While other philosophers questioned the meaning of the universe, Gottfried Leibniz famously asked why it exists at all. The pandemic has created its own economic Leibniz moment with business travel.
Having been forced to trial alternatives to in‐person meetings, many companies are now questioning the need for physical travel. As the low‐cost option, virtual has become the default.
The argument to invest in travel may prove even harder to make as economic conditions deteriorate. This poses a challenge for travel managers, who face a sudden reinvention of their role and responsibility. If organizations are questioning the fundamental need to travel, aren’t they also questioning the role of travel manager?
We need to see the crisis as a hidden opportunity. Travel managers have long been asking the business to view travel more strategically. Ironically, the pandemic could elevate the visibility and status of corporate travel management across the organization.
In the last 12 months, travel managers have worked closely with business lines and C‐suite executives to ensure travel policies offered the right degree of protection and reassurance.
Now they must work with the same budget holders on a different challenge: strategic evaluation of the purpose and commercial value of travel.
- What makes a business trip essential?
- How does it generate business value and what is that value?
It is now the travel manager’s responsibility to address these questions, and also ask new questions of their own about who should travel, when, where and for how long. Answering these queries accurately will require a big adjustment in both culture and process. There are a couple of changes organizations will need to make in order to make it possible.
First, travel managers must build stronger relationships with budget holders. This might be hard to begin with. Travel managers are associated with the administration of travel policy not the direction of travel budget. But in truth there is a strategic heart to almost every travel question.
For example, what is the correct ratio of permanent desks to hot desks? The CFO might be happy with a smaller headquarters. But what is the impact on travel now there is less space to meet and collaborate? And is there an emotional cost of reduced physical contact that travel could help to mitigate?
In many companies, sales wields the biggest travel budget. What is the true impact of reduced travel on sales revenue? Start by assessing the rate of lead conversion on lockdown. How does this rate compare to previous years when travel was the default?
All of these questions can be answered with the right data. The second change organizations need to make is to break down the data silos that obstruct the generation of operational and commercial insights. Executive boards in particular will require hard numbers to illustrate the effectiveness of travel against the alternatives.
With the right relationships and the right data travel managers can take an important step towards convincing budget holders they are valued strategic partners. But changing roles is hard. And changing the perception of others is harder.
To speed role transition, travel managers should look for business change happening elsewhere. New processes, new people and even new customers typically create opportunities to do things differently. Onboarding a new client for example, could mean a conversation with an account lead to model future travel needs against client expectations to set a more accurate budget.
The future of travel is an existential question. But it’s also a real business problem that pulls travel managers directly into commercial and operational strategy.
Instead of administering travel policy as a cost to the business, travel managers will now take a seat at a bigger table in order to justify spend – just as other department heads with strategic roles have always done.