Passenger Travel Hot Topics: Let’s get Serious about Rebounding, Reconnecting and Reimagining
Mr. Tony D’Astolfo, Senior VP, North American, Serko, Ltd.
- Mr. Dale Buckner, CEO, Global Guardian
- Mr. Bryan Scott, Chair, NDTA GPTAC and Assistant Vice President, Government Business, Enterprise Holdings
- Mr. William Mansell, Jr., SES, Director, Defense Support Center at Defense Human Resources Activity
- Mr. Tim Burke, SES, Executive Director, Office of Travel, Employee Relocation, and Transportation, Federal Acquisition Service, Government-Wide Category Management Executive for Travel
The 2022 GovTravels LITE featured a panel discussion on passenger travel hot topics. Moderated by Tony D’Astolfo, Chief Operating Officer at Serko, Ltd., the panel has become a staple of the GovTravels Conference. Panelists included Dale Buckner, CEO, Global Guardian; Tim Burke, SES, Executive Director, Office of Travel, Employee Relocation, and Transportation, Federal Acquisition Service, Government-Wise Category Management Executive for Travel; William Mansell, Director, Defense Support Services Center at Defense Human Resources Activity; and Bryan Scott, NDTA Government Passenger Travel Advisory Council (GPTAC) Chair, and Assistant Vice President Government Business, Enterprise Holdings. This year five topics were covered in-depth by the panel. Below is a summary of the panel members’ responses. Comments have been edited for length and clarity:
What impact will virtual meetings technologies like Zoom and Microsoft Teams have on government travel in the years ahead? Can they be a viable ongoing replacement?
Burke: GSA has consolidated its operations in the Metropolitan Washington DC area over the last five to seven years. The agency had also begun to make strides in incorporating the virtual work environment in its daily operations well before the start of the pandemic, though the endeavor proved expensive.
GSA through its Public Building Service has a foundational responsibility to create facilities and operating conditions, but offsetting operating expenses is not the priority when it comes to reimaging the future of work as it relates to promoting a virtual work environment or prioritizing travel. Technology is unlikely to be capable of replacing the human interaction necessary to create teamwork and collaboration.
Mansell: In 2019, the Department of Defense (DOD) had approximately 4.3 million vouchers or trips taken. In 2020, that number dropped to around 1.8 million vouchers. In 2021, the number increased to 2.6 million vouchers, indicating a gradual return to travel. The pandemic is the major cause of the reduction in trips, but as the pandemic abates that will increase.
Looking at the 230 installations that DOD tracks, 199 or 87 percent of installations are currently “green” meaning travel restrictions have been lifted. Travel from one “green” installation to another is fine. However, travel from a “green” installation to a “red” installation where travel restrictions are still in place requires a waiver. Travel will come back, however, the ability to meet and work virtually has had a lasting impact. Leaders recognize there are alternative ways to work, so while travel will return it is unlikely to get back to 4.3 million vouchers again.
Buckner: Travel will return in situations where trust must be built or that require leadership between leaders, such as large transactions, multi-million-dollar contracts, mergers or acquisitions, the integration of two companies on a contract, etc. There are certain things that cannot be accomplished through video conference and building trust—building relationships—is one of them. As more people have become vaccinated, firms are creating policies to prioritize who can travel and under what conditions. Travel for transactions that require trust is one condition that has increased exponentially.
In a similar vein, administrative tasks and training can often be accomplished using webinars, testing, and other technology. But technology cannot be substituted for physical engagement. You cannot teach someone to fire a weapon, to run an intelligence platform, or drive a vehicle a certain way virtually. Instances that require physical interaction are a second criterion pushing a return to travel.
Scott: Technology can be a viable replacement, but not necessarily an ongoing one. The pandemic forced people to become comfortable with using technology and it will always be an option, but nothing will replace human interaction. A recent Global Business Travel Association poll revealed that 72 percent of travelers are willing to go on a trip. This number is drastically higher than where it was at this time last year and a good indication that travel will return. Technology will be a support, but not a replacement to travel in the future.
What changes do you anticipate in government travel in a post-pandemic world? Will there be new “justification” of travel required? Will traveler health, safety, and wellness become a primary consideration in government travel going forward?
Mansell: DOD has a rigid process. The Joint Travel Regulations identify how to travel and what to do, there are business rules in the legacy Defense Travel System, and there are business rules to come from the MyTravel system. In terms of a new justification, there’s nothing on the horizon yet from the Per Diem, Travel, and Transportation Allowance Committee (PDTATAC), the governing body that determines what travel policy will be for DOD.
However, as we look at the return on investment in travel and factor in available technology there could be policy changes in the future that continue a trend toward accomplishing work virtually when and where possible. But changes in the near term will more likely be driven by individual travel managers and by budget constraints.
With respect to health, safety, and wellness, the government will likely follow industry and society. These are important factors that should be taken into consideration. And, the safety best practices adopted by industry during the pandemic should be continued.
Burke: The full-time remote worker has become a reality within the Federal Government. At GSA, significantly more than 50 percent of the workforce is now categorized as full-time remote workers. This means they can work from anywhere and subsequently points to the need to establish an environment post-pandemic that is different than what we did going into the pandemic. Full-time remote work is a reality impacting the Federal Government’s rebound to what will be the new normal.
There were three primary justifications implemented as a result of the Safer Federal Workforce initiative. In simplified terms they were: 1) travel should not take place if it can be replaced virtually; 2) a minimum number of travelers should be on the road to achieve the mission; and 3) personal protective equipment must be accessible so the travel can be done safely.
Following the attacks of September 11, the US went through a similar constraining, constricting, and contracting impact around the world that affected the entire world. But the ability of humankind to adjust prevailed and we are going through this same thing now.
Business travel is ultimately justified by business drivers such as customer relationships, new market development, product creation, partnerships, investment creation, etc. But duty of care, safety, and health should have always been important to any corporation or government, and going forward justifications will be more clearly embedded with these.
Scott: The ground transportation sector is seeing a greater emphasis on travel sustainability on the commercial side. However, this is not, as one may expect, sustainability as it relates to fuel. This is where an employee is being encouraged to bundle trips together, so they are going on fewer, longer trips. From a car rental perspective, larger vehicles are being booked so that passengers have greater distance within the confines of the vehicle. In addition, in some instances where two people booked one car, those two people are now booking separate vehicles to allow for social distancing.
Industry would like for travelers’ health, safety, and wellness to be a primary consideration in government travel going forward. Prior to the pandemic, the idea of safety centered on physical safety (i.e. crime prevention). It’s now at the forefront of industry providers’ thinking to make sure travelers feel safe and that everything possible has been done to ensure that their hotel room, airplane cabin, or rental car has been sanitized for them. This is a change in the post-pandemic world that has been for the better.
At GSA, significantly more than 50 percent of the workforce is now categorized as full-time remote workers. This means they can work from anywhere and subsequently points to the need to establish an environment post-pandemic that is different than what we did going into the pandemic.
Buckner: To frame this historically, look at the past few years—in 2015 the Paris terrorist attacks, in 2017 the coup in Turkey, COVID in 2020, and in 2021 there was the coup in Myanmar, the failure of the Indian medical system, and the evacuation of Afghanistan, followed this year by the situation in Ukraine. As we justify travel, what we’ve seen fail at a large scale globally for travelers is that tracking and alerts are not enough. There is a failure of vendors to get you out of a hurricane zone, a combat zone, or a terrorist attack. There is a failure of insurance, which is purchased in case of a worst-case scenario, but if you read the fine print more often than not these worst-case scenarios are not covered.
Ultimately if we’re going to justify putting people on the road, we must acknowledge that these systems are failing and that the volume of these major global disruptions continues to increase. This is one more part of the calculus. If you’re going to justify travel, then you’ve got to understand the risk-reward, and consider what happens if you have to get them out and it’s not as simple as getting on your return flight
Will sustainability be a major consideration in government travel? Will policies change to encourage and/or mandate more sustainable methods of travel? Will offsets or the purchasing of Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) be something the government participates in?
Burke: Sustainability is a major pillar of this Administration and electrification of vehicles is a high priority. This will require large investments in infrastructure. Without a strong push from the Administration, which is happening, the move toward electric vehicles will not get a foothold.
With regard to SAF, we anticipate how the government travel side will be impacted, but the government follows the market, it does not make it. The policy that gets pushed will help drive the procurement side, the procurement side is what delivers the product in the hands of the day-to-day transaction, affects the individual end-user, and affects management decisions on operating efficiency and effectiveness. On a practical level, this will be integrated into the City Pair Program, but only when the time is right. The framework for policy implementation, agency, and traveler behavior will be built when the market is able to deliver this in a trusted, reliable way. The government will not be on the leading edge in actual government travel impacts but we will be a leading supporter as the market evolves.
Scott: You can rent electric vehicles now, but the infrastructure has to be built and it has to support the growth of electric cars. This will happen and the range of these vehicles is going to increase. Industry will drive this, and manufacturers that are converting from gas fleets to electric fleets as they become more prevalent will change the industry. But industry’s sustainability efforts go beyond this from building LEED-certified buildings to sustainable aviation fuel and purchasing carbon offsets in vehicle rentals that can make a program completely carbon neutral. These are all things that are available today. If you think of a commercial program that takes these impacts into account and takes into consideration if a company is a good corporate citizen when choosing partners, that becomes a buying factor. This is something industry needs to work with government to bring to their awareness so the government can make this a buying factor as well.
Mansell: There’s a significant investment involved in sustainability for travel and government will follow the marketplace. If you look at the overall return on investment, we may be spending a little more today to meet a certain sustainability criterion. But what’s the overall cost of travel? If you factor in all of the variables, there are ways that costs in one part of travel can be offset by other costs to make it more cost-effective and have a higher return on investment. A recent article said 87 percent of people are supportive of sustainable travel and make more environmentally friendly choices until it becomes an inconvenience for them.
Buckner: The forcing function is the Request for Proposal (RFP) process now. If you want to do business with the Fortune 1000, you are now being measured on your environmental impact in the RFP. Anything that touches the ability to lessen environmental impacts is the direction of the marketplace. If the government will follow the marketplace, ultimately the RFP will be the tool as the forcing function that aligns both corporate and government.
What impact will a more technology-enabled traveler have on government travel programs? How have traveler expectations changed in a post-pandemic world?
Mansell: Those travelers that are more technology-enabled are generally travel literate—they understand the policies because they’ve taken the time to understand technology. MyTravel is being implemented and features significant improvements. This is the latest and greatest technology with all the bells and whistles, and it will be intuitive. If you take a technology-enabled traveler that understands policy that now has a state-of-the-art system what do you get? You get a traveler that follows the rules, that engages, that will be able to leverage the technology in their best interest.
This will result in fewer improper payments, it allows the infrastructure that supports travel (DTAs, OTAs, etc.) to be reduced by giving the traveler the capability to initiate travel on his or her own behalf, and the use of the technology allows for less use of travel management companies (TMCs). While TMCs play a key role, often travelers go to TMCs rather than try to find the answer or understand policy themselves. All of this together will result in lower cost per travel and this is what we need in the government to help deal with the constrained budgets that we have.
Scott: Arguably the largest and most emerging department you see is the executive-level leadership for customer experience. Traveler expectations have evolved. At a hotel, for example, you can check-in by your phone, you can walk into the hotel and get into your room with your phone, you never need to see anybody. For a car rental when you arrive, it’s the same thing—you want to bypass the counter, you walk out into the lot or the garage, and you have not just one but a selection of vehicles, you climb into a vehicle and you drive out of the garage, you never see anybody. You come through the gate when you return, you return the car, you don’t need to stand there, you walk to your bus and the receipt is in your email before that bus pulls away. These are the new travel expectations. It’s the ease of it all and knowing how these customers travel. And what customers expect from their providers is going to help us determine who’s the leader in the industry and who captures this business. Providers must keep pace with the expectation of the traveler.
If you take a technology-enabled traveler that understands policy that now has a state-of-the-art system what do you get? You get a traveler that follows the rules, that engages, that will be able to leverage the technology in their best interest.
Buckner: Every app and connection you create on your cell phone, computer, or laptop carries risk. This can be the wi-fi in the hotel that you think is secure, but it’s actually not the wi-fi in the hotel—it’s a hacker in the lobby. Or, it’s your cell phone and you don’t have the proper settings. Or you’re not on a VPN [Virtual Private Network] and connections being created are not being monitored. Through all of these scenarios, you’ve now created a vulnerability.
The questions then become how to introduce technology, what are the countermeasures to ensure its security, and are your people trained? Often everyone loves technology, but they fail to ask the hard question of how to secure themselves and their enterprise with the introduction of each new technology being used.
The government moving to a singular platform like MyTravel is absolutely the right decision and going in the right direction. But as you enable a traveler and the organization can now see them and all of their travel information from a purely administrative standpoint, that is wonderful but it is only half the solution. The technology is great and absolutely the right direction, but when a crisis hits, what comes next? In a crisis, technology means almost nothing.
Burke: The government relies heavily on the marketplace as the investment risk on taxpayer money is significant when reaching beyond current limits. The government makes trade-offs in its pursuit of delivering service to businesses.
Has there been an increase in hybrid/remote work in the government sector and how will it impact travel programs?
Burke: GSA is on re-entry number 17 update from the administrator’s office. There will not be a return to the full office until April 11, 2022, and at that time it will only be the senior executives and critical political appointees returning. Prior to 2019, 56 percent of the eligible employees teleworked. That increased to 90 percent in 2020 due to the pandemic-related shutdown. It is anticipated that 82 percent of GSA’s workforce will continue this way.
Mansell: DOD employees are working from home in greater numbers due to the pandemic, which will continue. The Health Protection Condition (HPCON) status drives a lot of this, but when the HPCON status drops the question of how many people are really needed in the office remains. Leaders are becoming much more liberal in terms of how they look at this.
Buckner: The increase in remote work will impact travel programs by requiring organizations to extend the infrastructure used to support travelers to now also support those employees who work from home permanently. For example, tracking and providing support following a natural disaster, having a check-in if employees need medical or mental health support, etc. Corporate America is already headed in this direction, pivoting existing platforms to support their remote employees.
Scott: Remote and hybrid work are here to stay, but travel will return.