As the effort to contain COVID-19 drives countries to close their borders and airlines to ground fleets, the corporate travel management community remains on the front line of getting people home or to their place of work.
As much as most consumers can only watch the situation as it changes hour by hour, travel management companies must react to those changes.
Fahim Khan, product development director for TMC Reed & Mackay, says that right now while there is not much new travel being booked, there are still bookings to be managed.
“There’s still quite a bit of volume for us in terms of refunds and making sure people are able to change. There’s also quite a bit of engagement from an account management point of view as we look to advise on what we’re seeing in the industry.
“The product teams are quite busy because customers on the fly, and very quickly, are changing their policies so that has to be reflected in the booking tool for travel bans to certain destinations.”
Reed & Mackay and other TMCs such as ATPI have clients in the shipping industry as well as the offshore energy sector where crews need to change over.
Pippa Ganderton, director of global account management at ATPI, says that in these sectors it’s “mission critical” and they still need to be looked after.
CWT paints a similar picture, with Daniele Gadbois, senior director of business development, adding that no sector remains unaffected, but that it comes down to following the decisions made company by company.
The current focus, Gadbois says, is twofold:
“The safety of employees and travelers and helping customers with their changing travel needs. The situation is fast-moving, even for us. It’s evolving from one day to the next, sometimes one hour to the next.”
That comes as no surprise, with announcements on March 16 alone including: a U.K. government advisory to end all non-essential travel; France’s decision to impose a lockdown; and Canada’s decision to close its borders to foreign nationals.
While the current situation is unlike anything experienced in the past, TMCs and the wider corporate travel community have to deal with disruptions regularly.
Ganderton points to the Xiamen Airlines crash in Manila in 2018, which closed the airport and had a massive impact on the shipping industry.
“Manila is the epicenter for moving crew around because so many come from the region, particularly in shipping and a growing number in energy. The closure of the airport for four days meant stranded passengers and ensuring delays for many months.”
With the news coming in from local channels and teams on the ground, the immediate response from ATPI was to run reports on the travelers affected and make sure information was disseminated via the ATPI Alerts service.
The same information is also distributed within the company for internal teams and account managers as well as consultants involved in rebooking travelers.
More recently, TMCs had to contend with back-to-back storms Ciara and Dennis across the U.K. and Ireland.
Broadly speaking TMCs follow similar processes in terms of assessing who is impacted and how to help them ensure relevant information is distributed.
The technology to support them can vary depending on whether proprietary a system is used for tracking and alerting travelers and which third-party incident information provider is used.
Khan says that Reed & Mackay, for example, has a direct link into FlightStats to help its consultants be proactive in dealing with disruption.
The situation is fast-moving. It’s evolving from one day to the next, sometimes one hour to the next.
Daniele Gadbois - CWT
It will also put its rapid response team into into action, including extra, often home-based staff where required, to ensure travelers get the “out of hours” assistance they need.
During Storm Ciara the company’s emergency team received 178% more calls and 241% more emails than over a typical weekend.
Khan says that one element of its technology being used more currently is functionality around geofencing within its traveler tracking system.
The technology can draw an area on its interactive traveler tracking map which captures all the travelers in that area, according to the company’s trips database, and sends those travelers a notification.
“It’s a feature that we hoped would not have to be used that often but we have noticed a big uptake.”
As the volume of incidents impacting travelers has increased in recent years, whether related to terrorism, weather and now health, the technology has evolved.
ATPI’s Ganderton says that clients used to see their travelers on a map and run a report on where travelers were going, but now reports are much more detailed and the technology enables immediate notifications to be pushed to travelers wherever they are.
“If I’m traveling and have booked through ATPI, when I land, or check in to a hotel, I will receive a text message with a link saying ‘confirm safe arrival.’ If I don’t confirm the system will push three prompts by SMS and email. If they are not replied to the client’s human resources or other department is alerted.”
Khan adds that access to data has significantly improved, with the industry now “better prepared” than five years ago.
CWT’s Gadbois says that the “near real-time nature” of data has become the norm and is critical in what is often an “every second counts” situation.
She adds that as a result of incidents such as snowstorms and the volcanic ash cloud in 2010, the industry can model scenarios, using both fact-based and historical data, that can be used for contingency planning and business continuity.
A plan for a pandemic is included in these scenarios along with the need to think much wider than a particular area or certain set of travelers being impacted.
Data is also enabling predictive analytics to play an increasing role, with suppliers such as airlines predicting delays and cancellations more accurately, thus allowing TMCs to be more proactive.
The expectation going forward is that these emerging artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies will play an increasing role.
There are no indications of when the industry will begin to recover from coronavirus and all guesses point to a new normal.
Early predictions from industry organizations revealed COVID-19 would cost corporate travel $47 billion per month, while on March 17 the World Travel & Tourism Council said it could cost up to 50 million jobs in travel and take up to 10 months for the industry to recover.
There are calls on governments for financial help such as that from J.D. O'Hara, CEO of Travel Leaders, sent to the U.S. House of Representatives on the "existential crisis" facing travel advisors.
And, amid these sorts of messages, rallying cries of #strongertogether from the Business Travel Association and others are also important alongside the offers of advice or just an ear.
Technology plays a critical role, but as Clive Wratten, CEO of the BTA, says, there's need to focus on the long game. A recent LinkedIn post concludes:
“This is beyond business, it’s about people.”