By Jamie Freed
SYDNEY (Reuters) - Corporate travel agents are using the coronavirus-induced lull in bookings to work with companies on how to get their staff out of Zoom videoconferences and safely back in the air.
They are launching new tools to provide on-the-ground information about local mask requirements, social distancing regulations and quarantine rules, as well as details of hotel, airline and ground-transport hygiene.
Travellers are moving away from cheaper online bookings to seek counsel from experienced consultants amid a slow but growing rebound in the corporate travel industry, which normally accounts for $1.4 trillion of annual spending.
"I am seeing a trend now starting to pick up ... We can Zoom or Microsoft meetings but nothing beats the face to face," said Jo Sully, regional general manager Asia-Pacific at American Express Global Business Travel.
"I think it will be a gradual recovery in terms of that. People will maybe think 'Should I just do this via Zoom?' but the overall response is people will go back to travelling for meetings," the Sydney-based executive said.
Her firm predicts a return to around 60%-70% of usual volumes in 2021, with pre-pandemic travel levels taking until 2022 or 2023.
New Zealand, which emerged from lockdown in May, is already back to half of last year's domestic booking levels, said Jamie Pherous, managing director of Brisbane-based Corporate Travel Management Ltd (CTM) <CTD.AX>.
"There is pent-up demand," he said. "I was visiting some customers (in Australia) and the key feedback I get is that we've got critical decisions building that I can never resolve over a video conference."
A CTM survey found 90% of its customers in Australia and New Zealand had experienced a negative impact on business growth due to their inability to travel.
Chinese domestic bookings are around 60% of pre-pandemic levels and some European markets have begun to pick up as border restrictions there ease, said Chris Galanty, the London-based global chief executive of Flight Centre Travel Group Ltd's <FLT.AX> corporate divisions.
"As countries get control of the actual health crisis and the number of COVID cases stabilise and local policy enables travel – i.e. lockdowns end and people can physically travel - business travel picks up," he said.
"It doesn't pick up to pre-COVID levels. It picks up to reasonable amounts in domestic and local regions."
Among other factors slowing the return of business travel is the disruption to the corporate events calendar and the need for companies to be stricter about approving trips, with duty of care to staff for now trumping price, said Akshay Kapoor, CWT senior director, multinational customer group, Asia Pacific.
"If I'm looking to travel the company is going to be asking me to go through many levels of approval," the Singapore-based executive said.
"That element of pre-trip approvals is going up. The companies are keeping a very close eye on the purpose of travel and if people have to travel making sure they know where they are and they are safe."
(Reporting by Jamie Freed; Editing by Stephen Coates)