You might say everything has been a challenge for travel managers since the beginning of the pandemic. They’ve coped with staff reductions (and may have been laid off or furloughed themselves), lost vendor contacts (but are simultaneously bombarded by vendor calls and emails touting their properties and discounts), and are taking more administrative and managerial approaches to travel management as they integrate with corporate stakeholders to examine and revise travel policies—all while preparing to resume traveling at a somewhat nebulous point in the future.
To help smooth your transition back into traveling, we reached out to several travel managers and asked what major pain points they face as they contemplate getting employees back on the road. Here’s what they said.
1. How do we overcome the fear of traveling?
In October, a Harvard study asserted that, as far as contracting the coronavirus is concerned, flying with proper precautions is less risky than a trip to the grocery store or your favorite restaurant. That assertion doesn’t reassure most business travelers, though, or their corporate travel stakeholders.
Domo’s Global Travel Manager, Denise Daniel, says that overcoming traveler and management concerns over potential risks to employees on the road is one of the biggest challenges currently facing travel managers.
And even when you have some road warriors who want to get back out there to visit clients and make sales calls, the pandemic makes other employees “reluctant to come in for an office visit,” said Gordon Cowley, Director of Travel, Operational Services, at CHG Healthcare.
For Rimini Street—and many other businesses—the decision to resume travel is tied to the global roll-out of vaccines, but it is challenging to track global vaccination progress. “We need a benchmark to evaluate our return to travel,” said Debbie Welder, Rimini Street’s Global Corporate Travel Manager. “Vaccinations aren’t proceeding smoothly, and there’s a lack of knowing how many people are vaccinated.”
Maureen Sullivan-Esola, Senior Travel Manager at NICE Systems, agrees that access to the vaccine, as well as better dissemination of information through the media, will help travel resume. “That’s the feedback I’m getting from our travelers, by the way.”
A recent Global Business Travel Association poll confirms the importance of the vaccine in the willingness of travelers to resume business travel.
As your stakeholders consider returning to travel in conjunction with vaccination roll-out, you can inform your decisions using the COVID-19 Vaccine Coverage Index, a tool many government decision-makers rely on, to track vaccination barriers and progress. With a U.S. level-of-concern map and county-specific search options, travel stakeholders can obtain information for specific areas (e.g., branch offices, client sites) or get a high-level view of progress by looking at how many residents in a particular state have received one and two doses of the vaccine in each state.
If your firm is encouraging, or even requiring, vaccinations before allowing travel, sharing vaccine availability with your travelers may help you meet your objective. The Center for Disease Control (CDC), Harvard Medical School, and other collaborators created the VaccineFinder site, which shows types of COVID-19 vaccines available, gives contact information for vaccination sites, notes their hours of operation, and provides instructions on how to obtain a vaccination. The site also allows selection of vaccine by brand and shows its availability using a zip code-centered radius.
2. How do we know our travelers’ destinations are safe?
Whether it’s a meeting at a client’s office, nearby hotel conference room, or other facility, face-to-face interactions require that travelers and travel managers prepare for whatever the traveler may experience at their destination.
“How do we determine what is being done at the other end when we send out our travelers?” said Welder.
Vendor policies and the health and safety measures vendors implement to prevent the spread of COVID-19 can be inconsistent across the globe. They can also vary between hotels in the same chain, which is another issue for travel managers and travelers.
As part of your vetting process, research recent reviews of individual properties where you’re considering sending travelers. Forbes and ReviewTrackers ranked Google and TripAdvisor as the top two hotel review sites.
Additionally, Christopherson offers the COVID-19 Travel Vendor Health and Safety Guide to inform the vendor vetting process as you compare protocols across brands. Use the guide to develop questions for individual hotel properties so you can ascertain which protocols are and are not being followed before adding the hotel to your preferred vendors or making reservations.
After you’ve vetted and selected your preferred hotels, let your travelers know what to ask on arrival and to look for signs that indicate cleaning protocols are being followed.
According to infectious disease expert Dr. Thomas Russo, travelers should:
- Look for hand sanitizer dispensers at entrances to the buildings.
- Ask for the hotel’s cleaning protocol.
- Verify that an EPA-registered disinfectant is being used.
- Request a room that has not been stayed in for a few days.
- Look for a cleanliness certificate at the front desk or in the room.
- Check the room for dust, including the heating vents.
After your traveler returns, ask for feedback about the property and its health and safety measures and adjust your preferred vendors as needed.
Cowley, whose medical staff has been traveling throughout the pandemic, says he only uses vendors that meet or exceed the CDC’s COVID-19 standards. “I get occasional feedback from travelers when there is an issue. We haven’t had to change any vendors, but we shifted our airline preference to Delta Air Lines when Alaska Airlines stopped blocking middle seats.”
As far as hotels are concerned, Cowley says they are really delivering on their cleaning promises, and Sullivan-Esola says the airlines are successfully conveying their protocols to customers.
“Fortunately, I think the airlines have done a great job in communicating to us, and the TMCs, with all of the actions that all of the vendors are taking to mitigate the fear and some of the tangible COVID issues,” said Sullivan-Esola. “So I think that’s been really helpful to us.”
3. How do we keep track of changing border restrictions?
Tracking fluctuating border closures and regulations across countries, states, counties, and vendors is an arduous task for travel managers.
According to GBTA’s poll, 56% of travel managers and stakeholders said border closures and restrictions “significantly impacted” business travel and increased confusion, contributing to the uncertainty of when business travel can resume, among other impacts.
“Many jurisdictions have their own health and safety protocols. For example, different Hawaiian islands have different protocols and restrictions,” said Welder. “There are even different county guidelines for meetings and events.”
To help travel managers and stakeholders keep tabs on border restrictions, Christopherson provides clients with access to a state and country entry restriction database on the COVID-19 Travel Information page of our website, includes a link to the database on every itinerary we send, and embeds the link in the online booking tool so your travelers can check border restrictions at time of booking.
Another good resource is from Global Rescue, who provides global travel risk and crisis management services and offers a free subscription to daily coronavirus alerts, which are sent directly to your inbox. The alerts include U.S. and international border restrictions, lockdowns, curfews, and stay-at-home orders, as well as testing and self-isolation regulations.
4. How do we track or verify mask mandates?
In January, President Biden signed the Executive Order on Promoting COVID-19 Safety in Domestic and International Travel, requiring masks to be worn at airports, on commercial aircraft, trains, public maritime vessels, intercity busses, and other public forms of transportation, thereby homogenizing unevenly applied restrictions throughout the United States.
However, as states lift mandates, and some counties continue to require them, keeping tabs on ever-changing regulations can be frustrating.
Fortunately, travel managers can track these changes through websites such as MultiState, AARP, and the National Academy for State Health Policy, who provide state-by-state face mask and other coronavirus-related requirements.
U.S. News & World Report also addresses state-by-state mask mandates in a recent article that provides links to regulations and additional state-specific COVID-19 information.
5. How do we handle airline tickets and credits that expire before travel resumes?
One of Daniel’s current challenges is “trying to use up expiring airline ticket credits that have vastly different rules by ticket, even on the same airline.”
Many travel managers are facing this dilemma, as unused tickets purchased before the pandemic creep nearer to their expiration dates.
“This year we had a ton of cancellations in February and March with COVID. We had intentions of going to New Zealand, so we’ve got UATP cards for Delta and United,” said J. Ross Salmon, Director of Administrative Services at Nu Skin Enterprises, “ . . . as well as AirBank credits.”
As Salmon mentioned, Christopherson’s AirBank tool is available to help travel managers track the life cycle of unused tickets, send automated alerts regarding ticket expiration, and ensure the use of these tickets when new flights are booked, regardless of whether they are booked online or with a travel advisor.
However, if your unused tickets approach expiration and your company hasn’t resumed traveling, your account manager wants to hear from you.
“If you find an unused ticket that doesn’t have an extended expiration date or is expiring, reach out to your account manager to see what options are available,” said Client Consultant Services Manager Dallas Stewart. “If you have a corporate agreement with the airline or a high-value ticket, we can try to get waivers for name changes or extend the ticket’s expiration date.”