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Travel – what can we learn from the pandemic?

Travel – what can we learn from the pandemic?

Jayne Thorn, Category Manager - Corporate Services, SUPC



Of all the industries hit by the COVID-19, the travel industry has taken quite a beating. When news of the pandemic starting breaking in late December 2019, the only significant changes were of some organisations imposing minor restrictions on travel to and from some parts of China. Travel to Australia was impacted due to wildfires raging across the country. By mid-February, the UK had weathered 2 storms, Ciara and Dennis, Flybe had gone into administration, and Australia was still on fire. Travel management companies, (TMCs), were swamped with enquiries for cancellations and changes to bookings.


By March, borders were closing globally and there were widespread cancellations across all airlines. For the TMCs the focus moved to repatriations, and then cancellations. In the most dramatic move in a generation, schools, shops, bars and restaurants were shut, global lockdowns were starting and ‘shelter in place’ orders issued. As we end week 8 of lockdown following Johnson’s blustering Sunday night press conference, ‘go to work but don’t go to work’ word salad, is it worth reflecting what have we learnt with the regards to the way we used to meet with one another?


Change is now

Procurement, finance, and travel managers had all heard at some point that the travel they were reluctant to fund or sign off was ‘essential’. That the meeting couldn’t possibly take place over video conference. That an event or conference had to be attended in person, online provision was either unreliable or not deemed appropriate. As we all moved to working from home and took crash courses in Zoom and Teams, (words that until 2020 had quite different meanings,) we probably would have been swayed into thinking that the travel we previously undertook was essential. If we have one takeaway from the pandemic and lockdown is that a huge number of meetings and conferences can be conducted from our kitchen tables or spare bedrooms. Travelling from Reading to meetings in Manchester, there and back in a day, for a 3-hour meeting now seems unthinkable and almost absurd that it was something we regularly did and accepted as normal.


Many universities are embracing the move of management culture away from ‘presenteeism’.  As one professional service director shared in a recent SUMS Consulting Report on the human impact of Covid-19 on university HR functions, “COVID has helped underline that work is something we do, not somewhere we go”.  SUMS Consulting notes that the consensus is that remote working will now be a permanent feature for most universities even beyond the point that a vaccine becomes available.   One HR director commented, “My view is that universities have been behind the curve on remote working anyway, it’s always struck me as strange that places so full of innovation can struggle to modernise”.


So right now what can we do? This is the perfect time to review and update travel policies and check how they’re implemented and the governance around them. In reality, we’re going to be spending far less than the predicted £200m+ pa that the current travel framework was expected to see. This allows us to really look at what we’re spending, and make decisions now, with refreshed travel policies to spend that money far more wisely, even if that means spending a touch more on those essential journeys that we do make. As a procurement professional, it feels slightly alien to approach this change from the angle of suggesting that we might be prepared to spend a little more, so why would I advocate this?



The Power of Three, or Two as the Case May Be

We know that ‘things’ come in threes; buses, musketeers and little pigs. Another is example is time, quality, and cost, constraints we’re all familiar with when it comes to projects and deadlines. You can only achieve two of these well, to the detriment of the other. When it comes to travel, cost has always been a huge element of the decision-making process.


This the first corner of our triangle. Cost.


The TMCs awarded to the SUPC framework all offer a price match. If you find a like for like ticket, they’ll refund the difference and usually waive the transaction fee. However, that flight your Academic found online invariably isn’t the same ticket. It won’t have the same terms and be as less flexible, it’ll have a less generous baggage allowance and you’ll probably be the last to board, with hand baggage stowed in the hold and you’ll end up in the dreaded middle seat. That cheap hotel incurs additional transport costs and the Wi-Fi is rubbish, and neither are included in the booking rate. It’s too far out of town to safely walk anywhere to eat out, so that’s either more travel costs, or a rip off hotel restaurant that knows it’s got a captive audience.


Not all tickets, and thus journeys are created equal.


Our second corner: Climate change


The global aviation industry contributes around 2% of all human-induced CO2 emissions, but it is only 12% of transport CO2 emission, 74% comes from road transport, and 80% of aviation emissions come from journeys of over 1,500km where there is no practical alternative.


Due to the way airlines ‘Fitted Out’ the A380, passenger capacity reductions delivered 109kg of CO2 per passenger per KM, versus the Boeing 787 Dreamliner at 88kg per passenger per KM. Want to go Business Class? Expect it to be on average 9 times higher.


A flight from London to Beijing has an average CO2 footprint of 7,533kg of CO2, this is with a Middle Eastern carrier, with a stopover. Let’s take that same trip, but we’ll fly with Finnair via Helsinki, so it includes a stopover, but the CO2 of that journey is just 4,835kg.


How on earth is that possible? Well, that’s because the earth isn’t a perfect sphere, and from Helsinki, you can take advantage of something called the ‘parabolic curve’.


So again, not all journeys are created equal.


Our third and final corner: Traveller mental health and well-being


Anxieties about lost luggage, connections in strange airports, navigating public transport, time away from loved ones, lack of social interaction, jetlag leading to extreme tiredness. The anxiety of arriving late at night, in a strange destination and having a public transport only policy is an added burden. Cheap hotels in the less salubrious part of town could leave people feeling unsafe or reluctant to leave their rooms. All because the travel policy was inflexible. All of these take a toll on traveller mental health.


These are human costs. The mental health and well-being of our travellers is rarely touched on, partly due to our attitudes around mental health in general and the stigma of speaking out and asking for help. Analysis published by Deloitte in January 2020 reports that poor mental health is costing the UK economy £45 billion per year. Crucially for every £1 spend on mental health interventions organisations get £5 back in reduced absence, presenteeism and staff turnover. Is it worth imposing a travel policy that exacerbates these problems, or should policies be more flexible?


By shifting our thinking and emphasis away from the cost corner of our triangle, let’s push the focus towards traveller well-being and the environment. Our benefits will be three-fold;

  • Individual well-being will be improved. Not only will we be travelling less, but the journeys we do make will also be more focused on the traveller experience, yielding less anxiety, less stress, and an improvement in overall mental health and a reduction in absence.
  • That puts our organisations in better shape, an overall ‘better’ workforce, with fewer sick days and a more motivated workforce. Proactively managing those mental health interventions will pay back five times what we invest. That’s a cost-benefit right there.
  • Finally, the environmental benefits of travelling less, or travelling ‘better’, will benefit global society in reducing the impact on the planet. Perhaps combine this with an open-minded view of ‘bleisure’:- your business traveller wants to spend a few days after their conference exploring using a couple of days of annual leave? Let them, it’s good for their wellbeing, it means they won’t need to return in future, and flying home on a day other than Friday is probably more cost-effective anyway.


So we can’t have everything, we can’t equally prioritise the financial, environmental, and human costs of travel. We need to seek a better fit. We need to move focus away from cost alone. We have a golden opportunity to update travel policies and recalibrate our expectations of what business travel looks like. Any thoughts of returning to ‘normal’ should be abandoned, normal was the problem.


Travel will be significantly reduced: meetings can take place online, conference sessions can be delivered successfully online, teaching can take place online. The LUPC/SUPC conference, traditionally a one-day in-person event with attendance usually around the 300 delegates mark from the respective memberships. This year, priorities had to change, the content delivery moved on-line over two days, and we had 605 unique bookings. Just under 30% of those were consortia members outside SUPC and LUPC. Not only can it be done, but also it can be done well and reach a greater audience.


Overall travel spend will be drastically reduced, which will allow us to spend that little bit more when travel really is essential. Sociable flying times, in environmentally ‘better’ planes, staying in decent hotels, on the right side of the tracks.


We can do it. Much of the travel we thought was essential, can be done online, and will hopefully stay online and so yield huge cost savings. I’m not advocating complete travel bans; I for one would be sad to see events like the SUPC conference or COUP turn into completely online events, but getting up at 5 am for a meeting in Leeds and getting home at gone 7 pm? I won’t miss that.