Office Hours: COVID-19 Response -- What We've Learned

Posted by
Lacey McGhee on August 24, 2020
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On August 18th, 2020, Traxo held a webinar with a panel of three corporate travel management experts to discuss their response to COVID-19 over the last six months. In addition to the challenges they faced as COVID-19 gripped the world, the panel also discussed the strategies they plan to implement to adapt and evolve their travel programs over the next six months. 

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The panel was composed of Karen Bond, Travel Manager at 3,400 employee-strong HNTB, Suzanne Boyan, Travel Manager at ZS Associates, and the 2019 BTN Travel Manager of the Year, and Sharon Varel, Travel Manager at Provisur Technologies. 

To kick off the discussion, the roughly 250 attendees participated in a poll.


Audience Poll 1:

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Panelist Question 1: What is the most significant challenge facing your travel program today?

In a Traxo Webinar held in April, Suzanne Boyan said her biggest struggle was helping her travelers receive communication about the COVID-19 pandemic from one trusted source, versus the dozens of sources they were using. For her, however, she said, “data is not a big challenge.”

Boyan, who leverages the Traxo platform to provide data to her travel management tools, said she feels more confident than ever that she has the necessary data for knowing her travelers’ location and planned trips. Since April, Boyan said she has been able to establish a clear communication channel for her travelers. While her organization has halted travel, for the time being, Boyan explained that she’s prepared to begin travel again. 

Boyan’s biggest challenge right now is “tempering expectations” and reminding her travelers that the most socially responsible decision is to avoid travel for the time being. 

Sharon Varel’s company, Provisur, is an international food processing equipment provider, which places the company in the “essential business” category. As such, Varel said her travel program never truly stopped operating. Varel added that her company implemented a three-phased approach to resuming travel at Provisur’s full capacity. 

Currently, Varel explained Provisur is in phase two of the company’s travel resumption plan. For the time being, Varel said her biggest challenge is navigating international entry requirements for essential travelers. Because the websites that outline travel policies are not clear on quarantine exemptions and other rules for essential workers, Varel stated that Provisur chose to work with an immigration attorney to navigate the waters more carefully. 

Karen Bond said her company lifted its ban on travel July 16th and has up to 25% of its travelers on the road. Karen’s company, HNTB, primarily travels domestically. 

However, Bond explained she’s continuously monitoring the coronavirus “hot spots” around the United States and working to keep her travelers informed. Bond said they’re leaving the decision up to employees about whether or not they’re comfortable traveling. Bond also remarked that of those who are comfortable traveling, many opt for car travel versus air travel to retain the most control of their journeys.

To address the issues of communication during the COVID-19 pandemic, Bond teamed up with the corporate communications departments to ensure travelers received the information they needed to travel safely. 

 

Panelist Question 2: What tools, resources, and applications, are you using to see how each state is handling the pandemic?

Karen Bond said her TMC, Amex GBT, has a “Travel Vitals” platform that helps her understand how travel is evolving around the country. She also named the CDC’s COVID-19 map and Johns Hopkins global COVID-19 map as useful resources. 

Suzanne Boyan explained she leans on bi-weekly calls with her TMC, Luxe Travel, for assistance as well as the CDC and Johns Hopkins maps. Additionally, Boyan said she’s been participating in monthly calls with each region of ZS Associates to get a ground-level perspective from colleagues around the globe.

Sharon Varel said her team has also relied on its risk management partner, WorldAware, for traveler safety information. Provisur is also leveraging an app provided by the company’s TMC, BCD, to monitor entry instructions issued by each country. Finally, Varel explained that Provisur has a COVID task force that receives daily updates from members in Europe and Asia.

 

Panelist Question 3: How are you communicating with your travelers – Are they signing declarations that say they understand the risks associated with travel? How are you determining whether or not your travelers are ready to return to travel?

Suzanne Boyan said ZS Associates is handing communication on a case-by-case basis since her company has not resumed travel. Once travel demand picks up, Boyan expects to communicate with the company’s travelers more widely. In regards to signing a declaration, Boyan explained that rather than having their employees sign a document, travelers are responsible for booking their own trips. If they’re uncomfortable with traveling, they are not required to book trips and should reach out to the ZS Associates team to discuss their concerns and options. 

Boyan said that when ZS Associates employees travel, they receive clear instructions on what ZS Associates expects from them and the supplier policies they’ll have to follow. However, Boyan leans on her legal team and suggests all travel managers contact their legal teams for advice on how best to handle the resumption of travel.

Sharon Varel said Provisur doesn’t require signed declarations either. Instead, she explained traveling employees are sent communications through the HR department about the current phase of their travel resumption policy along with practical recommendations to keep themselves safe. Varel stated employees also have access to an online resource center for travel supplier policies and country and state requirements. Finally, employees have access to a traveler hotline during trips.

Varel’s team also asks employees for updates on their travel experiences and encourages them to leave situations that make them uncomfortable, including unsanitary rental cars and packed airplanes. 

Karen Bond agreed that employees who book travel accept the risks of travel, but HNTB is not forcing employees to travel if they’re uncomfortable. 

 

Panelist Question 4: What methods of communication have been most effective for your corporate travelers?

Karen Bond said her goal is to communicate and educate her travelers while being empathetic as they learn to navigate the COVID pandemic. To communicate, Bond reaches out to travelers through her corporate communications department first. Next, she reaches out to travelers individually to offer “education” through a traveler resources presentation and to answer their questions.

 

Panelist Question 5: Have you found that travel suppliers are enforcing their new cleaning standards?

Suzanne Boyan said she recently toured Chicago O'Hare with United Airlines and was impressed by the airport’s cleanliness, the terminals, and the United airplanes. However, she remarked that the TSA should improve its cleaning policies. Generally, Boyan said she was “shocked” at how well the airport was maintained, which helped her feel confident in putting travelers back into the world.

Boyan hopes to tour hotels and other facilities before ZS Associates resumes travel.

Sharon Varel explained that her travelers felt comfortable flying. Varel is focused on air filtration and ensuring that the airlines have HEPA filters installed on every plane. While Varel said she was encouraged by her travelers’ eagerness to resume travel, she expressed concern that some travelers will become complacent as traveling becomes a normal part of life once more. 

Aside from one lackluster car rental experience, Varel said she was pleased by her travelers’ feedback on travel suppliers adhering to their cleaning policies. 

Karen Bond said she’s glad revised travel supplier cleaning policies are in place, but she’s concerned they may not stick around long enough. Bond said it’s important for travelers to carry their own sanitizing products to conduct additional cleaning as they deem necessary.


Audience Poll 2:

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Panelist Question 6: Have you made any changes in regards to travel program compliance (e.g., mandating your program)? If so, do you think those changes are sustainable? 

Susan Boyan said because ZS Associates hasn’t resumed travel, she hasn’t made any changes to her travel program. However, Boyan said a mandated travel program is unsustainable long-term and not something she plans to implement. 

Sharon Varel said that during the COVID-19 pandemic, her team implemented a mandated travel program and put pre-trip approvals in place to ensure all trips are reviewed and approved.

Varel said her U.S. based team has been nearly 100% compliant, but there has been some leakage in Asia in Europe. As travel fully resumes, Varel said she expects leakage to increase worldwide and is evaluating tools for uncovering program leakage. Varel added that no matter how strict your mandate is, some leakage is inevitable.

Karen Bond explained that HNTB’s travel program is not and will not become mandated. Instead, they strongly suggest booking channels and suppliers to their travelers and are working to uncover their booking blind spots.


Webinar Question & Answer

Q: Have you had any COVID incidents? And if you have not, do you have a plan on how to handle positive COVID cases.

A: Karen Bond said her organization had nine confirmed cases and one loss. When those cases arose, Karen explained that they immediately closed and sanitized the offices.  

Sharon Varel echoed Bond’s response, stating that Provisur conducts electro-static cleaning weekly, temperature checks, and midday health checks. Varel has had a couple of travelers test positive for COVID upon returning. In those cases, Varel explained they did extra electro-static cleaning, closed the building for 24-hours, and conducted contact-tracing to determine who needed to quarantine. 

For one traveler whose spouse tested positive for COVID-19, Provisur gave him the option to self-quarantine in his hotel room for two weeks or drive home alone.


Traxo Office Hours

The “COVID-19 Response -- What We’ve Learned” webinar was part 5 of the Travel Managers Office Hours series. To glean more insights from corporate travel experts, view all past events on the Traxo blog. If you’d like to be notified about our next webinar or are interested in learning more about Traxo's offering for corporate travel managers, contact us.


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eBook: Corporate Travel - The Four Stages of Recovery Post-Pandemic

Don't miss our latest eBook, Corporate Travel - The Four Stages of Recovery Post-Pandemic. This resource features a framework for how companies and their travel management partners can navigate this strange new era of business travel.

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