TravelBank and Delta Airlines discuss the pandemic’s durable effects on business travel, including the new types of business travel and travelers, how to maximize travel budgets by redeeming unused tickets, and how to scale group travel.
Shelby Dawirs: Welcome, everyone. Today’s deep dive is all about adapting corporate travel programs to the post-pandemic landscape. I’d like to jump straight on in and meet our panel. I’m Shelby Dawirs, I’m a report author for TravelBank. I’ve been researching the long-term effects of the pandemic on corporations. I’m joined today by experts from TravelBank and Delta Air Lines. Kara, could you introduce yourself?
Nice to meet everyone virtually today. My name is Kara Bates and I am on the customer success team here at TravelBank. Prior to transitioning into the tech and software as a service solutions space, I spent the first 10 years of my career in the financial and operations sector of higher ed.
While there, I held various positions at both MIT and Boston University. More recently, at Boston University, I served as their director of travel services, where they brought me on to reevaluate and modernize the school’s business expense reimbursement process and also their unmanaged corporate travel program.
I’ve served as both a project manager and business owner for multiple travel and expense system implementations and have successfully taken those large scale, so 10,000 plus user complex project, to the earliest planning phases to production in some highly matrixed and pretty change-adverse environments.
Leading system roll-outs with super lean product teams has required me to take on a variety of roles and makes me acutely aware of the challenges our customers face when rolling out a new solution to their teams.
I’m very passionate about using technology as a tool to optimize administrative processes and love using this previous experience to act as a consolidated business partner with my clients.
Thank you so much. Fouad, would you introduce yourself?
Hi, everyone. My name is Fouad Mehdaoui. I’m based in Atlanta, Georgia. I’m program manager here with Delta Air Lines with the Online Distribution Strategy Team. I’ve been with the company for 11 years.
My current role today is managing a portfolio of digital TMCs. TravelBank is one of them. Also, I work with our partners to enhance our customer shopping experience in what we call the next generation storefront, which is a new display model that departs from showing our customers just the lowest fare to a top model that shows our customers all available Delta products and our competitors’ products all in one view, one glance in one shot.
Glad to be here with you. Shelby, I know you did a lot of research and got a lot of stats and findings that you got to share with us. So, let’s dive into them.
Thank you, Fouad, and thank you both for joining. Like he mentioned, we’ve been thinking about post-pandemic corporate travel for a while. In preparation for this deep dive, we’ve analyzed TravelBank’s application user data, we’ve interviewed our customer base, and we surveyed hundreds upon hundreds of finance and HR leaders.
The absolute foremost post-pandemic corporate travel trend is that remote work is not going away. We’ve seen that 74% of US companies are permanently adopting a work model that’s either fully remote or hybrid, so people are spending at least two days remote and otherwise going to an office.
The paradox of that is that while it feels like everyone’s at the home office, many more cohorts of employees are traveling for team meetings and on-sites, company-wide meetings, QBRs… We see that companies are struggling to manage this and manage that extra demand.
I’m curious, Kara, how you find hybrid companies can manage that extra demand for their employees?
Absolutely. Well, especially in a hybrid environment too, sort of gone are the days where you walk up to your manager’s desk and ask, “What am I allowed to book? What am I supposed to do?”
Really leveraging a TMC partnership and a booking platform where you can build in your sort of policies and approvals into the actual booking process, so you’re able really to take sort of a hands-off approach and gently guide your travelers to do what they’re supposed to be doing in the first place.
Additionally, offering them a platform that’s going to remind them of the policies, how they need to be booking, what level of hotel they’re allowed to stay in depending on the type of travel they’re doing.
Additionally to that, centralizing everything through a single platform gives you sort of the visibility and transparency to see where your travelers are spending, maybe who you’re using most frequently as vendors, and really take a look at, okay, if I have some preexisting relationships, are they worth it? If they are worth it, am I in a better position, especially now that I have this reportable data, to negotiate even better rates in the future?
Then really the third thing there is to discover potential vendor partnerships you might not even have known were possible previously now that you just have that visibility into the spend.
Really sort of the last piece that I’d recommend is being able to proactively report on where your folks are going and really being able to partner with them and giving them a heads up of things going on.
I’ll use my sort of home base as Boston as an example. We have a major tunnel that goes to the airports in Boston, Logan, that’s going to be closed for pretty much the entire summer. Being able to see who’s flying out of Boston and who needs to build in that extra two hours of buffer time when they leave their house to get to their flight really is a huge benefit of leveraging that managed program.
I think it’s interesting what you mentioned about visibility, even department wide, seeing if these travel trends are lumpy, and some departments are extremely heavy and some are barely getting together once a year. It could be an opportunity for intervention and kind of culture for both parties.
The second post-pandemic corporate travel trend we saw is that the business travelers have changed. Business programs used to be tailored to quote unquote road warriors often in sales or the revenue team, but now all this intraoffice travel means more staff outside of sales are traveling, and they’re not as fluent in policies, company booking tools, expense reporting in general.
Fouad, do you think we need to think of travelers and their needs differently today, business travelers?
Absolutely. I want to reiterate Delta’s commitment to business traveler. Delta is a customer-centric brand, so everything the Delta team does here is with the customer at the core of everything we do throughout the travel day from shopping all the way to baggage claim and beyond.
I’ll share some of, as a supplier for air, I would say the evolution of some of the initiatives that Delta team took over the pandemic.
One of which is the shopping experience, enhancing the shopping experience. At Delta, we are channel agnostic. Our customers wants to shop on delta.com, that’s great. They want to shop on TravelBank, that’s even greater, but we want to make sure whatever they’re shopping, they’re getting the best value and they get to see the choices, and it’s also done in a transparent manner.
Second the billions of dollars investments in airport facilities and the onboard experience to make the life of travel, of corporate travel, in the new era much easier.
If you’ve been through LaGuardia, LAX, Seattle, Salt Lake City, you probably have seen some of these state-of-the-art terminals. If you’ve been to Detroit, and this is a fun fact, I don’t know if you’ve seen it or not, if you’ve been through Detroit, we deployed what’s called parallel reality for connecting passengers, which is a new technology. By just scanning your boarding pass, you’ll be looking at a giant board that in the past it has a lot of connecting flights info, but this time it will only show you personalized travel connections that are personalized to you, including the time it’s going to take you to walk to your gates.
The fun part is if there’s a hundred passengers sit, standing next to you, they cannot see what you are seeing. It’s tailored to you and everybody’s get to see only their connection information.
Another area also that have come up through the pandemic is loyalty. We understand the value of loyalty, and then our SkyMiles program has been very valuable, but today it goes way beyond just earning miles to earn or tickets later. We partnered with world-class brands.
Today if your employees are traveling, let’s say they take a Lyft from home to the airport, they get to the airport, they buy a latte at Starbucks, they get on a flight, they arrive, they go rent a car from Hertz, go to Marriott. Then before they return, they order groceries on Instacart. They’re earning miles across all those partners. It’s no longer the era of earning miles because you took a flight, but it is … The times today is you’re earning those miles. Improve that loyalty now and the rewards that come with it throughout the travel day.
That’s really interesting. I’m curious, Kara, too, how companies can rethink duty of care in this era.
What’s great too is what I’ve seen previously, especially for my background in higher ed, is you’d go out and purchase a separate sort of duty of care tool.
What’s great is now we have platforms like TravelBank that have those tools built in platform. At TravelBank, we have something called the travel tracker, so that as an admin or a travel manager sort of gives me the insight to see, all right, I have X amount of people going to this location. Really preemptively, things happen. Allows me to kind of plan for if something, an act of God happens, and allow me to work with my TMC partners, with my agent partners to either get people out quickly or reschedule and rearrange travel as needed.
But generally just being more proactive it sounds like.
Our third finding is about seeing group travel growing and that people are traveling in large cohorts. Negotiating these group rates obviously can save a ton of money, but it’s very time intensive to scale and manage, especially for distributed workforces where people are not leaving from a singular city but are coming in from all over.
Fouad, are you guys seeing this at Delta, that there’s also a rise in corporate group travel?
Totally consistently, especially post pandemic. I think that makes sense that that in-person connection it’s still valuable. A lot of companies, including here at Delta, we still have our own annual get together, I think that’s going to continue with on-sites.
Related to your findings earlier, 74%, that’s a pretty high number of companies that are hybrid, so you’re going to need to get those employees at some point or another, including new employees for training or what have you, together at some place.
Here at Delta we have developed several solutions for our corporate accounts, different sizes. If you are a contracted account with Delta, you have a contract in place. We’ve got what’s called Edge Meetings, Delta Edge Meetings, which you get discounts. There’s a rebate at the end of completing the travel.
It allows several people from your company to go to the same destination. They don’t have to all come from the same origin as long as they meet in the same destination.
There’s more info on delta.com/meetings if you need to learn more about that.
Kara, what would you recommend to scale group travel and make it more manageable with a distributed workforce?
First and foremost, Fouad I mentioned it really eloquently, different vendors. Be it airlines, hotels have different cutoffs when it comes to what they consider group travel. Someone that might necessarily have an extensive amount of event planning or group travel planning experience might not be familiar with that, those nuances, which makes the process even more time-consuming.
I would always recommend leverage your TMC, leverage your agent partners. A lot of times these folks already have pre-existing relationships in the locations you want to visit. I had a client that was actually having their annual offsite in San Francisco. What was amazing is our lead agent had a bunch of pre-existing relationships with several hotel properties, so right off the bat we were able to cut out that hotel RFP process for them. We had three properties queued up, ready to go.
We were able to ask and take care of AV needs, able to coordinate shuttles and transportation, and really just took a lot off an already-busy admin’s plate.
That would be my biggest thing. Lean on your TMC, lean on your booking platform because they’re in the industry and you never know what locations they have these preexisting sort of bespoke discounts or preexisting relationships with.
Definitely too, again, as you both mentioned, people are leaving from all different airports, so the different arrival, different departure location sort of gives it another level of complexity when it comes to planning those quarterly offsites, those annual meetings.
The fourth post-pandemic corporate travel trend we’ve seen is that travel programs need to proactively plan for supporting and rebooking travelers. We know in Q1 this year, one in four flights were delayed most often from weather. Kara, how can companies support employees as they travel?
Absolutely, and I’m guilty of this myself. I think I mentioned to you both during one of our practice runs, my first conference speaking engagement, I scheduled my flight to arrive the day I was presenting. Guess who missed their speaking engagement.
Really too being able to advise your travelers or using your partner TMC, your agent team to advise your travelers.
Build in buffer time around meeting and conferences. As much as we hate them, delays happen, so really being able to assist with best practice, like don’t plan to arrive two hours before the meeting. You’re going to cause yourself a lot of undue stress.
Then what’s great too, especially if you have a TMC partner like TravelBank, our agents will proactively work closely with airlines to try to pre-book you or try to preemptively reroute you if we know of an issue happening or something that’s going to occur in a geological location where your travelers are going to be going to.
Again, once your travelers on the road, you don’t want them to be stranded. You want them to feel like they have resources, they have someone to reach out to. That’s where a TMC comes in handy as well, because that’s where you’re getting into the 24-7 agents that are available by phone. You don’t want to be the person sitting on the line with a hotel to rebook for a couple hours, with an airline to rebook for a couple hours. Take that off your traveler’s plate and let your TMC partner do that for you.
I feel the stress leave my body, imagining something going awry with my travel plans and not clutching my hotel voucher up in the line. I’ve been there too many times.
Fouad, I think it’s worth mentioning, of course, Delta’s on-time arrival rate. Can you tell us more about Delta’s approach to operational performance?
Totally, Shelby. We’re in June, and June is national safety month. Before even I unpack this slide, which has a lot of data points, I want to reiterate that the Delta team, everything we do here in striving for that operational performance excellence is with safety at top of mind.
Delta has been leading the pack for the last 10 years in on-time performance, on-time arrivals, and leading within our competitors here in the United States.
At Delta, I’m going to share a fun fact how the Delta team tends to do that in one area. For example, Delta is the only US carrier that still has a meteorology department that’s in-house. We’ve got that team scanning weather globally and then anticipating within the next two week or so.
If there’s going to be a hurricane season, if it’s hurricane season in Florida, it’s going to be a sizable hurricane that’s going to disrupt travel, it’s going to be a winter storm in Detroit, JFK, what have you, so that they alert the commercial teams here … Because we know it’s going to be disruptions, going to be cancellations, delays.
They alert commercial division and then we issue waivers. I personally, for example, in the case of TravelBank, I sent it to you guys and then you reach out to your customers, and then given the options, usually within flexibility of a two to three weeks, to move their travel plans to avoid that situation that I think Kara described earlier in the report, getting there a little late and then missing flights, or in this case if there’s cancellations, our customers showing up and then there is no flights. Then that whole avenue of going through … In line, going lines at the airport, trying to reach either the airline or your travel agency.
We mitigate all that proactively, so our customers would never get to that situation like that.
That’s wonderful. The fifth post-pandemic corporate travel trend, and the last one we’re presenting today, is that we do see luckily that there is very clear evidence that a smartly managed travel program will produce measurable ROI.
Kara, what are some ways you’ve seen clients optimize their budget and get that better ROI specifically from their travel program?
Absolutely. Well, first and foremost, unused tickets can represent 5 to 7% of a company’s travel budget. Especially where if you’re unmanaged, that’s a sunk cost, right? You don’t know they exist, they’re out there in the ether.
What’s a great benefit of using a TMC, a managed travel platform, is that you get more, again, centralization and transparency where you can remind your travelers, hey, you have this flight credit from this meeting you had to reschedule or this thing you … Something came up, you had to cancel.
What’s great in the TravelBank platform, our travelers, when they go into book, they have an unused credit flight count. Right there, when they go to book, they’re being reminded to use it. You’re just cutting down that loss right on top, right?
Even in addition to that, we have reporting. We have a suite of reporting insights called Premium Insights. Travel managers, your platform administrators can pull a report of unused tickets or credits to make sure you’re nudging the right people. Like, hey, I know we have a meeting coming up, make sure you use this credit on Delta.
Additionally, if you have someone, again, especially for small to medium-sized businesses, you might not have a dedicated travel manager. It could be someone in operations, HR that might not have an extensive travel background implementing a managed platform.
Our implementation team walks our clients through any airline programs, any vendor programs that they would qualify for at current volumes. Just acts access as a strategic business partner and really pulls on our experience in the industry to make sure they’re set up for success, even if you might not have a traditional travel manager at your organization.
Lastly too, I had mentioned a little earlier, negotiated rates with hotel vendors, airlines. If you’re a smaller organization or if you’re going from completely unmanaged to managed, you might not have any of those.
What’s great is about going into a TMC partnership, adopting a booking platform is that we have pre-existing negotiated rates and pre-existing partnerships that you can leverage and take advantage. They’re plug-and-play. You’re already going to get that discounted rate just from being associated with us.
Yes, and 20,000 other organizations that use us! I also want to talk about the Delta corporate loyalty program. Fouad, could you tell us more about that?
It’s called SkyBonus. It’s a free program to sign up for. If you have at least $5,000 in spend in a year and you got five unique travelers traveling, I think you’re leaving money on the table, just like Kara was explaining in terms of additional savings or hidden savings.
The program is waived for the first year for those five travelers and five thousands, and then your employees basically will be earning their own SkyMiles miles and then the company itself will be earning points. Those points can later be used as awards for award tickets, upgrades, and what have you.
Another site probably that most people don’t know about with this program is when you are a SkyBonus member, your employees, they always have what’s called a SkyBonus ID. That allows our folks at the airport to know this is corporate travel, this trip is for corporate, for corporate travel.
In the case of disruptions, that can help a lot our teams prioritize your employees in terms of the list of travelers and managing the situation.
I think the value is not only awards and points, what to be used for, but also for us as airlines to recognize that that’s a corporate traveler.
Right, and even extending additional care as they travel and as they need support. That’s wonderful. We’ve pulled together a handful of takeaways. I’m curious, Kara, as a travel manager, what would you do tomorrow to implement some of this research?
First and foremost, leverage your TMC, lean on your agency partners to get those preferred rates. Also, to help you analyze if any preexisting relationships, should you let that contract management go and pursue others?
Additionally, shoulder the manual work. Don’t have your travelers be the ones sitting on the phone with their airlines or their hotels rebooking. Make sure they’re using your agency.
Additionally, too, your agencies have these built-in relationships that’ll help you build and scale really time-consuming processes like group travel or meeting coordination.
Secondly, ensure your employees have a human to talk to 24-7. They don’t want to feel like they’re out on the road and they’re on their own. Make sure they know that someone has their back and that someone is your TMC and your agency partner.
Not a chatbot!
Exactly. Really the last one is, and I found success doing this when I was a travel manager, and I see some of my most successful clients do this as well, build in travel policy training, agency partnership awareness into employee onboarding and offer regular training sessions around it, so when you have your infrequent travelers or your folks hitting the road for the first time, they feel supported, they know where to go, and most importantly, they don’t book outside platform
Fouad, how about you?
I echo everything Kara said. If you have a travel program existing, go ahead and review it. Make sure that it’s delivering value to the employees, not just the price points. Here I’m talking mainly about policies that were based on cabins or hotel stars in the past, and those should kind of transform into what we call a budget-based policy. That drives trust between the employee and the company, that drives more compliance for travel policy, and it doesn’t impact budgets because budget will stay the way it is.
Then it helped the company also with talent acquisition, retention. Also, for travel managers, their job definitely has become more complex post-pandemic. I think the travel program is no longer just a program within a company, but it is an important and intricate component of the company at large.
Second one, I would say, give us at Delta an opportunity to serve your customers. The Delta team is eager to serve your employees and then show them the value of travel and then cut all that stress out of it. Hopefully we’ll see you onboard one of these days.
Thank you to Fouad and Kara for your time and your expertise today. Thank you to all of our attendees. If you want to learn more about TravelBank, you can visit TravelBank.com, or always email firstname.lastname@example.org and a human will reply. Thanks everyone for joining.