Business travel is now more personalised than ever with a shift in power to travellers, but compliance rather than cost savings will be key

17 September, 2021

We are now witnessing "the most personalisation of travel I've ever seen," remarked Hansini Sharma, corporate travel practice lead at Acquis Consulting Group during a podcast conversation about post-pandemic travel programmes with Danny Smout, principal solution consultant at SAP Concur.

As business travel becomes safe again, organisations are increasingly in the short-term empowering their employees with greater autonomy to use their best judgement and comfort levels to determine when, where, and how to meet with clients and team members. With businesses giving employees the power to decide whether they need to travel for business, this has "translated a lot into the way people are booking travel and how they're choosing their carriers and their suppliers," noted Mr Sharma.

This ensures that the traveller is "really comfortable and confident in the way that they're conducting their professional lives", which is in turn "paving the way for a much broader conversation about how we continue to build managed travel programme by offering people the option to make the decisions that they feel are best for them at the time," according to the corporate travel practice lead.

It is generally agreed that right now we have the opportunity to build back a better industry, removing pain points and adopting new practices, and, of course, building a sustainable model that safeguards the environment. “Sometimes some of the smallest edits lead to the broadest strokes of impact. This is one of those times where we have an incredible amount of opportunity to do that,” agreed Mr Sharma.

Personalisation will support this initiative, but it is not a new point, as Mr Sharma highlighted in the podcast discussion. In the pre-pandemic world he noted that personalisation was the “hottest” word. “Any conference I went to, so many webinars were talking about personalisation and travel, and I think that was important then, and it's more important now.”

While personalisation will be a key component of travel programmes there will remain that big dilemma over companies’ individual commitments to travel. Having saved significant travel costs while restrictions have been in place, a big questions remains over whether they will be open to allowing employees more freedom in travel decision-making.

“I think there's this general desire to go back, to go back to the office and to get back on the road. Because generally, there's no true replacement for face-to-face interaction,” said Mr Sharma.

“No one knows the answer. I think we can agree on the extreme, like no one should be forced to travel, but maybe for the most part, we don't need to have super strict mandates in place that no travel and no access to the office is allowed. But finding that middle ground of like pushing people towards, getting back out there, re-integrating into professional society, industry events,” he added.

It is a “tough balance” in the mind of Mr Sharma, but he believes that generally people want that to happen. “I think we're seeking some sense of normalcy and something that reminds us of a world pre-March 2020. Everyone wants to do the right thing. And the right thing in this situation is a big grey box,” he explained.

What the post-pandemic recovery will deliver though is a “new-found appreciation for business travel,” according to Mr Sharma, and an industry that is a “lot more strategic” with the way they spend their travel budget. “I think what I'm seeing with travel managers and hearing around the industry is that people are being a lot more mindful and strategic about how they're leveraging their partners,” he added.

There will also be an increase in trust between business partners and employers and employees in the future, believes Mr Sharma. He noted that in the past many programmes have failed or struggled because there's no trust between the company and the employee and operate under the assumption that the employee “is trying to screw them over, trying to make a quick buck, not expending things correctly”.

But that's not generally the case. “I think that's the exception, that's not the rule. I think a post COVID world will create more of a sentiment of trust because we now have this universally shared experience where we were all exposed to the same risk factors and we're making decisions together,” he said. This, he noted, would open the door to the opportunity for people to be “a lot more strategic about how they're managing their programmes” in the future.

And while cost savings will be an obvious barrier, compliance will taken on more meaning, according to Mr Sharma. “At the end of the day, for a managed travel programme, you need compliance, forget cost savings. All of that is kind of secondary to actually getting people to follow the programme that you have put in place,” he said.

When you follow the programme, he noted, your duty of care is comprehensive; you're consolidating spend, which enables stronger negotiation tactics, which in turn will also lead to cost savings; you have great data and analytics; and you're able to provide comprehensive feedback to your travel manager to continue to iterate on it.

“I think that we're going to see more of that, hopefully, because I think people will start to realise the work that goes into building a programme and keeping you safe,” he added.