Mark McSpadden is vice president of global product strategy and digital experience for American Express Global Business Travel. He’s also a road warrior ruminating on how the industry can meet the challenge of bringing back to travelers peace of mind and a feeling of preparedness.

For years, I could leave my home near DFW airport exactly 27 minutes before boarding commenced and comfortably make it in time for my flight. Pre-pandemic business travel had a consistency I could trust. Today, that world feels like a distant memory. What do I expect on my next trip? It’s hard to say. There are so many variables. So much complexity. Like the dad in this Onion article, maybe I’ll get there 14 hours early “just to be safe.”

“Trust is a confident relationship with uncertainty,” said Oxford researcher Rachel Botsman. The phrase stuck with me since I first heard her use it in a conference keynote years ago. In 2020, it has become a professional mantra, guiding me and my team through the most challenging period in our careers. Uncertainty, in the context of recent months, has almost taken on a new meaning. It’s hard to articulate. Dramatic. Exponential. Global. Each is appropriate, but falls short of truly capturing this new reality.

For many people, the first response to uncertainty of this nature is to try and tame the uncertainty. The default is to quickly look for answers to the biggest, most complicated questions. How is that city managing to keep its infection rate so low? Why aren’t we testing more people? When will there be a vaccine? These are all important topics, but for the travel industry, our focus must remain resolutely on where we can deliver the most value. Our goal, therefore, must be to help companies and travelers build a confident relationship with uncertainty.

Mark McSpadden, American Express Global Business Travel
Mark McSpadden, American Express Global Business Travel VP of global product strategy and experience

Travel in this new era is rightly perceived as risky and complex. Creating enough confidence to get everyone back on the road won’t happen overnight. But it’s important to remember that we are not starting from scratch. Whether it was weather, technical issues or terror, we’ve always known business travel was laden with uncertainty and disruption. Yet in the pre-Covid world, we had reached a level of confidence that meant an international trip felt like a commute and a domestic journey was no more complicated that a run to the grocery store. That confidence extended to companies willing to invest in business travel as a catalyst for growth. The free flow of travelers across oceans and borders for so many years was testament to our collective ability to instill confidence in people, even though uncertainty was always a fixture in the travel landscape. 

How do we, therefore, build a confident relationship with this new, more profound and more personal level of uncertainty? We start with observation, research and listening. We talk to travelers and travel managers. We extend the circle out to corporate security, finance, real estate and HR. We demand true leadership from our industry bodies and governments. Each discussion is a tile of a mosaic that helps us understand the desires, fears, constraints and opportunities that lie in front of travelers, business travel and the ecosystem that enables both.

Next, we use that mosaic as a dynamic blueprint for action with extreme focus on the areas of most acute change. We have to adjust our reporting, approval and duty of care products to answer the new questions travel managers have about their programs in the current environment. We have to provide trip-centric information to travelers and travel counselors relevant to the environment, restrictions and operational procedures that might be encountered before, during or after a trip. 

These are the foundations on which we can build our confident relationship with the future. We then refine that relationship by restarting the cycle with more observation. Feedback is critical to be sure we don’t confuse confidence with blind hope. Progress is based on experience and positive practice. This cycle also breeds agility, a vital characteristic in a constantly changing global environment.  

Our job as an industry is to restore confidence in travel. It is to help companies and travelers build a confident relationship with an uncertain future by watching, listening and acting fast. And eventually, it will keep me from having to leave for the airport 13 hours and 33 minutes before I really need to.

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  1. Such a good article. Absolutely agree that our job is to build a confident relationship with an uncertain future by watching, listening and acting fast. Thank you, Mark.

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