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SITUATION UPDATE 3 March, 2021 Back

Special Report - the outlook for business travel in 2021 and beyond

Becky Malcolm

The impacts of COVID-19 are far from concluded, yet the ability to travel is a fundamental part of recovery for the global economy. Looking ahead at 2021, the ease of travel will be dependent on several factors in the country locations of origin and destination, including the response to new outbreaks and the COVID-19 recovery status.

What was previously required to merely travel from one country to another has now changed completely in the age of COVID-19. PCR tests, government approval and daily monitoring of the situation means there are now many more factors travellers and their employers need to be aware of.

It will be vaccine efficacy and the emerging viral variants that present risk to any anticipated timeframe for the return to business travel. The roadmap for the return to travel will require monitoring of the overall COVID-19 epidemiological situation and global vaccination rates. If efficacy versus fatalities is compromised by a new variant, existing vaccinations will have to be modified and this scenario comes with the requirement for further scientific research and regulatory approval, which in turn will delay the resumption of business travel.

Factors to consider when planning this year’s business travel include a country’s response to COVID-19. Some countries have imposed stringent COVID-19 restrictions, and have a low tolerance toward viral outbreaks, whilst others have sought to remain open for business.

The wealthier countries that have been able to secure adequate vaccine supplies for their population and have begun mass vaccination campaigns are likely to return to relative normalcy more quickly than lower-income countries that have not yet begun mass immunisation drives.

We anticipate that passenger flights will resume in the second half of 2021 as the vaccinations roll out. Short haul, domestic and leisure will return first, with long haul and business travel likely to resume unevenly across the world.

Business travel will be enabled to and from the countries that have begun inoculating their populations first - China, European Union (EU) states, Israel, Russia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (US). As workers return to offices - particularly in economic hubs - we expect business travel to resume. It is also likely that economic hubs will establish travel corridors to facilitate business activities.

There are a range of solutions that can assist companies with assessments of COVID-19 factors at the locations they seek to travel to and from, such as our Riskmatics platform, which uses a combination of technology and our extensive team of risk analysts to assess a COVID-19 risk level for every country around the world and report on all current international and domestic travel restrictions, as well as mandatory requirements when in-country. The situation is monitored 24/7 and alerts are disseminated in real-time.

We hope that travel to locations that have faced greater challenges vaccinating their populations, such as lower-income countries that have not yet been able to secure adequate vaccine supplies, will start to resume in the second half of 2021. However, travellers to these countries will be subject to additional requirements in both the location of origin and destination, before and after travel. Governments may impose travel bans on locations yet to vaccinate the majority of their population or may require travellers from that location to quarantine upon arrival, undertake testing prior to departure and/or may impose vaccination requirements. Businesses will also need to consider the risk of infection to staff members travelling to countries with lower vaccination rates.

COVID-19 will remain a global risk for the foreseeable future, so precautionary measures, such as social distancing and mask-wearing can be expected to continue. Our COVID-19 microsite is a constantly updated online resource for health and travel information and advice.

The impact of the work from home business culture

Another consideration for businesses looking at corporate travel in 2021, is the millions of people who started working from home and how this has changed the office landscape. COVID-19 will have permanent effects on professional culture, many industry leading companies such as Twitter and Apple have issued public statements that home working will continue in some form in the post-pandemic era.

It used to be that we would travel frequently to attend meetings, but virtual meetings have facilitated the new status quo. For millions of people the world has been reduced to the dimensions of a laptop screen and the barrier between work and home has been lost.

In addition to productivity issues, there is also the rise of WFH burnout, and this risk to employees is substantial. The lines between work and non-work are blurring in new and unusual ways, and many employees who are working remotely for the first time are struggling to create healthy boundaries between their professional and personal lives. To demonstrate loyalty and productivity, they feel they have to work all the time. Afternoons blend with evenings, weekdays blend with weekends and there is little sense of time off.

So, organisations will have to balance real-world interactivity, productivity and employee wellbeing with convenience and cost. We expect that business travel will be used to facilitate the more premium or critical face-to-face meetings, with more routine interactions deferred to virtual meetings.

Post pandemic travel planning considerations

Companies will need clearer definitions of essential travel

As business travel returns, employees and businesses may be more cautious about taking trips. Who in the organisation is responsible for defining and authorising ‘essential’ business travel? And who owns the final decision.

In many companies, this responsibility falls between job roles – going forward, clear processes and ownership of responsibility will be necessary to meet employee expectations and protect brand liability.

The lockdown has enabled organisations to harness the effectiveness of virtual collaboration, so taking into account economics, companies may be mindful of travel budgets, which means it is important to ensure the right decisions are made and employees are protected. Factors to consider are the physical and psychological health risk of the traveller, as well as the destination risk. Wellbeing for business travellers must not be compromised by price.

Employing travel managers or bringing in new corporate assistance schemes can help businesses with creating strategy and process to define essential travel and decide on the ownership structure for key decisions.

  1. Clarity for employees is required around travel assistance

A recent survey found that while half of business travellers say their employer has invested in medical and security assistance to support them, 51% of those aren’t sure what it means or offers. Many employees are apprehensive about making use of the traveller assistance and support services provided, with only a fifth saying they were confident using their 24/7 medical and security assistance in the event of something going wrong while abroad.

Now is a great opportunity for companies to review and update their travel assistance policies and internal communications strategy, so that when travel resumes their employees are informed and feel protected.

  1. Businesses will need to continue reviewing and adjusting policies

As we settle into a new normality, the transition phase is likely to continue with social distancing, increased hygiene measures and disease surveillance. During this time, businesses will need to be agile in evolving their own policies, as things change fast. Factors include how corporate travel is approved and what advisory measures employees receive – whether that is a recommendation to wear face masks when visiting certain countries, or a reminder to leave more time for airport security and screening.

Businesses can continue to learn from the COVID-19 experience on how to prepare for adverse events, the effect on corporate travel and protection of a global workforce. Balancing employee comfort, experience and safety whilst travelling will continue for some time, and companies may need to consider looking outside the organisation for help with crisis planning, medical and security assistance and insurance.

  1. Wellbeing of the “bleisure” traveller

Millennial and Gen Z travellers tend to be especially keen on mixing business and pleasure. They often extend the corporate trip into a personal one and this may be even more prevalent after COVID-19 for people who love to travel and have been unable to do so.

The “bleisure” travellers will be more concerned about health and safety following the COVID-19 pandemic. Businesses should expect questions around where their business insurance ends and their personal travel insurance begins.

Companies need to provide full clarity around what is covered and what isn’t. This information should be widely accessible and understood by all employees. Businesses can use this opportunity to show employees that their health, safety and wellbeing are being protected any time they are abroad; for example, a company might have a preferred personal travel policy to recommend for workers wishing to extend their business trip.