To say that this global pandemic has kept procurement and corporate travel executives busy would be an understatement. Redefining how organizations will return to travel, while also attempting to negotiate refunds, fee waivers, and credit balances from canceled trips will require a high degree of interdepartmental communication and coordination. Ensuring that travel decisions meet employee health and safety criteria, while also providing corporate visibility and control, are now fundamental determination factors.
A new normal: What to consider now
Before COVID-19, typical considerations negotiated into lodging and air travel agreements consisted of items such as committed number of hotel nights, number of airline seats between city pairs, flexibility of cancellations, included meals and amenities, and rebates for meeting or exceeding negotiated hotel or air spend.
Today, there is a growing list of health and safety-related recommended standards that corporate travel buyers and suppliers have developed and published as part of the Travel and Meetings Standards task force – TAMS. This document spans air travel, hotels and apartments, ground transportation, rail, TMCs, and meetings and events. Key topics include:
- Airports and Planes: creation of barriers, floor-direction arrows, signage to enforce physical distancing
- Checked Baggage: minimizing contact points and cleaning/disinfection of touchpoints
- Ground Transportation: cleaning and disinfecting of taxis and shared rides
- Hotels: frequency of cleaning high touch common areas (elevator, escalator, front desk, lavatories, etc.)
We have created the Tripit Traveler Resource Center to connect customers with resources from public health and safety advisories, supplier guidelines, cancellation policies, and new travel protocols.
The cost of change
While the costs to adjust to a new normal in travel may temporarily be absorbed by travel suppliers, they will eventually be passed on to customers.
Because the pandemic has caused disruption in global supply chains, along with significant furloughs and business losses, procurement executives must recognize that cost reduction should not be the sole consideration when negotiating or renewing agreements with travel suppliers. Just as important will be to ensure that key travel suppliers – such as the travel management company (TMC), key lodging partners; air, rail and ground transportation providers; and related services providers – are adequately compensated for the additional effort and costs associated with ensuring traveler health and safety required to keep the travel suppliers financially healthy.
Travel spend visibility and control
The resumption of travel will be very different now. As companies continue to maintain a tight grip on travel spend, a poll conducted in a July 2020 webinar for SAP Concur customers, indicated that 90% of companies are considering pre-trip approval process, and 50% are taking control of cash flow by evaluating employee spend before it happens. While controlling spend and ensuring employee safety, procurement and corporate travel managers need to reassess travel policies to facilitate business resumption in cooperation with their human resources, finance and accounting, functional directors and risk/security counterparts.
Travel will resume in a phased approach:
- Essential travel for revenue-generating and service personnel
- Day trips using ground transportation
- Domestic travel before international travel
Providing employees with self-service booking tools that display preferred air, lodging, train, and auto rental options, as well as information on health and hygiene standards will go a long way to help traveling employees feel safe with their booking selections. These tools have the added benefit of providing their organization visibility and control of travel spend. This will be essential when there are last-minute changes to travel plans due to pandemic-related circumstances, such as new government-mandated quarantine orders, exposure to infected individuals during travel, or when employees are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms.
Maverick spend as we work from home and return to travel
Maverick spend, which occurs when employees buy products or services without an accompanying P.O. or prior approval, has always been hard to manage. As employees work from home, and as business travel resumes, unforeseen and unplanned expenses will be incurred. For instance:
- A maintenance engineer checked into a hotel with limited availability of sanitized rooms in order to do an emergency equipment repair at a client’s site, requiring a last minute, out-of-policy hotel room upgrade.
- A university professor had to buy a high-quality headset at the last minute because the university-provided headset broke down just before teaching a remote class.
These types of maverick spend will become visible to the company or institution when:
- Employees submit expense reports for reimbursement
- Invoices without a P.O. or prior approval are presented for payment
In order to increase visibility and compliance, procurement executives, in collaboration with their HR, IT and accounting colleagues, may want to update their corporate policies regarding travel and expense management. By creating new fields in their expense report system so that employees can flag last-minute spend on COVID-19 related expenses, they can facilitate expedited approval for reimbursement to the employee or payment to the vendor. These last two actions consistently increase employee satisfaction and vendor payment timeliness.
Corporate travel impacts everyone
While travel spend can be closely monitored, there are other aspects of corporate spend that are triggered by travel to consider:
- Governmental regulatory compliance, such as location of work that creates an income tax liability for both employer and employee (and fines if immigration law compliance is not met)
- Value-add taxes paid that can be recovered with proper documentation.
Other aspects where procurement and corporate travel managers play a role is duty of care and sustainability. Organizations must ensure the safety of their traveling and non-traveling employees. When unplanned events, such as natural disasters, political unrest, or incidents of health risk occur, it is critical that companies know where their employees are, can reach them via phone, email or text, and can assist them to get to safer grounds.
As sustainability initiatives gain momentum in global supply chains, procurement organizations play a central role in offering employees transportation and lodging choices that are consistent with corporate sustainability goals. If there are frequently traveled city-pairs that in the past were served by plane, they may now have to be served by car or rail. Finding, negotiating, and contracting transportation, fuel, service and rental options that meet the new corporate safety criteria will be a key role of the procurement and travel management team. Promotion of rail over airplane travel where practical, lodging that is powered by renewable energy, or opting for hybrid or electric vehicle rentals are all parameters to add to sustainable travel plans.
Communication and coordination: A top priority
As we adjust to the new normal, corporate travel and expense management will be very different than what it was prior to the pandemic. Procurement and corporate travel executives will have to select travel, venue, and service suppliers that meet the revised goals and policies of their organization. In order to ensure that they remain financially able to support the needs of the organization’s employees and their customers, procurement executives must also be proactive with key vendors.
Interdepartmental communication and coordination will ensure that decisions regarding travel and its impact to an organization’s business continuity are well understood and documented. Prioritizing a clear communication and coordination plan with the following teams in particular is key to a successful return to travel program:
- Accounts Payable
- Human Resources
- Risk Management and Compliance
- Tax and Accounting
- Information Technology
- Sales and Marketing
- Government Relations
Providing clear and concise directions to employees as to what they can expect when traveling, along with establishing two-way communications when on the road, and clarity on what expenses are permitted, play critical roles in a successful return to travel plan for all organizations.