In 2020, everything has been up in the air except for travellers. But after months of “can we, can’t we” with COVID-19, global business travellers may see the light at the end of the runway. Especially in the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region, where several countries have made strides in halting the pandemic’s spread. Asia is now positioned to ease the world back into business travel this winter and spring, with vaccines hopefully closing the deal this summer (fingers firmly crossed).
Of course, “normal” won’t return with the flip of a switch. Confidence in corporate travel will come back gradually. If your company wants to be at the front of the queue, it’s smart to prepare now. That means understanding employees’ concerns, staying on top of fast-changing information, and building traveller safety into processes at every step.
Watching the map
While APAC is faring relatively well, COVID-related travel restrictions still vary widely from country to country. The return to travel will look different depending on where you’re doing business.
According to the Centre for Aviation, in terms of domestic travel, China is ahead of the rest of the world, up 7% year-on-year when it comes to seats booked; but it’s a mixed bag elsewhere, with Japan down 18% and Thailand down 6%. Crossing borders tells an entirely different story: China is down 98% for international seats year-on-year as of the end of November, and most of East Asia is down 81-93%. In the go-to business hubs of Singapore and Hong Kong, international travel is less than 2% of pre-pandemic levels.
A loosening of travel barriers between Singapore and Hong Kong was widely touted to begin in late November, but a flare up of cases in Hong Kong led the world’s first full travel bubble to burst. But the speed with which the flights were booked demonstrates that pent-up demand to travel runs deep.
Further south, Australia’s travel restrictions both in and outside the country are largely still in place. There is a limited travel corridor with New Zealand that keeps commerce flowing between the neighbours, although this involves strict quarantine. Hopes were raised for a resumption of a full travel bubble, but this has been delayed due to fears of sporadic outbreaks.
With border restrictions changing on short notice – say, right before or even during a business trip – it’s important to identify a reliable source of information at the travel-manager level (for setting Travel Policy) and at the user level (for making informed travel choices). Not surprisingly, this will be a best-practice standard when travel returns.
The shift towards Duty of Care and employee safety in a Corporate Travel program is dramatic. Although it may seem to be a while off, now is the time to restructure your travel management program in preparation for people moving in 2021. - Carl Jones
Proceed with caution
Re-emerging travel is welcome news for business in the APAC region. Would-be travellers, however, may not be dusting off their luggage just yet. After all, their decisions around COVID-19 affect not only them, but their families and colleagues as well.
Studies have shown flying to be safe and hygienic – for instance, the International Air Transport Association has provided extensive information on the various ways planes resist transmission of viruses – but we know perceptions will take time to catch up. Another concern is the risk of serious illness and hospitalisation while overseas. Today, limited numbers of insurance companies cover COVID-related hospital fees, which is bound to give travellers and HR decision-makers pause. A quick check on the travel insurance exclusions on the major insurance underwriters will reveal COVID to be classed as a “known event,” and after March 2020, excluded from policy coverage. And with border restrictions and rules in different countries shifting week by week, getting stuck away from home remains a worry to many.
As your company gets moving again, how do you reassure travellers that you have their backs?
Safely on your way
Preparing employees to travel in APAC (and soon enough, around the world) is all about communication. It starts with training before the trip; and when on a trip, it includes things like neighborhood safety scores, flight delays, and direct contact with employees should events require it. Because even though duty of care is less of a legal requirement in APAC, it is certainly a moral obligation.
You’ll also want to show your teams how suppliers are prioritizing their safety. Hotels, airlines, rental car companies, and other partners are eager to share their safe and hygienic practices. Initiatives like “SG Clean” in Singapore set clear standards for companies that interact with travellers, whether it’s how hotel rooms are sanitized or rules for social distancing when in line. Sharing those commitments can boost traveller confidence.
Employees’ travel experience is only as safe as your company’s policies. So tell travellers where you stand. It’s up to travel managers to clearly communicate the rules, ensure travellers are covered in the event of illness, and choose suppliers who do everything in their power to protect them. Those moves can go a long way toward easing travellers’ concerns as they get back on the road.
Having a single, consistent approach to travel booking – using the same technology to approve or book a trip, using a single TMC, and making sure travellers are aware of the apps you have – means you’re doing everything you can to protect employees. Those who book outside the process because they think they can find something cheaper are only opting out of your safety net.
Help travellers say "yes”
In this sensitive area, good travel systems can strengthen your story. With a solid travel management solution in place, you’re prepared to mitigate risks, reduce guesswork, and make your commitment to safety clear. Here are three ways to reassure travellers throughout the process.
- Before they go: The best online booking tools allow you to enhance pre-trip approval processes with deeper information. List in detail how your partners and suppliers align with the latest safety rules.
- In the air: Does your solution allow messaging with employees as they travel? If so, keep the information flowing, from alerts about their destination country to itinerary changes to new rules they may return to back home.
- Go/no-go guidance: As teams weigh their options, your travel solution can clarify what qualifies as “essential” or “non-essential” travel and highlight alternatives so employees know they have choices.
In business, as in public health, consistency is key. That’s why systems like SAP Concur solutions are designed to unify the whole process. So travellers can view policies, request and book travel, manage bookings, and get guidance and assistance even as their situation changes – and do it all in one place.
In our next article, we will dive deeper into COVID-safe travel policies and steps your organisation can take to keep travellers, and the company, healthy.
Is the uncertainty over? No. But we’re getting there.