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Navigating the future of business travel

From discovering culture to building relationships, humans have an innate drive to travel. As the world regains its footing, will business travel ever be the same? Join Nord Samuelson, President at Emburse, and Roadmap co-founder Jeroen van Velzen for a lively discussion on the future of travel.

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Season 2 Episode 3
Grant Johnson, CMO, Emburse: [00:00:10] Hi, I’m Grant Johnson, chief marketing officer at Emburse. Welcome to Emburse on the Mic, a podcast series where we dig into topics that impact our business and lives, managing expenses, processing invoices, making payments, and discovering ways to eliminate time-consuming error-prone manual tasks to help make our lives easier. Our website is Emburse.com. And if you’d like to share your thoughts on this episode, you can reach us at hi@Emburse.com

In our last episode, we talked about CFO insights. Today we’ll talk about the future of business travel and ask the question, will travel ever be the same? With me today is Nord Samuelson, president of Emburse. Nord oversees the organization’s operations, ensuring high levels of product innovation and operational excellence. I’m also joined by Jeroen van Veltz an SVP of Solutions Strategy and the former CEO and co-founder of Roadmap — which is an exciting part of Emburse now—and oversees our travel-related portfolio. Nord and Jeroen, welcome, and thanks for joining us today.

Nord Samuelson, President, Emburse: [00:01:20] Thank you.

Jeroen van Velzen, SVP, Solution Strategies: [00:01:21] Thanks for having us.

Grant: [00:01:22] Let’s start off, Nord. You know, we’re seeing TSA throughputs rebound after a really tough year for the travel industry. How do you see business travel changing in both the near and the long term? Also, is hybrid work here to stay?

Nord: [00:01:38] I think that change is probably the new constant. So we are certainly going to see change, I expect. Let me give some data and then maybe how to interpret that data. So first of all, the GBTA found through its survey that more than half the companies with flexible work arrangements were either going to be very likely, so about 16% or somewhat likely 35%, to revise travel and expense policies to account for an increase in remote working. So it certainly is an indication there is going to be some differences in travel and expense based upon the fact that we’re going to continue to have hybrid work as part of how we work.

That being said, I think to predict exactly what’s going to happen is incredibly hard because I don’t think any company, at least any company that I’ve talked to, is set on how travel is going to look in the coming months, quarters or years as their work changes and as they come out of Covid. We have that uncertainty. And I think what the balance is that many firms that I’ve talked to seem to be struggling with is, on the one hand, we’ve seen Zoom be able to take the place of some in-person meetings, some commuting, some being in the office. And certainly I think we’ve been impressed with how much we can do remotely and how that provides flexibility in people’s lives. The counteracting force, though, is creating trust, creating employee relationships that were just part of working together and part of being in person.

And, you know, I can’t tell you the number of people who’ve who have talked to that have said, “I never met a fellow employee or I’ve never met a customer or I’ve never met a supplier. I never met a key partner. And I really need to do that.” A great example of this is that, as you mentioned, Grant, we purchased Jeroen’s company Roadmap a bit ago. And Jeroen and I have never met in person. We work together almost on a daily basis. We’ve never met in person. And it’s something that we absolutely want to do. And I think that there’s no substitute for being in person in terms of building that trust. So travel is going to be necessary. But I do think it’s going to change in. One of the things that I think is going to be very interesting about travel is that it traditionally has been senior executives would travel to the offices. But as we have a remote workforce, I think it’s going to change. We’re going to see a much broader percentage of the population of companies travel. So many more employees are going to travel, but maybe a lot less than what we traditionally saw as these executives who would travel every week. And so all of a sudden, I think that how travel is supported and managed is going to change considerably. So I think that the main conclusion is there is going to be change ahead. An exciting change, I think.

Grant: [00:04:41] Yeah, I’m with you. Nord, do I see this new trend. It's going to be #OffZoom, #InPerson. So we’re all looking forward to that shift. Jeroen, as Nord mentioned, you’re based in the Netherlands. What are the unique challenges that your business travelers face as they restart their travel programs?

Jeroen: [00:05:03] I think as one might know, there is no Europe, right? So, I think there actually is, but there isn’t. And that’s immediately the biggest problem that we’re facing because every country can do whatever they want or/and then we try, as a European Union,  to unify it. And that’s extremely hard. So, I think that is the biggest problem. And also reflecting on what Nord’s saying, not only because of the way that business travel changes, but this is like, also, still, sort-of, the end of - hopefully, the end of - the pandemic. There is a lot of change as well on a daily basis on countries opening and closing borders, changing regulations on what you actually need to carry in order to get into a country. Or what are the quarantine rules? What can you do? Can you go into an office? Do you need to wear a mask? So, a ton of change on a daily basis. There is a lot of moving parts out there. I think that-that is the biggest challenge from the European perspective. That’s actually a global issue as well.

Grant: [00:06:06] Yeah, sounds like there’s a lot of complexity and nuances to navigate through. So, you know, we’re here to help. You know, Nord, duty of care seems to become more popular lately. Do you think this increased focus on DOC will translate to the overall strategy for ongoing employee satisfaction and engagement?

Nord: [00:06:26] Yes, and let me modify what we think about for duty of care. Because I think it’s going to change. Like historically, duty of care under your care services that companies such as ourselves would provide, is knowing where the employee is when they travel. So, look, if something happens, it’s like Jeroen may happen to be in the UK and we know that your Jeroen is there. And if we need to get in touch with Jeroen, then we would know he’s in the UK. Sounds great. And that’s certainly a valuable service. And the knowledge of that and that information is certainly at the beginning of the pandemic. I think we realize how important that is. That being said, I do think that duty of care, if we think about those words, about the responsibility of a company, I think it’s going to increase in terms of not just knowing where someone is, but truly being supportive of that employee and how they travel in their travel experience. One of the things we certainly came front and center during the pandemic is how challenging it can be to bring your whole self to work.

And I think in travel, this is only magnified because travel can be super hard on individual employees and their families. The time it takes, the fact that they’re removed from their community, from their home to be able to travel on behalf of the business. And so I think we’re going to start to see the duty of care, not just be where the employee and is the employee safe, but also what services and what support the employee needs while traveling on behalf of the business. So I think we’re going to start to see a much richer set of services provided to employees in their travel. And as I mentioned, we’re going to see many more, much broader populations of most companies starting to travel. They’re hired in a remote place and traveling to the headquarters, the regional office or particular customers. What’s going to happen is, is that the travel experience, I believe, is going to become much richer and better supported to ensure that the employee is able to be fully present in their work responsibilities.

Jeroen: [00:08:50] I actually hated that word “Duty of care”. Who made that up? You, as a company, you have a duty to take care of your people. Like wowsers! So this just doesn’t make any sense, this whole concept. I would strike it off any list. If you think you have the duty to take care, it’s like taking out the garbage so it doesn’t make any sense. So, you know, we have the privilege to care for our employees while they make money for our company. Right? So to Nord’s point, these poor souls are not traveling for fun. They’re traveling for work. They’re making money. And now we have the duty to take care of them while they’re making money for it. It’s hysterical.

Grant: [00:09:31] Yeah, I like that new spin on a privilege to care. In regard to the travel experience, how do you envision what changes are being made or can be made to improve that for the traveler?

Jeroen: [00:09:47] Well, I think the most important piece is actually what we just referred to as rights for the privilege to care. I, as an employee working for my company, I actually expect that somebody has my back while I travel. And that is not only a hard factor, right? Like, OK, now if I get sick, you know, a doctor will be provided for me and some service that will take care of me, right? So that’s just the simple stuff. But there is an underlying cultural thing that that also kicks in. That means that these travel programs historically have been very much procurement-driven. Right. So we need to leverage our procurement capacity because we buy flights and therefore I can get a discount. And now I need to manage it through an online booking tool and a TMC. And it’s the top-down approaches that really have never taken into account what the employee is actually doing because it’s a highly processed, systems-driven, sort of boring enterprise process. While this now is flipping because people understand, like, OK, you’re not traveling for fun. And going forward, we probably travel a lot less. We know much more about the return of that investment in travel, it will probably be high. Otherwise, we’d be on a Zoom. So now we understand from a management perspective, OK, this is actually a valuable activity. The minute we jump in the plane, it is a valuable activity, and hence we should approach it as such. And that’s also what I need to feel as a human being. I need to feel rewarded and being taken care of and not putting in some cookie-cutter hotel room with breakfast from plastic plates while I’m signing a multimillion-dollar deal. That doesn’t make any sense! So the experience should match the value that I create. So that is the core principle of designing these new-age travel programs.

You translate that into traveler experience. So that should be matching. Right? In my experience, both from a flight and a hotel, which is just the simple stuff. But then the hard stuff is, OK, how do I actually make sure that the employee can focus on the job and not being focused on, "what are the country regulations where I’m flying to?" How can I get to an office? Is there a decent restaurant where I can have lunch? If I get into trouble, what do I need to do? Right? You want your employees to focus on why they’re there, which is landing that deal or creating a new product or his new team meeting. So you should basically make sure that you create everything around the traveler in order for them to focus on why they’re actually there. That’s what we need to do.

Grant: [00:12:28] Yeah, I love that idea. To have like the company cares more, the employee can do more, and they can return in a better disposition about the whole travel or traveler experience. There’s a term that’s become more prevalent now called bleisure travel, one of these blended terms. Do you think the consumerization, either of you, or both, I should say, of the business world led to these blurred lines, or was it really just Covid that pushed it over the edge?

Nord: [00:12:57] First of all, I love the term. I love the term. And I do feel like we need to start to think about why we are traveling. Certainly, there are some things like, look, we have a long meeting and it’s going to be more engaged together in a conference room rather than on Zoom. And it’s like, yeah, I got that. But a lot of what we’re talking about with travel and recognizing the value of travel, it’s about employee engagement and creating trust and understanding cultural differences and cultures, office culture or community culture. And given that, I think what we really expect or want or should expect is to have a much more immersive experience. Right. Because if not, we just use Zoom. The notion that if, as a company, you are investing, that you have climate impact or environmental impact by traveling, you’re going to have a social impact on the employee asking the employee to travel. You’re making this huge investment. The employees are making a huge investment. Collectively, we should take as much advantage of this opportunity to really have the employee immerse themselves in the culture as much as possible. And I think some of that is going to be doing business things, having a business meeting, but it’s also going to be taking advantage of what that community has to offer.

I actually think there’s like good business value associated with doing traditional leisure traveling things in a community where you travel to. And it doesn’t have to be like you’re going to an exotic place and you should take advantage of it. It could be someplace it’s not considered that exotic, but just taking advantage of the opportunities to understand and know the place much better. It’s going to be much more valuable. And I think, you know, all of us who traditionally had, you know, four locations in four days that we have to go to and we go into a conference room, we leave, and it’s like one conference room looks like the next. And we kind of have this intense week of travel. I think you miss an opportunity by not taking time out to really, you know, immerse yourself. Or immerse oneself in the local community. And so I think the idea of bleisure is critical, I think, for the value for the employee and the company.

Jeroen: [00:15:17] Yeah, I’ve never taken a business trip where I didn’t take any leisure time. So even for all my business trips also in the past, I love to be a tourist as well while I travel for business. And obviously, I didn’t have any stringent travel policies because that’s not the type of culture that’s within the company, but it’s the opportunity ride. So there’s not a lot of romantic stuff about traveling anymore because we’re still queuing for most of our travel time. Therefore, make the best out of it. It’s another concept. And there’s another angle to it, which is Nord mentioned it as well. Right. So the climate costs are significant. So, yeah, it does make sense to tie this also into into your climate impact because. Yeah, OK, I jumped on this plane, so why don’t I just add two days while I, I’m already there. So I think that that will increase bleisure needs as well. That is very big on the agendas of all of our customers.

Grant: [00:16:17] Yeah. That’s an interesting concept that you could use bleisure travel to help companies achieve their ESG, otherwise known as environmental, social and governance. Any thoughts on how that might help when you think you can blend in some personal and business travel together and reaching the ESG goals?

Nord: [00:16:36] You know, kind of going back to your last point in kind of leading into your question. So there is some data. You know, I was just reading and I kind of got this data point up. There was a survey of the National Car Rental. Eighty-one percent of travelers engage in some form of leisure travel. And these leisure travelers report higher satisfaction with their quality of life on the road, 91% versus 79%, which is a big deal. I mean, that certainly to Jeroen’s point, we should all be taking some leisure while we’re traveling. And I think this leads to your point of the ESG impact, and we all need to recognize and understand and continue to monitor the impact, the climate impact, environmental impact of our travel. And understand it is an investment. It’s an investment of money. It’s an investment certainly of employees’ time and their commitment. But it’s also an environmental impact as well. And I think that you know, look, I’m not sure that we’re not that we’re going to reduce the total amount of travel because we’re probably going have more employees travel, but they maybe will travel less. The total may be the same, but I do think that we have the opportunity to get much more value out of the environmental impact that we do make. And I think that that is going to really manifest itself in a much more positive social impact within the company for the employees within their communities to be able to think of travel as an opportunity to take advantage of leisure and immersive opportunities.

And so, you know, travel can be hard. I think you can find yourself in the middle seat in the back row of an airplane, you know, for six or eight hours. And this is can be really physically demanding, mentally, emotionally demanding. Being away from family can be really hard. But to be able to take advantage of that can be really important from the overall employee experience.

Grant: [00:18:35] I think this vision that you’ve both articulated about the future of travel is this new normal. We can all be better citizens of planet Earth than we might have been pre-covid. Right? Here’s a question for both of you. There are cultural changes across all organizations, and it does vary, obviously, by region, but does technology help ensure fair treatment for all giving room to adapt to the various localities and regions?

Jeroen: [00:19:03] Yeah, I think technology plays a huge role in that, not only by getting much more data insights in what’s really going on in the program, not only from a financial point of view, but also looking at your at the impact makes. Right? So the time spent, looking at the actual return of investment, looking at productivity numbers, looking at the traveler or the employee satisfaction of the program. Those are all data-driven scenarios that should give leadership insights into how your travel program is actually performing. And you need a ton of technology to do so. So I think that is the first layer. And the second layer is in terms of a ‘fairer treatment,’ I think fair. It’s very situational. Right? So historically, it was if you’re a VP, you’re allowed to do this. And if you’re an SVP, you are allowed to do that, which doesn’t make any sense because the guy or girl that is flying for some time might be the deal of the lifetime. But because you are a director, you’re at the back of the plane crying for another bag of peanuts. That doesn’t make a lot of sense. So it should be fair to the value it represents. And that’s really hard because that’s a big cultural shift for a lot of companies. Because it’s tied to the hierarchy on where you sit in these enterprise programs. I think there’s more cultural work to do to shift. And the technology will enable that because we’re proving every day that from a data point of view, that doesn’t make any sense. So, therefore, that puts a lot of pressure on these cultures to humanize their cultures a little more as well.

Nord: [00:20:44] I do feel like technology can help. And technology can help dramatically humanize work in being able to provide the right resources and the right capabilities for employees to bring themselves fully to work whether it be in travel or whether it be commuting or whether it be in their day-to-day work and how they are able to be more present. And I think we could spend a long time talking about that--a long time. That being said, the other angle that I would say is that I do think that there is no substitute for being there and experiencing the culture of other locations, offices, work environments. I remember being part of a global development team, Eastern Europe, East Coast, United States, the West Coast of the United States, as well as in India. It was very interesting because I think that everyone would get on calls every week and kind of expect that everyone was in the same situation as their own. They go to work in approximately the same place and bring themselves in the same way. But once you would actually travel there and understand, for some people, it was dinnertime. For some people, it was six a.m. for some. And just the difference in how they brought themselves to work and their experience. And it also made us just change the format of the calls and the time of the calls and it started to rotate and things like that. So the importance of travel and being there I don’t think can be underestimated. I think the technology will continue to help us, help guide us. But I also think that being there and human interaction will play a critical part for the foreseeable future.

Grant: [00:22:33] Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Let’s move to probably my favorite part of these chats. So the ‘crystal ball’ section. If there were no technical limitations, What do you both think the future of business travel looks like in five to 10 years? How is it different from today, and what’s it going to take to get there?

Jeroen: [00:22:51] No technical limitations, you said that, right? OK, so let’s start with teleportation then! Because that solves for a lot of problems. And it was five to 10 years? I think Nord can make teleportation happen within five to ten years. So I’ll put my money on where worries easy.

I think there are a few things, but that it makes it really hard to predict the future where everything is spinning at the same time. So my bet will be on the change in that we work, and that means that for a lot of people, will travel different. We will have no more one-day trips. I, for one, will never take a one-day trip anymore in my lifetime. That doesn’t make any sense. I feel ashamed that I’ve been doing that in the past. So that is the first layer. So I will vow I will never take a one-day trip anymore. And if I do, then I will add bleisure time to it. So then it’s not a one-day trip anymore.

And then the other piece that is super important, I think we’ll have a lot more meetings and meetings-and-incentive travel because we’re all working much more remote, and then we’ll have just an immersive week of getting together. And that might be a lot of work and might be a lot of fun. We’ll have new experiences that can be created in a hotel, or we might not call it the hotel because it’s an experience center. And that is where we truly have deeper engagement with colleagues, or partners, or customers. Because I think that is what we need, because as much as we value this virtual world that we can be highly productive and efficient, you know, it doesn’t make my clock tick. I’m sick and tired of it. And I want to meet people and also in new ways. And I think we can we can create much more immersive experiences if we get creative. So that is one thing that I think will happen a lot. And I also think that most of these policies will either be out of the window. Right? So a lot of the travel policies will be much more Netflix style. You know, spend the money as if it’s your own. And then last but certainly not least, we will not have to expense anything anymore. Tada! It is magically expensed, which is, I don’t know who fixed that. But it was a company. It was great. They humanized work by making expenses disappear. It was amazing!

Grant: [00:25:08] I love that, Nord. How do you build on that? Go ahead.

Nord: [00:25:11] Yeah, I don’t even know. I think, I think there were three things that I was going to add to your own piece, which was brilliant. I’m afraid now to even add to it because it really was well said. I think first of all, I do think for those of you who haven’t seen the Roadmap offering, I think that it is a window into the future of travel and how employees are going to be supported in their travel experience. And I do believe that there’s going to be an extraordinarily large percentage of employees who are going to be using the Roadmap application to support their travel and companies that are going to be using that. And for those who aren’t, they wish they would have it. You know it’s going to be that sort of thing. And it’s so powerful in making travel be this well-supported, immersive experience where I think we are headed. So so that’s the first thing I see in the future.

The second thing I see, we’re going to be talking about this supportive, immersive experience, not just for these long trips, not just Boston to LA or LA to Tokyo. It’s going to be even when we talk about commuting. It’s going to be some of the same types of things, making sure that the employee is very well supported and making sure that that experience is one that the employee feels like the company has their back and provides the services that allow them to be fully present at work. So we’re talking about not just long trips, but travel can also be defined now as commuting.

And I think the final piece for me is that when we talk about travel and travel management, historically, it’s been the focus has been on budgeting in dollars and cents. Or pounds or euros or currency, financial currency. And I think we’re going to start to move away from that as being the sole measure - to measures around employee satisfaction, employee engagement. Measuring travel’s impact on that, hopefully building it up as opposed to decreasing it.

The other thing is, I think that environmental impact is going to be an issue. Which is, I think we’re going to start to see budgeting based upon environmental impact, carbon impact, things like that, rather than just on the dollars and cents of the travel budget. So that will be a part of it. Certainly fun. It’s going to be part of it. But employee satisfaction and environmental impact, I think, are going to start to influence travel strategies as well.

Grant: [00:27:46] I love your collective views of the future. I think there’s another term we can banish it's ‘road warrior’ like it’s some badge of honor. We’ll change that to a ‘planet traveler’ and having a positive experience and impact on our globe.

Nord and Jeroen, thanks so much for talking to us today. It was fabulous. Thank you for that group and for our listeners.

Please stay tuned for our next Emburse on the Mic episode. We’ll be talking about digitally transforming spend management. If you’d like to share your thoughts on this episode, you can always reach us at hi@emburse.com. Talk to you next time.