ETTravelWorld (ETTW): How reflective is the SAP Concur survey of the current sentiment on corporate travel?
Mankiran Chowhan (MC): The survey was conducted across multiple countries and regions using the most rigorous methodology and data insights. Respondents from over 25 countries including India participated in it. The findings of the survey that more than 78 per cent are more than willing to get back to work trips echoes what we have been hearing during our day-to-day business conversations with our customers and partners. There are trends across the globe in terms of people’s perceptions, expectations, hopes, aspirations, renewed priorities, and the shifting trajectory of work trips that the survey captures. It gives an analytical big picture by correlating how people’s reactions vary based on location, yet they share the same concerns and harbour similar hopes. When it comes to willingness to resume travel, albeit with more control and flexibility, and the looming anxiety that if travel doesn’t kickstart soon, it will hurt business prospects, there’s a wide convergence. In India, an overwhelming majority of the professionals (59 per cent) feel that travel is vital to forge new connections and maintain old ones. This resonates with findings in other regions as well.
ETTW: How would you say has the current travel hiatus affected professionals and their businesses?
MC: As the survey highlights, over 43 per cent in India are worried about lack of career advancements if travel doesn’t resume and 40 per cent about earning less. These are significant numbers and attest that professional want normalcy in business travel to commence soon. Ever since the world came to an abrupt halt due to the pandemic, people were compelled to radically reorient their life and work. It was a huge setback for a lot of sectors particularly those where travel is intrinsic to the business and revenue model. Travel is essential not just for meetings to define an agenda but building new business connections, cultivating existing ones, assessing client feedback, attending industry conclaves, showcasing products and brainstorming. Other than that, there are sectors wholly reliant on travel such as aviation and hospitality. They have been the hardest hit among all due to travel restrictions and frequent shutdowns. Even though digitalisation has succeeded in giving us an alternative to in-person meetings and deliberations from the comfort of our homes, yet there are crucial intangibles that people feel are missing. Despite the connectivity, speed and user-friendly interface, there’s a human bonding, connect, empathy and other random and impromptu occurrences that both provide a creative spark and keep people more engaged. The happenchance stream of ideas or striking a conversation suddenly, are missing completely. The fact that over 78 per cent business travellers in India are eager to resume work-trips and over 84 per cent feel that inability to travel will affect them personally reflects that there’s something they feel is missing. And when a section among them squarely says that inability to travel hampers career growth, prospects and earning, we know that it’s a key concern for them.
ETTW: Will we soon be witnessing a restart of in-person meetings, how long would it take for corporate travel to take off?
MC: With the world opening-up, safety protocols being strictly followed by enterprises and the swift rollout of vaccines, we can expect domestic business travel to resume soon. The curve has flattened and if there’s no spike in cases anytime soon, then travel can start sooner than expected. Beginning next year, it’s expected to be in full swing. For international travel, it’s more complex and a mixed bag subject to the policies, safety guidelines, Covid caseload, vaccination status, travel advisories and numerous other factors. That said, it’s safe to say that once a critical mass has been vaccinated everywhere and cases start plateauing, global business travel too would start.
ETTW: What is the kind of flexibility that professionals are looking at when they consider corporate travel?
MC: They are looking at greater control and ownership in all aspects: itinerary planning, accommodation, and commute. Safety, comfort, and convenience are three things that professionals want greater control over. They want the liberty to choose their own hotels, travel mode and the duration. For instance, as I stated before, 54 per cent Indian travellers are keen on staying in larger hotels and 49 per cent would use their personal vehicle instead of public transportation. Also, there’s a preference for short-duration trips.
ETTW: How can companies look to make travel safe and accommodating?
MC: Travel policies need to be more adaptable, hassle free, synchronous with employee demands and framed in view of an interactive employee experience. There should be enough room for adjustments and future tweaking, if required. Through digital and financial transformation, incorporating resilience in their operations and focusing on their employees, companies can not only return to work-travels but make them more enriching and fulfilling for employees. As per the survey over 47 per cent Indian respondents worry that if their organisation does not increase business travel, it will be difficult to sign new business deals. So, companies should take stock of employee sentiments and put employee safety above all.
ETTW: What are some of the post-Covid learnings for companies when it comes to corporate travel?
MC: The pandemic reinforced the message of social connections and reaching out. A lot of companies took this lesson very seriously and implemented employee centric policies that aim at their well-being, safety, and convenience. Maximising value and purpose for employees and stakeholders while staying committed to company’s vision and ethos, with a focus on social inclusion, is something that companies are looking at with greater focus.
ETTW: What are some of the adjustments that companies must be looking to make in their travel policies?
MC: As I have said before, companies should prioritise an ‘employee first’ approach and their whole outlook should be redefined in a way that the well-being and purpose of the traveller (the employee) takes precedence and is aligned with company goals. Companies should look at framing their policies around what employees expect. For instance, 66 per cent Indian business travellers state that they want to return to business travel on their own terms. So, definitely, more liberty and flexibility are crucial. It’s a well-known fact that people put their best foot forward when they are self-motivated and have a desire to excel. This spontaneously comes into play when there’s a smooth mechanism for everything related to feedback loops and quick query resolution. When employees feel liberated and empowered to make their own choices and make any adjustments for their plan in accordance with their safety and comfort, they are de-stressed and can concentrate better and plan smart. Any redundancies or cumbersome processes should be best removed from the system for a seamless employee experience and enhanced productivity.