What Will It Take To Get On The Road Again?

Pundits are kicking around when and whether business travel will recover, but the pivotal question is how. It’s all about cooperation. Teamwork has had mixed success this year at the industry and federal levels. Days away from the psychological clean slate of 2021, Mike McCormick’s Travel Again released a framework for recovery.

Backed by the counsel of 25 industry luminaries and the support of several dozen business travel providers, Travel Again focused on three areas: managing risk, standardizing requirements and restoring confidence.

The framework prioritizes initiatives within the categories and outlines several action items. Among these are testing protocols, digital health passports and quarantine-free travel. Consolidated industry advocacy efforts should complement a travel czar created by the Biden administration, Travel Again advised.

This is not about quick fixes. Travel Again projected a “pre-recovery” phase to last until next summer, with sustained recovery — underpinned by some level of return to offices — coinciding with widespread vaccine dissemination through the end of 2023.  

The industry already is tackling much of what Travel Again champions. 

Managing Trip Risk

There’s not much international travel happening because many borders are effectively closed. Where it is occurring, conditions are subject to change. Planned trips fall apart at the last minute. En route snafus sometimes derail business travelers. The reality or threat of quarantines keeps many home.

Thirty-one percent of 335 travel buyers surveyed by The BTN Group in September and October indicated that their organizations’ international travel would remain shut down if entry quarantines persisted. Another 63 percent said ongoing quarantines would result in only “case-by-case, mission-critical” international travel.

Travel Again wants a well-defined, globally recognized quarantine risk scale — low, medium and high — so everyone knows what to expect in a given country at a given point in time. It advocated travel bubbles with standard testing and other operational procedures, and global policy standards.

Managing trip risks also means mitigating or eliminating health risks. Suppliers talked up deep cleaning efforts all year. Some airlines are requiring travelers to produce pre-departure negative Covid tests for some flights.

Suppliers are taking measures with their own people. EmpireCLS last week began rapid Covid testing for chauffeurs in 12 cities. Aviation industry trade associations and worker unions are urging elected officials to prioritize frontline aviation workers for vaccinations. The American Hotel and Lodging Association is lobbying to have hotel employees included in the vaccination effort’s early phases.

To address client needs, providers have been partnering right and left. Among the latest, TMC Reed & Mackay aligned with Healix International on “instant assessments of the medical and logistical risks posed by each and every unique proposed travel itinerary.” The TMC’s clients now can schedule rapid pre-flight Covid tests via urgent care and telemedicine firm CityDoc when booking travel. 

Some traveling organizations will encourage employees to get vaccinated. According to recent guidance from the U.S. government, companies can require it in many cases. Vaccination as a pre-requisite for travel might be stipulated by the employer, the client on the other side or authorities at the origin and/or destination country.

John Rose, Altour

John Rose, Altour chief risk and security officer

“It is very realistic that you’ll see countries not only asking for vaccine proof, but also how often are you willing to be tested,” said Altour chief risk and security officer John Rose during a GBTA North Central chapter webinar on Dec. 10. “You’ll see countries implementing daily testing requirements for travelers. It’s coming, especially in the Middle East.”

Some countries will require proof of medical insurance to cover anything Covid-related, Rose said. The insurance they accept varies widely, and a traveler’s major medical insurance provider may not be on the destination’s approved list.

“You can’t figure that out in an online booking,” Rose said. He expects unassisted international travel bookings to be scarce for the foreseeable future.

Amadeus in May partnered with Riskline to provide destination health requirements through the Amadeus mobile app and at points of sale. Now it’s working on weaving that information into search functions in its Cytric self-booking tool, allowing travelers to filter for flights that require pre-departure testing or destinations without quarantines. According to Christian Warneck, an Amadeus airline solutions VP speaking during his company’s webinar last week, the feature will be available in the first quarter of 2021.

Tripkicks this month formalized a TMC reseller program for its SAP Concur Travel add-on. Users booking trips in Concur see health and safety alerts, destination and supplier info, and any custom messaging added by program managers. Balboa Travel, Direct Travel, Executive Travel, Gant Travel and World Travel Inc. signed on.

Frosch is using emailed itineraries to link business travelers to trip-specific risk, regulatory and rebooking info. Followup emails sent 48 hours before the trip can include links travelers must click to acknowledge receipt.

For agent desktops, Travelport this month added a Stay Safe feature highlighting hotels’ compliance to industrywide safety initiatives.

Managing risk also means monitoring supply chains. Lots of hotel properties remain closed. In a report published this week, consultancy Nina & Pinta noted reduced business class capacity among airlines, fewer connecting flights and higher fares “across all classes but especially premium economy.”

Travel Again called for “consistent, industrywide refund policies and clear, consumer-friendly insurance offerings to assure travelers that they will be refunded if a trip is cancelled or interrupted.”

Standardizing Traveler Requirements

Like passports to cross a border, travelers will need to show proof of vaccinations, negative Covid tests, insurance coverage and/or other documents. Every country has its own rules. Transmitting that information to travelers as they plan trips is crucial. Travel Again envisions a “safe global traveler” list of requirements.

Testing and tracking throughout the trip lifecycle are critical. Digital health passports and mobile apps will help collect and display the necessary information at border crossings, airports and other points during the trip.

What they convey must be secure, verifiable and universally understood. The Travel Again brain trust deemed standardized travel testing procedures the most important priority in the coming year. It requires lots of industry and government cooperation.

Top priorities for the International Air Transport Association are reopening borders, removing travel restrictions and ending quarantine measures through testing, vaccination and health credentials. “Quarantine measures suppress demand almost as much as keeping the borders closed entirely,” said IATA global program lead on industry restart Guido Peetermans during the Amadeus webinar.

return to travel

IATA has its own digital passport program, called IATA Travel Pass. Pilots are ongoing. One is with IAG Group airlines, including British Airways. The airline trade group anticipates a full launch in the first quarter of 2021. It also supports competition in the space to keep costs down. “Hopefully there will be a range of interoperable solutions available without fragmentation, all based on the same underlying standards,” Peetermans said.

Affinidi Group provides the digital verification system for border control within Singapore’s travel bubble. “Multiple stakeholders are working together to create an end-to-end ecosystem solution,” said Affinidi CEO Glenn Gore. “The current solution enables travel but can be made more seamless. It is going to be a multi-phase deployment — what is quick and maybe not integrated, then it will be more seamless over time.”

“I am certain there will be many players, especially when it comes to vaccination certificates,” Warneck said. “We don’t have a standard yet. The World Health Organization is working toward that.”

Some airlines are pressing ahead, offering apps and facilitating testing for passengers. American Airlines last week said it expanded the applicability of the VeriFly app to flights to more locations in Central and South America. Developed by Daon, VeriFly checks that a passenger met a country’s entry requirements and displays a “pass” or “fail” message.

Restoring Traveler Confidence

Private companies, governments, public advocacy groups and NGOs are aiming to make travel safe and get people to believe it is. The availability of vaccines may help restore confidence, but there is a lot of uncertainty. 

According to a BCD Travel survey fielded a few weeks ago, 702 business travelers collectively ranked a vaccine as the top measure for resuming business travel. It was followed by easing of national and local lockdowns, and Covid treatments.

A Dec. 7-13 GBTA poll found that 54 percent of 760 buyer and supplier members did not know their company’s position regarding vaccines and business travel resumption. One in five said business travel would be permitted “when the employee and a significant portion of the population have been vaccinated,” 16 percent said just the latter would suffice, and 10 percent said vaccination for the traveling employee would get them a green light.

return to travel

Travel Again is one of a handful of entities measuring traveler sentiments. Based on the November survey, business travel confidence dropped to 2.63 from 2.97 a month earlier (on a scale of one, “no confidence,” to five, “ready to travel”). Travel Again plans to expand its index to more markets, update it more frequently and include more qualitative questions.

Boston Consulting Group’s Travel Recovery Insights Portal wrapped in airline ticketing data from ARC, GDS search data furnished by 3Victors and publicly available data from Johns Hopkins University, Oxford University and other sources.

MMGY Global’s latest Travel Safety Barometer showed an overall safety perception for business travel of 38 out of 100, where 100 is extremely safe and 0 is extremely unsafe. For international travel generally, it was 35, while for domestic travel it was 50. Measured on Nov. 23, all three figures were the same as in the previous month. MMGY surveys 600 leisure and 600 business travelers every month.

Each organization has its own risk tolerances, risk mitigation programs, expected travel patterns and traveler feedback. Surveying companies about their confidence in traveling and future budget considerations is a Travel Again priority.

The group stressed the importance of consistent messaging about confidence levels, travel conditions and progress on key initiatives. It wants the industry to communicate success stories, like travel corridors.

Together Again

Creating a cohesive global plan requires collaboration. 

Travel Again proposes a “global, industrywide advocacy clearinghouse entity” that would aggregate information, monitor activities and set priorities. It would leverage existing industry advocacy resources. Travel Again recommends the creation of a travel czar position in President-elect Joe Biden’s administration to augment efforts by the U.S. Commerce Department’s deputy assistant secretary for travel and tourism. The deputy is executive director of a board that includes president and CEO of CWT Kurt Ekert (board chair), Travelport CEO Greg Webb and Marriott EVP of global communications and public affairs Tricia Primrose.

Some associations and competitors have worked together to lobby for financial relief or removal of quarantines. According to Travel Again, it’s not out to “replace the current efforts,” but rather to “help maximize” their impact.

Mike McCormick, Travel Again co-founder

“We have never really done that as an industry,” said McCormick during a Friday phone interview. Working separately — for example, hotel trade groups advocating for hotels and travel agent groups fighting for agencies — “maybe works when business is down 15 percent or 20 percent. When you’re down 80 percent or 90 percent, you have to create efficiency to cut through the noise, harness those relationships and get governments involved.

“We have done outreach to every travel trade association and sent them the framework,” said the former GBTA COO and executive director. “We have heard everything from ‘wholly supportive’ to ‘Let us assess and figure out how we can help and work together.’ So our first order of business in the new year is to work with the various associations. We can’t be a standalone effort.”

McCormick revealed plans for Travel Again in August and launched it in September. GBTA in November announced its “Ready. Safe. Travel.” initiative to raise awareness of business travel’s economic impact and support its safe return. GBTA said the program would include government advocacy and member education; last week, it announced winners of a related video contest.

During an early November phone interview, outgoing GBTA interim executive director Dave Hilfman said part of the campaign would support Covid-related liability waivers for businesses, which Congress debated but did not include in pandemic legislation hammered out this week. Also, said Hilfman, “We need some standardization — eliminate these border closures and the inconsistent quarantine requirements in the United States and across Europe and Latin America.”

Asked about GBTA and Travel Again working together, Hilfman said, “It’s not like we haven’t had conversations. Nothing to announce today, but we applaud anybody out there promoting the responsible and safe restart of travel, whether that’s Mike’s organization or anybody else.”


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Author: David Jonas

David Jonas in 2006 co-founded business media firm ProMedia.travel after ten years as a journalist with Business Travel News. David rejoined BTN in 2010 as executive editor when its parent company acquired ProMedia, and in 2014 co-created The Company Dime. David has a bachelor's degree in communications from Cornell University.
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