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Uber’s travel experts share 2021 predictions for business travel

April 21, 2021 / Australia

In 2020, the world came to a standstill. Companies asked employees to work remotely, restaurants temporarily closed, and personal and business travel came to a halt. Data from the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) shows that 93% of companies stopped international travel and 72% cancelled domestic travel last year. 

Execs are split about whether travel will return to pre-COVID levels of frequency, but as cases across Australia have decreased and the world is slowly beginning to reopen. We spoke with Physititia Grant, Global Lead of Travel and Expense, and Terrence Donovan, Travel Supplier Manager, at Uber  and discussed Uber’s take on corporate travel, predictions on a return to business travel, and upcoming innovations as hospitality companies adapt to a post-COVID world. 

What did travel look like for Uber pre-COVID? 

Physititia Grant: With such a cultural emphasis on in-person collaboration, there was quite a high level of travel. Pre-COVID, when someone hits the ground here, they usually start travel and head to onboarding in the respective region within their first 3 months. I’d say that about 70% of the workforce was travelling regularly pre-pandemic.

Terrence Donovan: That 70% of employees is pretty significant in the industry. Uber places a high value on a collaborative culture, so we want people to be in person to work with other teams, be in other places. 

When I started in 2018, travel numbers were growing, and growing YoY. We were hiring more and more, and that meant travel was expanding as well. With the pandemic, everything came to a halt. We had tremendous numbers in 2019, and we saw a 90% decline in spend and transactions. 

What did travel look like after COVID hit? 

PG: Our main priority was duty of care. That was a huge focus area. Restrictions were changing on a daily basis. We had to communicate and work with security; people were stuck behind borders. We had to get everyone home safely. Soon after, we implemented an essential-only travel policy, so employees are only traveling if it’s deemed absolutely critical to business operations. That policy is still in effect. 

TD: Then what we were tasked with doing is ensuring everything that had been planned—canceled tickets, reservations, etc.—was managed. We needed to find ways to properly store what we could. If we weren’t getting a refund, we had to ensure the reservation was sitting in a ticket warehouse or under a business profile, on an airlines card, or on a gift voucher. We have to manage everything and be sure it’s getting back to the company. 

What do you foresee travel looking like for Uber post-COVID and vaccine? Will the business return to the same level of travel?

PG: [Uber’s] leadership talks about how much our culture is a collaborative global culture. We want to see people, interact, and collaborate, and nothing beats a face-to-face connection. We have a strong population of people that are ready to travel. In general, Uber employees have more of a desire to travel, especially in Europe and Asia. 

We are creating our travel restart plan. As volume increases, we are working closely with other teams at Uber, especially travel security, real estate, workplace, and environmental health and safety, holistically.

We’ve benchmarked our plan with other tech companies with similar employee demographics to Uber. We share best practices, to see what one another is doing. As we restart travel, it’s going to be a constant process-improvement exercise, since things change so quickly. 

We’ve also been talking with strategic finance internally, since you can’t travel without budget. 

At GBTA, we asked buyers what insights they had around budgets, and it seemed that there were fairly low travel budgets compared to 2019, or nothing at all. 

There was a big emphasis on virtual collaboration and virtual meetings. Things will potentially pick up in the second half of the year, mainly for domestic travel and potentially domestic small meetings and events. I think we’re probably going to see a faster uptick in travel than other companies, because of our demographics. Other companies may not want to begin travel as quickly.

TD: I think we’re going to see a quicker uptick of travel than other companies, but again, I think that it won’t happen until the second half of the year. We’ll probably see domestic and regional travel start picking up in Q2 and more international travel towards the end of Q4. But again, that’s all speculative, and depends on the vaccine rollout, airline policies, border regulations. We’re watching closely to see, for example, what travellers need to have before they board a plane. How viable are specific policies, and how can airlines manage a lot of moving parts in the coming months? 

TD: I met with Hilton recently. In terms of virtual hybrid meeting space, they are changing the landscape, changing the mindset of how people see virtual and hybrid meeting settings. They’re so creative, and they’ve pulled off a few really, really successful events. It’s all because of their creativity. They’re trying to capture the attention of people and keep them engaged. Their CleanStay program is going to be a game changer.

Things are going to look different in airports. Airline lounges are going to be different. They’re determining what it will look like when airports have more visitors. Hotels and airlines are trying to come up with their plans to manage more and more people, with everything they need to take into consideration and be checking. It’s certainly going to be an interesting time, and there’s definitely a lot of learning and testing going on right now.

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