Business travel has changed forever. What’s next?
October 19, 2021
October 19, 2021
The pandemic is easing in many parts of the world, and those business trips that have been on hold since early 2020 are finally starting to look realistic. But that doesn’t automatically mean companies and their employees are prepared to jump back on a plane. As the managing director for Accenture’s global mobility program that supports more than half a million people, I’m acutely aware that the industry cannot go back to the way things were—the expectations have changed so dramatically in the last year and half. And I think this is all for the better.
It’s clear that business travel will not quickly return to pre-pandemic levels, and it certainly won’t look the same. Even as the vaccine roll out gains momentum in certain countries, travelers seem to be re-evaluating their priorities and are thinking differently about their return.
People are looking at travel in a new way. The travel industry and suppliers need to do the same.
I was not surprised to see Accenture’s Travel Readiness Index recorded a 9 percent uptick between June and July 2021, but remains down 26 percent from 2019. What I gather from this is that we’re seeing growing signs of recovery in some parts of the world (namely Europe and the U.S. as restrictions eased), but cautious optimism remains as cases of the Delta variant have risen in certain areas.
In Accenture, we’re seeing some growing demand from our people who are looking to the industry for travel experiences that are not only safe, but also convenient and simple. This will help to restore confidence in the value of business travel and make every journey worthwhile.
The challenges are obvious. Start with the simple fact that travelers face regulations that complicate a straightforward journey. Businesses and business travelers want the industry to simplify that complexity with clear communication as rules change in different parts of the world.
A roundtable with our frequent flyers at Accenture found that this starts with better communication from travel companies. But some felt that communication dropped off abruptly as the pandemic broke out. Worse so, especially for those who were top-tier members of loyalty programs. That felt like a missed opportunity. So, brand loyalty has taken a hit and many travel firms will need to work hard to rebuild it.
We know that technology can play a critical role in improving safety and simplifying the customer experience. It’s one of the many reasons I’m looking at our own digital transformation journey and working closely with our strategic suppliers to ensure they’re doing the same. Mobile solutions can make it easy to show verified vaccination and test status. And they can update the traveler on late changes to travel arrangements, such as boarding updates and changes in Covid-related restrictions at the destination.
Technology can also enable the travel ecosystem to collaborate on creating a seamless, ‘touchless’ experience for travelers, end-to-end—from airport, to flight, to rental car, to hotel room. Basic examples of such technologies include digital tickets and digital hotel room keys.
We have grown accustomed to remote working and video conferencing. Many business travelers are now rightly asking themselves whether they need to be in person at every meeting they might have attended in the past. Yet, our people want to remain connected with the people they work with and continue building significant relationships.
The reality is the pandemic has changed travelers’ values. Accenture’s Life Reimagined research, which surveyed 25,000 consumers globally, finds that there are five new factors driving buying habits, that I have seen echo amongst our own people at Accenture:
There is also demand for increased flexibility to delay, refund or change travel plans at short notice without penalty; clear and easy options to contact customer services; and services that are more sustainable and have a positive societal impact. These factors help to create a positive experience.
So, where is there a compelling case for business travel? There are many reasons from business development to strategic leadership meetings, but overall, I think it ultimately lies in special events that offer unique benefits to meeting in person that simply can’t be recreated virtually. I expect to see an emphasis on hybrid events whereby we might see a few hundred people getting together in a venue, and thousands joining virtually.
The travel industry needs to show it can adapt to this demand. For hotels, that might mean offering promotions on block bookings. It could mean more conference spaces and reimagining the design of meeting rooms to better serve as flexible collaboration spaces. Cutting-edge technology, including high-quality audiovisual and livestreaming services, will be essential.
Accenture has been on the same journey as many global businesses when it comes to employee travel. Our mobility has been vastly reduced, which has been a huge pivot for a company like ours that requires ongoing relationship building. Some people miss it and relish the days of getting back on the road again; others are re-evaluating their priorities and are more reluctant to go back to their pre-pandemic patterns. We certainly saw the positive impact reducing travel has on our global environment. In Accenture, we have set a goal to achieve net-zero emissions by 2025 across our scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions and being thoughtful about travel will help enable this.
I expect to see more of our people looking to get back on site with clients as opportunities for travel increase. But it will be a gradual and thoughtful process, and we will continue to rethink when and why we travel, leveraging the positive lessons learned from the pandemic.
In New York, for instance, when we were moving between offices, there was a time when we did not even have an office available. So, we ran a program with Marriott to give people day passes for office space when they needed to. This is one example that could be a viable business model for the future—providing people with access to professional office space, away from the distractions of home (and giving hotels the chance to create value from under-used spaces).
Ultimately, the result of the disruption to travel has been the breaking of old models for customer loyalty. Businesses are reassessing when they need to travel, and which providers can provide the best service in today’s ever-evolving environment.
The travel industry obviously faces a range of ongoing challenges, and it will be highly competitive. But the prize for the industry is clear: customer loyalty and market share will go to those that stay relevant and respond to businesses’ evolving needs.