The changing travel scenario does present a challenge for companies, but it also provides them with an opportunity as business travelers are excited to resume travel and employers can capitalise on that by taking care of a few things that employees are worried about. It’s really important that safety is upfront and vocal. Employees expect employers to provide support, in the form of safety measures, tools and policies, whether it’s pre, during or after the trip. Companies need to be looking at investing in solutions that their employees want, because there is a direct correlation about employees not feeling safe as a result of not getting the support from the organisations and wanting to exit or wanting to look for other roles, which do not require as much travel. In an exclusive interaction with ETTravelWorld, Mankiran Chowhan, Managing Director –Indian Subcontinent, SAP Concur, discussed all this and more.
ETTravelWorld (ETTW): Not that I want you to indulge in crystal ball-gazing, but from your lens, what is the timeframe you are looking at for business travel to pick up?
Mankiran Chowhan (MC): Reports say this is the worst financial performance that we are seeing in the history of commercial aviation, right so US$84 billion lost in the global industry and also the peripheral industries which support it. Indeed, this is a grave crisis that has hit the travel industry. Also, while countries are talking about travel and are looking to promote travel through air bubbles, the intermittent resurgence of Covid may really shift these plans. The public health officials and travel industry executives that we’ve been talking to or hearing from, opine that travel will continue to be slow until a vaccine is created and has global administration. This could be up to 2023-24, and that also may not be up to the pre-Covid era, per se, but may just be a recovery. There are too many moving parts in this, whether it’s the resurgence in a particular location, or it’s just that your own comfort takes priority.
ETTW: But once business travel does pick up, what are the trends that you are witnessing in the post-Covid era, which might continue to stay on for a longer term?
MC: From a technology perspective, we’re going to see a much higher dominance of technology when it comes to travel, just based on reduction of human intervention. Touchless experience for travellers, contact tracing, duty of care, these will stay on, but with access to so much personal information it also has to be balanced with privacy concerns. This understanding of the new normal, which is whether it’s partnering with airlines or hotels, and the focus on employee safety will be of the essence. We also expect that flexibility and collaboration between various leaders – HR, travel manager, security – will be really critical. So, from a business travel perspective, increased collaboration between the organisations will certainly happen. We’re talking about the long-term impact of public transport versus personal transport, different from an India perspective, but that may also have a slightly longer-term implication. Business travel behavior will vary based on first what the regulations are then whether the company allows it and whether an employee is comfortable travelling. Figuring out the risks and concerns of business travelers will now dictate business travel. There are some clear positives that come out of it as well.
ETTW: You talked about the increasing role of technology in restoring confidence among travellers, but that’s true for the entire travel, aviation and hotel industry. What are the changes that you witness when it comes to technology playing a greater role in making travellers more confident to travel?
MC: The whole touchless experience, requiring least amount of human interaction will automatically be built in to the future of travel in the new normal. If you look at the duty of care technology, it still requires that we have that mass movement of staff and their information is required. Historically, travel booking has been happening through various sources. So, you know whatever is the targeted technology that a company chooses to use, it will need to have a consolidated view of data as well. In the last 5- 6months, we have noticed that a company that has already adopted technology, digital technology, didn’t have to go through the pains that the others did. Our business traveller customers have also been talking about the technology that they should now be putting in place to enable them to prepare themselves to handle corporate travel in a better manner. By leveraging technologies, companies will have greater turnaround. ETTW: Your survey says that from a global perspective, people in India are most keen to go back to corporate travel. So, which sector would be the first to start making its employees travel?
MC: I think we’re already seeing that pattern. So, if you look at it from a sector perspective, pharma, FMCG, retail and manufacturing, those are the ones from where we expect the demand for business travel to pick up. We see a faster return to travel in these sectors.
ETTW: Since you are in touch with companies, if you have to talk about the concerns of the employers, vis-a-vis the concerns of the employees, what would those be?
MC: From an employer perspective, the perception of employee safety and how one perceives their organisation as a great place to work, currently depends upon the collaboration of various departments, be it HR, travel or security. If I don’t have an integrated view of business traveller information, the right policies and a collaborative way of internally working within my departments, employees may perceive their safety as not being critical. Not just the perception, but also the reality of ensuring that offices are sanitised and routines that we see in our respective workplaces are implemented. Employers should also pay attention to the fact that employees are not compelled to travel. Many a time, an organisation may be ready, but the employee may not be ready, so employers need to make sure that employees travel only when it is necessary. The employer also has to balance that viewpoint of when what is really needed, so that essential trips are happening versus routine trips. And this concept of permissible travel, whether it’s for government, corporate or just individual leads, will really vary. If you also look at it from an employer perspective, the conversation about duty of care has been going around, but now as an employer it’s really important that you have the ability to make sure that the employees, regardless of where they are, are covered. We were talking about medical insurance before, saying a general practitioner visit is okay or a surgery is okay when you travel, but what about the in-between? What if you do have to go somewhere and you do are diagnosed with Covid and you need to be on respiratory support? Companies now need very clear policies about what’s okay and what’s not. They need to be clear about the flexibility, communication and their provisioning. From an employer perspective, access to the master plan is really important, whether it’s in office or outside office. Employers need to make sure that people are traveling only when they need to and when they’re comfortable. And once they do travel, employers need to make sure that they are in constant contact with the employees.
ETTW: It’s interesting that you talk about employers making sure that they give employees the space to decide whether they are ready to travel or not. Post Covid, do you see more and more companies allowing employees to have greater say in choosing whether they want to travel or not?
MC: The scrutiny that will go into making sure that the travel is okay to go will be a lot higher, and this may be employee lead, employer lead, country lead or regulation lead. There will certainly be more thought given as we make travelling decisions.