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31 Mar 2021

The Shape of Business Travel’s Return in 2021

“Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” –Dwight Eisenhower
The takeaway lesson from 2020 is that predicting the future is impossible. However, as a worldwide vaccination program gathers speed in the early days of 2021, businesses must start planning for a return to travel. The industry must anticipate the trends that will mold the travel and hospitality sectors once "business as usual" commences.
Although it is extremely difficult to guesstimate, much less predict how the next 365 days will unfold, there are definite travel trends emerging in the wreckage of everyday life left by the coronavirus. Some of the trends were born of the pandemic, some were hastened by it, and others were suppressed in its wake, but will re-emerge after stability returns to the world economy.
CEOs and travel managers amping up for a resounding return to travel programs will be served well by acknowledging and adapting to the following four trends. Such trends will play an indispensable role in building traveler confidence and reintroducing in-person meetings into daily interactions.

“Managing out” unmanaged travel

The resolve of travel managers to significantly reduce, if not forbid unmanaged travel in the workplace, has only been fortified by the confusion and mass chaos triggered by COVID-19.

According to a snap poll conducted within the Egencia Connect Community, a travel manager hub where best practices and insights are shared, travel managers believe that there is now more executive support for mandating the use of a travel booking tool, or TMC, in companies that previously did not do so.
For context, company advisories and alerts on hygiene and health at the destination and technology that helps the employer to speedily locate, account for, and contact employees should a crisis arise are not available to employees who book hotels and flights directly from third-party sites.

CEOs will need travel managers to advise them

In order to determine when and how employees can start traveling again in 2021—with much confidence and more care—CEO’s will need the skills and wisdom of travel managers. An Egencia customers September 2020 survey revealed that 54% of travel managers now have "more engagement with executive leadership" – that’s a 50% jump as compared to pre-coronavirus times.
CEOs will continue to rely heavily on travel managers for guidance on how to rebuild the confidence of their workforce in traveling safely and responsibly over the next few quarters. This is a unique opportunity for travel professionals to maximize their influence within the organization and to educate senior management on the tools, policies, and strategies needed to flourish in a new normal.

There will be a shift from price to employee experience as the crux of travel programs

Historically, business travel programs have put a premium on controlling costs. However, in 2021, there will be a huge pivot toward duty of care and traveler well-being as the primary focus. Senior executives need only recall the pandemonium at the airports in February 2020 as the virus began to take hold over the world to remember their responsibility to protect their traveling workforce. Business travelers have also expressed low confidence in traveling. Many will need more hands-on support and compassionate policies to begin traveling again.
The response of travel managers will be to relax certain policies. One example is allowing the use of a private vehicle or cab from the airport instead of public transportation like the bus or train. Travel managers will also increase investment in technologies that support employees on the road and enable them to respond in real-time to a constantly shifting landscape of regulations and restrictions. These include AI-powered virtual assistants, traveler tracking tools, and advisories and alerts integrated directly into the booking path.

The popularity of AI-driven policies and virtual cards will soar

Virtual cards should have made their debut within the industry in 2020. Indeed, a series of major industry players had been poised to roll out offers but had to suspend these due to the pandemic. But these companies only consider the pandemic as a rather long delay and are gearing up to roll these offers out in 2021 as organizations look to reduce fraud, protect travel program budgets, and alleviate the financial burden on employees whose finances were impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.
AI-driven policy will also emerge as a method of making travel programs smarter. Before the pandemic, dynamic hotel rate caps that leveraged data science for gauging the maximum price a for a room at any given time were starting to spread through the industry. These data caps will return with a vengeance in 2021 as companies will want to lower costs without having to directly negotiate a preferential rate with a supplier.
In short, the most successful businesses will be those that center the traveler in their business travel programs and adapt quickly to the disruption this shift will create.