CAPA Live: The role of travel managers is changing – as we enter an new era of travel they have a unique opportunity to elevate their role

18 May, 2021

The past 12 months or so have given many organisations a time to pause and evaluate their business activities. This time has certainly put the role of travel managers in the spotlight and highlighted the valuable role they play within organisations.

In general travel managers are the people responsible for all aspects of business travel. They help to make a company's corporate travel policy, create relationships and deals with travel agents, and organise travel expenses. Post-trip, a travel manager is in charge of analysing data and using it for budgeting and to streamline future travel. But, above all that they are the people that ensure all business travellers remain safe when we travel and are not exposed to risk.

Whether we are comfortable in returning to travel or remain a little uncertain, more than ever we are aware of that extra layer of safety ensuring future travel itineraries are not putting travellers or the organisations they work for at risk. This is especially the case as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to show no signs of slackening even with advancing vaccination programmes now active.

New research from American Express Global Business Travel highlights that research of Asia Pacific travel managers show that their roles are becoming more strategic as we continue to chart a course through the pandemic. According to Harris Manlutac, the global business consulting head for Asia Pacific at American Express Global Business Travel, this means we are entering an new era of travel where travel manager have a unique opportunity to elevate their role.

Speaking at the May-2021 edition of CAPA Live, he said: "I think this is where it gets really interesting, we are entering an new era of travel where travel manager have a unique opportunity to elevate their role, and demonstrate the connection between business travel and delivery of their company's objectives.

"Managed travel is now a more complex and rigorous process, with greater need for policy compliance, visibility and reporting," he added. This is supported by the fact that more than half respondents (58%) to its Asia Pacific travel manager survey saying business/senior management depend on them for advice on travel policy information - a further 23% say they are depended on for destination advice.

The survey, completed in partnership with CTC - Corporate Travel Community, found that almost three quarters (72%) of travel managers believed the role of travel managers will change as businesses now prepare to return to travel in 2021 and 2022. Within this total there was a fundamental focus on duty of care, while 29% said demonstrating value for investment was almost as important.

"Certainly this is what we have been hearing from our own GBT clients who tell us that their C-suites are asking more strategic questions about the new environment," explained Mr Manlutac.

The survey was launched to gain an understanding on how different issues were influencing business travel. "We went straight to the people at the centre of travel movements in Asia Pacific - travel managers. It was important to us to understand how they saw travel evolving, if and how their role would change, and what they were doing about it," said Mr Manlutac.

High level more than half respondents (52%) identified meeting duty of care obligations as their top priority over the past 12 months. And over a third of travel managers knew they had to act on this to adapt for changing business needs. This was also a key priority over the past 12 months. This is not surprising news in the travel community given the current environment, but interestingly it still remains the top priority for travel managers looking further out to the future, between the next 12-24 months.

Mr Manlutac acknowledged that it is important to point out that the pandemic has really only "accelerated existing trends" which tie into duty of care including: traveller wellbeing, digital adoption and expectations of a seamless digital experience. "The role of the travel manager is clearly becoming a lot more strategic," he added.

As travel resumes, the focus of travel managers will likely slowly shift back more towards travel policy compliance. "During the past year, because of sudden flight cancellation and significant reduction of flight frequency, corporates' approach towards out of policy was more flexible and pragmatic. But as business travel, increases comparatively speaking in terms of percentage, you would expect travel policy compliance rises," explained Mr Manlutac.

The environment still remains highly complex though. "2021 is seeing the travel industry in start-up mode," explained Asia Pacific consulting head. In various countries, the industry is moving from an almost standing start to sudden and rapid growth in demand for travel. "This is a fast-moving environment, within which will be a great deal of complexity," said Mr Manlutac.

Already we are seeing dynamic and varied changes to travel restrictions, COVID testing and entry requirements, duty-of-care imperatives. All of this has to be managed carefully and it is certainly something that all parts of the travel management ecosystem have been preparing for. The Amex GBT survey indicates that travel managers believe that travel policy compliance (50%) will be the biggest challenge in the next 12 to 24 months.

But while duty of care and policy compliance will be more in the spotlight than ever, so will value. "When bottom lines are being scrutinised, it's more important to view your company travel budget as an investment - so you are looking for optimal return on that investment, " said Mr Manlutac.

Almost thirds of travel managers (61%) revealed in the survey that they will be issuing RFPs for travel in 2021 for a mix of airline, hotel, ground transport, TMCs, OBT. "Travel buyers need new sourcing and contracting strategies in a world where you can't rely on traditional forecasts of volumes and prices," according to Mr Manlutac. This could mean we are approaching a defining moment for TMCs who along travel managers are now uniquely positioned to create trust and build confidence in this new era.

You can learn more insights from the American Express Global Business Travel and CTC - Corporate Travel Community survey in this recording of the CAPA Live discussions between Harris Manlutac and CTC - Corporate Travel Community, executive director, Benson Tang.

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