The global pandemic has caused sweeping changes across industries, but it has affected few more deeply than business travel. As offices reopen and conferences get scheduled, travelers will once again return to the skies, book hotel rooms, and rent cars. “People are starting to talk positively about the fact that business travel is going to come back,” says David Grace, president of travel-management platform provider Deem. That said, the travel landscape they return to will be changed fundamentally.
Deem and Fast Company recently hosted “Business Travel 2021,” inviting a panel of travel-industry experts to discuss new tools and strategies to engage travelers as they’re poised to return to the friendly skies.
As business travel returns to normal, customers will expect access to more information about risk, says Makiko Barrett, director of global procurement and travel at Automation Anywhere, which provides software to the travel industry. While dangers like natural disasters tend to be regional, the COVID-19 pandemic was a global emergency. “We were overwhelmed with all the information coming our way,” Barrett says. “What’s important is to really push the most recent, updated information into the hands of travelers.”
In the past, travelers were largely concerned about the logistics of booking flights, hotels, and car rentals. However, they now expect to know the rules and risks that will affect them on the ground—and may even affect their decision to book the trip in the first place. “It’s about delivering duty of care, information, and knowledge to travelers about all sorts of potential risks, well beyond the pandemic,” Grace says. “Whether we’re talking pandemics, natural disasters, or terrorist attacks, customers need a single point to go to where they book their travel and get their information.”
LET’S TALK SAFETY…
Erika Alexander, chief global officer of global operations at Marriott, believes that safety and security are table stakes. “Business travelers want what every traveler wants today,” she says. “They want to know that we understand the science and that the protocols we have in place make travel safe and appealing.”
Yet ensuring that information reaches customers is paramount. “It’s one thing to implement the protocols, but it’s another thing to make sure that our customers understand that we’ve implemented them,” says Rob Connor, vice president of business development at Enterprise Holdings, which owns rental car companies, including Enterprise and Alamo. Connor stresses the importance of working with partners, such as online booking sites, to communicate what a company is doing to keep people safe and what steps they require of their customers.
MAKING MOBILE FIRST
During the pandemic companies sought ways to increase safety by decreasing time spent in face-to-face interactions. Many accelerated a move to mobile-first solutions, finding creative ways to use mobile technology to improve customer experience and safety.
“Because of COVID, contactless experiences matter, and of course that leads to all things mobile,” Alexander says. “I think our advancement toward a more digitally enabled landscape is going to continue to evolve. We were all headed in that direction, and it’s just a matter of speeding up the process.”
For example, Alexander imagines how hotels could take advantage of mobile technology to allow guests to check in and unlock doors via smartphone apps and even order room service from the road so dinner is ready when they arrive in their room. While customer-facing services such as a concierge aren’t going anywhere, mobile technology can give individuals the option to bypass the front desk and head straight to their room.
Other companies echo this customer-centric approach. “We’re changing the way we do business because it’s the right thing to do,” Connor says. “But we’re also going to continue to make sure that whatever it is we do, it’s customer first.” For instance, Enterprise has shifted their rental information-gathering process online to shorten the amount of time customers spend with agents. “When you arrive at the location, hopefully we just walk you directly to your car, you sign a tablet, and you’re on your way,” he adds.
FLEXIBILITY AND CONSISTENCY
According to Barrett, corporate policy is likely to change in a number of ways over the long term. In the past, corporate travel policies often prohibited booking nonchangeable tickets or nonrefundable rates at hotels, because business trips frequently change at the last minute. Now, the ability to shift reservations is likely to be even more important for business travelers. As a result, companies may look to travel partners that can dependably accommodate those needs. “Flexibility and consistency are the two most important keywords right now,” Barrett says.
Consistency of experience will be critical as well. After all, the broad embrace of digital meeting tools during the pandemic has given workers an alternative to the hassles of business travel. As a result, Alexander says, companies need to make sure they continue to focus on keeping travelers happy: “Customers are going to expect us to be both exceptional at the fundamentals and to ensure they have extraordinary experiences.”
Click here to watch the full panel discussion