the report notes, travel managers have reduced their expectations for recovery.
“Only 17 per cent expect a full recovery by the end of 2022, versus more than half of the respondents to the 2021 survey,” say the authors.
The recovery of business travel is underway
Against this background, travel and health insurance voices seem to be among the cautious optimists: “We expect that business travel will not fully recover to pre-2019 levels until 2023 or 2024,” says Richard Aquino, Vice President, Head of Sales for Allianz Partners USA.
There is broad agreement from other voices from the insurance and assistance sector.
“International travel is currently increasing at an average of 15 per cent per month while the volume of international business trips is at 44 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, according to International SOS research,” says Dr Rodrigo Rodriguez-Fernandez, International SOS Global Health Advisor.
“The situation remains very fluid across different regions, but we are slowly seeing those that travel for work beginning to resume business trips to remote sites, clients, and locations both domestic and international.”
preparedness remains a critical factor for ensuring business resilience
International business travel is likely to take longer to rebound than domestic travel, according to International SOS’s 2022 Risk Outlook Survey, Dr Rodriguez-Fernandez says, due to the complexity of government regulations, mandatory quarantines, and the high risk of fast-changing infection levels and subsequent policies.
“Rapidly changing travel restrictions and testing requirements mean that crossing borders has become increasingly complex,” he adds. “With better risk management and employee assistance platforms, we forecast that the growth in travel will continue, especially on the business front.”
A major lesson learned from the beginning of the pandemic is that preparedness remains a critical factor for ensuring business resilience. As employee health becomes a greater focus for organisations, understanding the impact of business travel on a company and its employees has become critical. “Ensuring safety for business travellers begins even before travelling and having a comprehensive business travel risk management programme is now more crucial than ever,” concluded Dr Rodriguez-Fernandez.
Travel risk management and risk assessment changes
Meanwhile, the pandemic has presented the corporate travel sector and its insurance partners with a significant reality check. “Prior to the pandemic, safety was not on the top of anyone’s travel list. Today, companies and travellers have to consider Covid protocols and how those fit with their methods of transportation and lodging,” Aquino told ITIJ.
Furthermore, the pandemic has spurred companies to provide more appropriate travel and health cover for their staff: “We are seeing a growth in policy sales to business travellers and companies are asking more information about our products,” Aquino confirmed. “One lesson many companies have learned is to know the US Centers for Disease Control guidelines and the guidelines and regulations at your destination. We are hearing that business travellers are now required to seek approval for travel, use their company’s travel adviser to ensure all safety measures are being met, and that staff are educated on travel requirements at the destination.”
Tools such as pre-travel health screening and safety briefings are also becoming routine: “Travellers are relying on travel apps and websites as well as the knowledge provided by travel advisors. Travel safety will be on top of everyone’s mind for the foreseeable future,” said Aquino. “Business travellers need many of the same resources that leisure travellers need, such as 24-hour travel assistance and a mobile app that provides destination specific resources.”
Employers have also become more aware of the need for services such as 24/7 travel assistance and a dedicated medical team and are seeking them out, Aquino concludes.
Travel and security risk managers need to be proactive in understanding travel risks
To help the resumption of safe business travel, organisations need to assess the business traveller’s health and risk exposure and must be prepared to assist travelling employees with Covid-19 arrangements before, during and post travel, including Covid-19 testing requirements, vaccination information, and quarantine restrictions.
Another lesson is the importance of collaboration. “Travel and security risk managers need to be proactive in understanding travel risks,” Dr Rodriguez-Fernandez said. Travel risk assessments must also be communicated and understood by all levels of organisations and periodically reviewed and updated. New standards addressing travel risk management, such as ISO:31030, provide a structured approach to the development, implementation, evaluation and review of a travel risk management policy, as well as an assessment of travel risks and the whole-travel-lifecycle support that organisations should provide to their employees.
Dr Rodriguez-Fernandez continued: “Organisations must ensure they go beyond a reactive mindset by providing proactive information and analysis to employees. They should ensure that they have the backing of an external provider to deliver pre-travel support and digital tools as well as on-the-ground medical and security assistance for travelling employees under any circumstances, including medical advice, hospitalisation or even evacuation.
Business travellers not only face increased physical health risks due to Covid-19. The pandemic has also brought mental health and emotional struggles to the forefront of the employee wellbeing agenda. “Resuming safe business travel will require a strong focus on employee wellbeing,” believes Dr Rodriguez-Fernandez. “Companies need to provide emotional and mental health wellbeing support including any travel-related anxieties to ensure their employees’ emotional needs are addressed by dedicated experts.”
Evolution of corporate and personal responsibility
The scope for the travel manager role has also expanded beyond providing compliant travel management partner choices, budgeting sufficiently, justifying travel, and assessing destination risk. Today, their responsibility includes satisfactory pandemic protocols, implementing duty of care provisions, navigating government regulations, and assessing employee willingness and ability to travel. And on top of all of that, employee wellbeing, mental resilience, sustainability, and mobility must now also be considered.
Digital tools are essential for adherence to policies, optimum preparation of trips and to simplify a company’s processes
“As organisations look for ways to protect employees and ensuring a safe and sustainable return to travel, implementing travel-related app and technology, including geolocation tracking tools, have become part of organisations’ robust travel risk management programme,” said Dr Rodriguez-Fernandez. “Tracking solutions are useful when travel managers need broad and immediate visibility into travellers’ locations in case employees need to be notified, communicated with, or relocated. This ensures that employees receive critical support should an unexpected event or emergency occur. Finding the right balance between protecting employees’ privacy and ensuring they have essential protection are key to successfully embedding and enabling this technology.”
Digital tools are essential for adherence to policies, optimum preparation of trips and to simplify a company’s processes. “Knowing where your mobile workforce is, where they are travelling to and where your business intends to grow into is all part of the broader process of navigating the enduring complexity of business travel,” added Dr Rodriguez-Fernandez.
“The pandemic fundamentally changed the priorities, values and behaviour of travellers – whether by necessity or choice, for both business and leisure travellers. For both, the emphasis is now on travelling as safely and healthily as possible. Those now travelling again for work expect more from their employer.”
Business travel planning requires more due diligence and processes than individuals going on leisure travels, to ensure that the right measures have been considered for a safe and seamless journey and to meet the needs of both the travelling employee and the company.
Duty of Care focus is on the employer
Organisations need to ensure that their employees are educated about potential risks, both specific to themselves and their destination and in general, Dr Rodriguez-Fernandez says, and it is important for employers to have a conversation with their travelling workforce about the level of risk they are willing to accept: “Employers should also ensure that they leverage third-party expertise to help with the more complex aspects of travel risk management, and that both the organisation and the individual have all the up-to-the-minute information and support they need,” he adds.
Travel has undoubtedly become more complicated and more support is required than ever. Many assistance and insurance companies have seen an increase in the need for assistance beyond pre-pandemic levels, as Covid-19 has reinforced the need for effective travel risk management solutions more than ever.
“As the expansion of duty of care obligations for employers has accelerated because of the pandemic, many are asking for more bespoke, proactive information and assistance solutions to not only fulfil their duty of care requirements, but to safeguard their people and reduce insurance claims. Having access to trusted sources and verified information is now more important than ever,” Dr Rodriguez Fernandez added.
Teleconsultation, too, has become a necessity for many, and counselling services through digital platforms have become a core need for mobile populations. “Insurance and assistance providers are expanding and creating highly customised insurance policies and solutions to keep pace with the growing demands for more and better workforce safety and health protection,” Dr Rodriguez-Fernandez concluded.
It will take time for business travel to return to normal (if it ever does). But insurance and assistance providers have learned valuable lessons, and will likely emerge with greater resilience and a portfolio of innovative solutions for business travel clients.