GUEST: Amex GBT CEO On Getting Business Travel Moving Again

American Express Global Business Travel CEO Paul Abbott submitted the following guest column.

After months of lockdown, the allure of travel has never been stronger. At the same time, the necessity of travel has never been so much under question.

We are, it turns out, quite capable of doing many, if not most, activities remotely. But history urges caution on those who declare the demise of business travel. Fax, email and teleconferencing each were hailed as the death knell for the industry, yet the end has not come. The reason is that travel offers something that remote work does not and cannot. As a sage once said, "The world is a book, and those who do not travel only see one page." Travel breaks down barriers and builds trust, and to lose that is to lose too much. We must therefore develop a new approach to travel in this new era. We must learn to travel smarter.

These past months have given us a glimpse of a world without travel. As border restrictions came into force, airlines grounded their fleets. Conferences, meetings and seminars moved online. Millions embraced communications tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams. We've coped, but in a diminished state. To build trust, to innovate, to energize and inspire there is no substitute for meeting in person. Movement restrictions exert a toll on society that is heavy but hard to measure. Easier to quantify is the economic damage, and a global recession now seems, sadly, inevitable.

State-enforced travel restrictions will not endure forever, but the psychological dimension could outlast the official lockdowns. Travel is now perceived as risky and complex. Disruption will likely be more prevalent. As things stand, it’s not hard to see why some may prefer to videoconference from their living rooms rather than get on a plane.

To get the world moving again, our priority as an industry must be to address these anxieties. And to do this, we must work together. It’s no use advertising how "clean" we are compared to our competitors. This just gives credence to the idea that the experience is inconsistent. Instead, we must reassure people. That means everyone in the industry supporting and championing each other. It means airlines, hotels and travel management companies collectively embodying a consistent, superior standard of business travel. Never have our objectives been more aligned. From now on, we must extol the virtues of travel in unison.

Championing business travel should not be hard. History has demonstrated that business people prefer in-person meetings to remote ones because they build stronger, more meaningful relationships. As Warren Buffett said, "You will never see eye to eye if you never meet face to face." Travel also builds respect for other cultures. It strengthens international bonds and is an essential component of economic and cultural progress.

The world therefore has a great deal to gain from the resumption of travel. That is why we are so committed to getting the world moving again. It's why we've built a service that can withstand any global emergency. Our business is designed for moments like this. In March, as the world locked down, we brought home more than 35,000 passengers, processed over 100,000 refunds and mobilized thousands of expert travel counselors to provide the support and powerful backing our customers expect. 

As dramatic as March was, opening up will be more difficult than locking down. There will be false starts. Change will be continuous yet unpredictable. Lockdowns may well, at least in some places, be reinstated. To manage, corporations will need travel partners that are experienced, well-drilled and accustomed to solving global problems in emergencies. They will need a service that cuts through the complexity of the post-Covid world. A service that builds trust and confidence.

That’s what TMCs do. Our service offers personalized information before, during and after your trip in whatever channel you need. Messaging with a travel counselor while you’re inflight, calling from a taxi on your way to the airport or online from your desk at home: We’re with you every step of the way, because that’s what traveling smarter requires.

Traveling smarter also means changing our collective approach to the travel experience. This is a new era. For the traveler there’s more uncertainty. For the travel manager, the stakes are higher, too. Once entrusted to implement policy, develop programs and manage cost, they now hold the well-being of colleagues in their hands. At the same time, the role of the TMC now begins as soon as the need to travel is identified and potentially finishes long after a traveler returns. From now on, each trip will be organized like we would plan an event, with advice, an itinerary and contact for every step. It is the only way to guarantee peace of mind.

Our industry is the engine of the global economy. Meeting face to face—looking someone in the eye—is fundamental to building successful relationships. Covid-19 poses a serious challenge to this way of doing business. To get the economy moving we must get the world moving again. We must make travelers and employers feel safe. We must shield them from the added complexity and uncertainty of the post-Covid world. For that, we need a superior standard of business travel. This is a defining moment. We have to deliver.