Companies have sustainability goals in place, but only half have targets for business travel

11 October, 2023

New research of travel buyers and business travellers has highlighted the rising importance of environmental sustainability in business travel. However, while the majority of companies now have sustainability goals in place, only half have targets for sustainable business travel.

The survey from BCD Travel also highlights that while over half of travellers are willing to take fewer but longer business trips, or try new, more sustainable ways of traveling, only 30% are willing to pay more for travel to include carbon offsets or purchasing sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).

Despite importance of sustainable travel, companies lack sustainable travel goals

BCD Travel recently surveyed more than 100 travel buyers and almost 1,800 business travellers to gauge the importance of environmental sustainability in business travel. It found that while 82% of companies have sustainability goals in place, only 45% have targets for sustainable business travel. Furthermore, only 20% of business travellers are aware of their company’s sustainable travel goals.

Among the top three sustainability priorities, travel buyers named supporting general company sustainability goals, tracking and reporting travel sustainability, and reducing the environmental impact of business travel. Over two-thirds rated these priorities as ‘extremely important’ or ‘very important’. Meanwhile, offsetting carbon emissions and satisfying traveller interests were ranked the least important.

In addition to reduced environmental impact (88%), travel buyers see enhanced company reputation (65%), and talent recruitment and retention (46%) among the main benefits of adopting a sustainable travel programme.

However, the findings show more than half note the extra cost of sustainable travel options as their biggest pain point. Other challenges include traveller education, a lack of standard measurement approaches and definitions, and having the right tools, e.g., online booking tools supporting carbon budgets.

Sustainable focus doesn’t yet spread to suppliers

Interestingly, only one third of travel buyers require suppliers to have sustainability goals and commitments in place. A quarter looks for suppliers with similar sustainability values and environmental certifications. One sixth require availability of a carbon emissions calculator, science-based targets and other sustainability metrics. Although most buyers don’t mandate sustainability criteria, around half view them as “nice-to-have.”

While half of companies encourage sustainable travel, The BCD Travel research indicates that only a third promote sustainable options at the point of booking.

Reducing travel volumes and travelling by train instead of aeroplane are the top two options promoted by travel buyers. They often also promote taking direct flights instead of connecting flights, combining several trips in one, and limiting the number of employees on the same trip.

Additionally, travellers mentioned sharing ground transportation and choosing economy class over business class as frequent recommendations by their companies.

During a trip, the most popular traveller sustainability practices relate to hotel stays. Seven in 10 travellers avoid frequent towel changes, and six in 10 refrain from using daily housekeeping, according to the research.

Recycling, going paperless with travel documents, supporting local vendors or walking where possible are similarly popular. Some four in 10 also mention travelling with only hand luggage and bringing their own reusable water bottle.

Sustainable travel trends differ by region

key geographic differences in delivering sustainable travel with companies in Europe, the Middle East and Africa focussing on reducing travel volumes and travelling by train instead of plane; North American companies more commonly focussing on flying economy class instead of business and sharing ground transportation; and Asia Pacific companies promoting direct flights and eco-friendly hotels.

Travel managers reviewing air travel classes for cost savings and sustainability

Further insights from Institute of Travel Management (ITM) show cost savings and sustainable best practices are causing many travel managers to review which class of air travel is allowed within policy for their travellers.

Findings from a poll of buyers attending its Buyer Knowledge Exchange revealed that almost a third (31%) of global, EMEA buyers are currently evaluating changes in cabin classes, and 12% stated that they have implemented changes within the last six months.

However, employee retention and traveller wellbeing are also key considerations for buyers when stipulating or changing rules around cabin class and there is certainly no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach.

Some examples of recent policy shifts it has identified include:

  • moving daytime flights from Business to Premium to reduce CO2 emissions (based on the business need for travellers to work during the flight, so a flat-bed is not required);
  • switching from Economy to Premium for 6+hour flights (plus the option to add extra legroom);
  • Business class for travel of 4+ hours, but travellers are allowed to downgrade if they want to save cost (policy states clearly that line managers cannot mandate this).
  • Price caps were also discussed during the Buyer Knowledge Exchange and identified as a reasonable policy inclusion that empowers the traveller to book whichever air class they can find, based on a set budget.

Managing re-shopping tools and virtual card payment challenges

The benefits of air and hotel re-shop products was another hot topic at ITM’s Buyer Knowledge Exchange: a poll of buyers attending showed that over half (56%) rate re-shop products for air as useful and hotel re-shopping tools are even more valuable (67% of buyers find the latter somewhat useful).

When asked if re-shop tools will be part of their travel programme going forward, 56% of buyers said yes for hotels, and 61% said yes in terms of air. However, a significant number remained unsure (33% for hotels and 22% for air).

Buyers attending the session also shared their insights on the pros and cons of virtual cards (Vcards) and their successful implementation worldwide. Competency among hotel staff members seemed to resonate with the group as the new and sometimes inexperienced front-of-house employees behind the reception desk have been struggling to process these payments or have little knowledge of Vcards. Overall, however, the consensus from buyers is that when Vcards work, there is a high compliance rate among travellers due to ease of use.