There’s no doubt about it: Corporates have axed business travel. That said, small and midsize enterprises—often without formalized travel managers—have cut back less and resumed travel more quickly than the big guys, according to Duke Chung, CEO of TravelBank. Chung sells his all-in-one travel and expense platform primarily to the finance teams of SMEs. And, he said, “When you look at the SME category, you do see a pickup in travel compared to the mid- and large-size companies.” 

Beaverton, Ore.-based engineering firm GRI, which largely works with U.S. state government agencies, hasn’t slowed down. “Our work has been full steam ahead in terms of projects,” said human resources manager and office administrator Harmony Miller. GRI was deemed an essential business early on, she said. What has changed amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is how much Miller is engaging in travel communication, in terms of location information, granular trip details and attention to traveler safety and well-being. 

For SMEs, such conversations stand in for what a larger company might implement as a pre-trip approval and a formal risk-mitigation process, said World Travel chief information officer Ivan Imana, whose company recently launched a program to capture more of the SME market segment. Small businesses are checking the safety of a location before sending anyone into the field, and getting approval by asking the traveler’s supervisor directly, he said. “SMEs just want to get that approved and have insights, even before [they] start looking up procurement for that travel,” said Imana. 

Employee-owned GRI is small—it has 38 technical staff. Given that and the fact that the company’s travel footprint generally is regional, a low-tech approach to traveler education, risk mitigation and trip approval is manageable. Not having a dedicated travel manager hasn’t been an obstacle to program effectiveness or employee productivity. 

“The number of people we have traveling at any given time is counted on one hand,” Miller said. Still, it’s her responsibility as HR and office manager to source the right travel providers, address any questions travelers may have about business locations and make sure all parties get the right details.  

Those priorities, she said, definitely have changed. 

Before the pandemic, travel bookings focused on convenience to the job site, for example. Now, Miller said, the firm is focused on “finding a hotel that’s taking [the pandemic] seriously… and [on] how they are cleaning and what are their protocols.” 

Miller said she relies on voluntary disclosures from properties about how they keep guests safe and whether they enforce protocols like mask requirements for employees and guests. But she’s also following up with employees after they travel regarding their comfort level in a given property and to better understand actual performance on these measures to inform future bookings. The company supports travelers who need to switch hotels upon arrival if their original choice isn’t meeting protocol expectations, Miller said. 

GRI also opened the travel program to homesharing accommodations, particularly for travelers on extended projects who prefer standalone lodging that minimizes personal contact. The choice, however, is up to the individual and their personal perceptions of what will keep them safe. “We’ve had a couple of people opt to get a long-term stay at an Airbnb rather than doing a hotel room,” said Miller. 

Following Traveler Comfort Zones

Chung said the flexibility to follow the traveler’s comfort level is common among SMEs, allowing individuals to have final say over their travel conveyance and accommodation. The TravelBank expense platform, he said, has shown a significant shift to car rental options over flights, trains or subways as SME business travelers look to stay distant while still getting the job done. 

That’s the case for video technology provider ZVRS, which specializes products for the deaf and hard of hearing. Like GRI’s Miller, ZVRS business manager Dawnmarie Caggiano said she has taken on an added layer of responsibility concerning employee health amid the pandemic and now makes sure travelers are briefed with critical information from her TMC, Corporate Traveler.  

While the firm only allows trips deemed essential, such as installation at client homes, Caggiano said the company has not slashed its travel budget. Instead, it has shifted the budget to car rental options because travelers’ own perception of what is safe has shifted. The company’s largely regional travel still can happen on the ground. Plus, that travel needs to happen to keep the business healthy, too.

TravelBank’s expense data also has revealed a huge uptick in mileage reimbursements, indicating that many SME business travelers are hitting the road in their own vehicles. Mileage reimbursement “went from a fairly low amount of spend to the No. 1 category of spend for May, June and July,” Chung said. He expects August to turn out the same. He predicted SMEs’ policies around personal vehicle usage could become more flexible—at least for the short term—again, to accommodate personal choice.  

Is Travel Worth the Cost?

An economic downturn combined with Covid-19 risks means SMEs, like nearly all companies, are taking only the business trips deemed essential. Yet, said Chung, “A lot of these small businesses are fighting to survive, so as a result, they are a little bit more willing to be risk-taking when it comes to business travel.” 

When they do travel, added Imana, they will be looking at costs as well as traveler safety. “Any business, whether they are an SME or large enterprise, during these economic times, is looking and re-looking at finances completely,” said Imana. “It just gets magnified if you are an SME. You’ve got to manage cash flow.” 

Such issues may also contribute to how willing individual business travelers are to hit the road. 

At GRI, as at most companies both large and small these days, if an employee has concerns about their well-being, they aren’t required to travel even though the firm is taking extra precaution and providing choice. “If [they] are not comfortable… that’s OK. We’ll see if anyone else wants to take that trip,” confirmed Miller. That said, not a single GRI employee has declined a business trip.

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