For business travelers, 2019 is looking more and more like a high-water mark.
We may all be looking forward to being face to face in the age of vaccinations, as COVID-19 case counts are well off peaks. Companies want to keep vendor relationships intact, and forge ahead into new markets. It’s fair to say we are all suffering from Zoom fatigue, and nothing sounds better than a face-to-face, business-to-business meeting, even if masks are part of the deal.
But the getting there — well, that’s another story.
Airlines and the hotels don’t have the staff they once had (labor shortages are hitting everyone). Demand is surging and so are prices. COVID-19 surges always loom, employees get sick, and travel plans must be, above all else, flexible.
Booking and rebooking are the norm.
Gonca Latif-Schmitt, head of TTS Commercial Cards at Citi, told Karen Webster that we’re a long way from 2019, and much has changed, irrevocably, in business travel, while many changes are on the way. Especially in paying for it all.
In the great reengagement, for business travel, commercial cards, digitally enabled and flexible, will be a key staple of expense management.
“Everyone’s routines are broken,” she said. But budgets are expanding, and employees are increasingly willing to hit the road. The reengagement can be eased a bit by better and more transparent corporate card issuance and use.
“The payment experience is very much intertwined in the travel experience,” she observed.
The conversation came against a backdrop where, pre-pandemic, data projected that global business travel costs would amount to $1.7 trillion by 2022.
“These observers were not experts in pandemics, of course,” said Latif-Schmitt, “but they understood that it would take time for travelers to rebuild confidence.”
Flash forward to today, and it looks like 2022 will show a marked rebound — and we’ll get to $1.5 trillion by 2025, not all that far off the mark from the pre-pandemic predictions.
We’ve lost a few years, in other words. But as we strive toward that (possible) 2025 spending tally, business travel itself will look different.
And just as travel will look different, so will the expensing — the paying for it all. Pre-pandemic, companies used apps or online portals after the trip. When employees got back home, that’s when they logged on to submit expense reports and upload documents.
What Will Change
Latif-Schmitt said that instead of individual trips undertaken by employees going into the field to meet clients face to face there will be more conferences, panels and showcases.
“We’ll see less travel activity but at higher price points,” so that will help get to that $1.5 trillion within the next few years.
We’re facing a pivot away from the days when employees would receive a corporate card because they simply were frequent travelers. Amid the great digital shift, however, the ability to leverage truly global mobile capabilities can be a game changer. Tapping into apps can facilitate requests for one-time usage virtual cards that can then be used for travel.
“You’re invited to log into an app and retrieve a virtual card to be provisioned into a mobile wallet, and use the corporate card, rather than logging expenses on a personal card and then applying for (and hoping for) reimbursement.”
Now, with all the fluidity required as trips change suddenly, and pricing changes suddenly, too, more travelers want to have everything available, digitally, at their fingertips (and via mobile devices). It’s critical that travel cards, and travel card programs, be easy to navigate, noted Latif-Schmitt, because for many of these employees, this might be the first time they’ve traveled on behalf of a specific organization.
There are friction points that can be solved with virtual commercial cards, she said — and she pointed out that through the past several years Citi has been ramping up spending on digital capabilities. Easier-to-use digital cards make remembering and accessing PINs more intuitive to make sure transactions go through. There’s also the ability to set transaction limits.
In addition, tech-enabled travel cards make it easier to report lost or stolen cards, and have new ones reissued. Citi, she said, has a single app that can be used across all 66 of its local currency markets, offering a foundation for additional layers of functionality. The revamp was informed through conversations with the bank’s consumer arm, and with a broad range of UX designers. That’s an anomaly, she said — to have a commercial issuer lean so heavily on the UX experience for B2B initiatives.
“With this new architecture, when you’re looking up your PIN, checking your statement, paying for things … the experience is the same regardless of where you are in the world, and it’s a consumer-like experience.”
The emergence and adoption of digitally issued travel cards will help increase commercial bookings.
“The ability to pull up your app, look up your PIN and be able to transact in that moment just helps to reduce any of the stress as you reengage in business travel,” she said.