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Submitted by:  Jill Koronkiewicz

I was fortunate to facilitate a couple of small group discussions with corporate travel buyers from the US, Canada and Europe earlier this month.  The participants were from a variety of industries and ranged in experience from 10 years to over 30!  Though their program sizes and the current status of their company travel varied, there were certainly a number of common themes as we explored how to retain (or reintroduce) strategy into their roles considering less resources and potentially more responsibilities.

What are you doing now?.... is a question many corporate travel managers have heard in the past year.   Because it’s such a specialized role, there is a perception that with little to no travel, there isn’t anything for you to do.  Negotiations, RFP’s and vendor relationships are an ongoing necessity and will provide continuity when travel is ready to resume at a larger scale, yet often even within the travel managers own department (Procurement, Human Resources, etc) they feel silo’d, and excluded from efforts where their skills could lend value.  While we may see travel managers questioning their desire to continue in this role, it’s important to remember we are in an unusual situation.  As one participant said, “Even though I’m still employed, I feel displaced”.  What the future holds is anybody’s guess, but it could be a lot of new and exciting opportunities!

Since the start of the pandemic the day-to-day has shifted.  The general focus has become more aligned with finding and filling gaps and creating efficiencies during a time where travel volume is lower, with projects involving corporate cards, payment and expense processes and policy reviews.   Others have been able to take advantage of this time to review agreements, implement new technology or even change their online booking tool.  The lower volume makes for a much easier environment to implement, test and revise.  Travelers and executive leadership alike are more receptive to give and receive information, and it was interesting to see that those who had little to no travel made more progress in these areas.  Those with more travel due to the essential nature of their business may take a bit longer, but they all seem to be moving in a common direction and using this time to attack the wish list.

Information is now more relevant, and like it or not – the pandemic has put it into perspective.  Participants shared stories of increased compliance from those who had been strongly averse to booking through the preferred channels, with a new understanding and appreciation for the benefits.  From simply validating your booked hotel is still operating, to securing a refund for that non-refundable ticket purchased a year ago – there seems to be a new appreciation for the process and perhaps even a greater tolerance for change.

Now is the time: In the words of Winston Churchill (and repeated by a participant), “Never let a good crisis go to waste”.  Corporate travel buyers aren’t just finding new avenues of communication, they’re finding new ways to show their value!  Here are some of the takeaways from these groups on how to do just that:

  • Promote yourself!  Share your transferrable skills to support others within your department/company – where can you assist with other procurement needs, project management or communication?

  • Initiate reporting:  Sometimes we don’t know what we need – don’t wait to be asked for booking reports, risk updates or implications of new restrictions on your business

  • Insert travel into the company pandemic task force

  • Highlight areas the company could work on, as well as expressing interest in learning or helping in other areas

  • Show the cost savings already achieved – there are outsourced components of the program that adjust based on the travel volume (such as booking fees)

  • Learn new skills that you may have historically had other resources to perform (i.e., data analysis, excel, power point)

  • Parlay your experience into new opportunities such as universities or volunteering (shameless plug for TAMS!)

  • Partner with other departments (such as training) to develop safe travel programs around COVID and beyond!

What’s Next?  There are some questions about willingness to travel, and that will be as unique to each company as is a fingerprint.  It’s likely that a return to some office environment will come first, but even then, internal (office-to-office) travel will be far more limited than pre-pandemic.  It is likely the pre-approval process introduced at many companies will continue for some time in an effort to keep travel to essential needs.  Travel managers will be assessing the willingness and appetite for travel across their organizations, and continually enhancing plans to ensure the best possible duty of care for those who will be traveling. 

As events begin to resurface and hybrid options are considered, who will own it?  Nothing beats the in-person experience, but virtual event technologies are pretty impressive and will likely need to be explored.  Layer onto that the additional components for planning such as internet bandwidth at the host location, virtual audience engagement, how to replicate reading the vibe of the room – will a new type of position evolve?  Just like all of the other moving pieces of today, we’ll have to wait and see.

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