The Return to Business Travel: COVID-19 Guide

By Jessica Sillers

Life and work in 2020 has been anything but “business as usual.” At one point, it was difficult to imagine business travel grinding to a near-total halt, grounding flights and thinning road traffic to a trickle. But now, after months of pandemic accommodation, it may feel strange to imagine returning to packed flights and bustling hotels.

As businesses begin to resume corporate travel, it’s important for both managers and travelers to learn the new lay of the land. Taking additional precautions, both in terms of safety protocols and expense management, may be the key to a successful return to business travel.

Is Business Travel Coming Back?

A survey from the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) reported nearly universal cancellation of business travel, with 98% of respondents halting business trips immediately after the pandemic became widespread. The Travel Intentions Pulse Survey, released in September from MMGY Travel Intelligence, shows a marked change, with 35% of respondents saying they’re likely to take a business trip in the next 6 months.

Method of travel may have a significant impact on planning business trips. More than two-thirds of travelers say they feel safer in their personal vehicle than traveling by air. Travelers used a personal car for more than 80% of business trips before the pandemic as well, so it may be relatively easy for managers to plan most trips within driving distance.

Safety for Business Travelers Is Top Priority

The United States is still experiencing thousands of new COVID-19 cases on a daily basis. Safety measures are top priority, especially if travelers must pass through areas with high rates of infection.

Driving may feel more comfortable than flying for the majority of travelers. Managers should take into account that some travelers may wish to avoid carpooling, as well, which means additional mileage reimbursement expenses for travelers taking separate cars.

Your choice of airline may affect the safety protocols travelers have to follow. Most major airlines require travelers to wear a mask. Delta has been particularly stringent, even turning a plane around at the gate to disembark two passengers who refused to wear their masks. United Airlines, Delta, and JetBlue also ban masks with breathing valves, which do not filter exhalations. As far as seating, Delta, Southwest, and JetBlue are strictest about keeping an empty middle seat between passengers (except for families requesting to sit together). Some other airlines have returned to filling flights in response to increased demand for air travel.

Some cities and states enforce quarantine procedures for travelers, too:

And these procedures continue to evolve as infection rates fluctuate.

New Budget Considerations for Corporate Travel

Business trips may be coming back, but the pandemic still affects the way people travel—and the way companies plan and spend on trips.

Last-minute booking is nothing new. A study from Hoffman York found that roughly half of business travelers booked within two weeks of departure, often only a few days in advance. With coronavirus on the scene, more companies may wait until the last minute to confirm and book a trip and should consider refundable tickets.

Similarly, it seems reasonable to expect frequent cancellations, as well. Travelers playing it cautious may back out if they aren’t feeling well, if data shows a spike in cases at their destination, or if a client meeting falls through due to illness.

What this means is managers need extra support from their travel management system to stay nimble and responsive. There’s no time to sift through pages of web results and compare options for hours. When you green-light a trip, you want to be able to get travel and lodging in place in minutes. An automated system can put the best-fit flights and hotels in your budget right in front of you, helping you stay compliant and timely.

It’s also a good idea to refresh yourself on unused ticket balance management. If employees can’t go on a trip they scheduled, you can often work with the airline to put that flight credit toward another trip. You’ll retain more value, while being as flexible as possible about your employees’ health and safety.

Getting back on the road while the pandemic continues takes some extra planning. Stay on top of safety guidelines and requirements, and choose a responsive travel management solution that can work seamlessly with your plans to give you a smooth transition back to business travel.

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