As business travel continues to tick back up, organizations are beginning to look at internal travel as key to creating and maintaining company culture as well as attracting and retaining top talent, according to a new study

As travel returns to pre-pandemic norms, how and why employees travel for work is expected to change dramatically, according to a recent study from American Express Global Business Travel (Amex GBT) and CULTIQUE, a business strategy firm.

The study posits that after two years of fragmented workforces, closed offices, and disconnected employees, business travel will become critical to reestablishing company culture through in-person interaction and collaboration. Reconnecting employee ties to their company will mean travel to offices to become familiar with colleagues and managers and for collaborating on projects.

The role of a traditional travel manager within an organization is already being expanded to include interaction with corporate real estate departments, sustainability officers, human resources, talent retention and recruitment, and employee-experience officers.

“We see companies saying if we can save money on real estate because we’re more virtual, we’ll need to reinvest that money into travel, mobility and experiences for our team members to keep them engaged,” said Evan Konwiser, executive vice president of product and strategy at Amex GBT.

Amex GBT even created a new term to describe a new corporate position: “Chief Journey Officers,” whose responsibility would extend beyond just employee travel; it would include how office visits are conducted once employees are on site to ensure key people get the most of their time there.

“It’s not just about where people need to go and how they’re going to get there. It’s also about the experience they have once they’re there,” Konwiser said. “That’s why travel is going to be more intertwined with other corporate teams.”

Global business travel activity has begun a rebound from the sharp downturn brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic two years ago, according to the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) — the world’s largest business travel group. Business travel plummeted 53.8% in 2020, generating just $661 billion in revenue — down from $1.43 trillion in 2019. That figure rose to $754 billion last year, and is expected to top $1 trillion in 2022.

Travel is now expected to return to pre-pandemic levels in 2024, with revenues topping $1.48 trillion, according to the GBTA’s Business Travel Index (BTI) report released in November.

Even as revenues rebound, however, business travel is expected to look very different in the years ahead. Organizations that have gotten used to saving money because few people were going anywhere are likely to place an emphasis on travel “sustainability” — where employees are encouraged to bundle visits to multiple clients or events into a single trip.

“There’s a real drive toward that by global corporations — so, trips may be fewer, but they may be longer,” said Suzanne Neufang, CEO of the GBTA, which claims more than 9,000 members. “So, they’re able to get that quarter’s meetings with fewer trips overall.”

Mark Cuschieri, global head of travel at financial services firm UBS, said his company is focused more on making informed choices. “We are already seeing that sustainability will be an essential component of our program,” he said in a statement. “It will drive a change in mindset as to the purpose and reasons for why we need to travel. The ROI conversation about travel will be different. We need to work out how culture will figure in the future ROI conversation.”

Amex GBT surveyed 700 travel managers around the world last year — all without exception expect corporate travel guidelines or policies to change in the next 12 months.

The top policies cited were real-time updates and alerts on potential travel risks (54%) and pre-trip vaccination requirements (51%). Travel managers can give travelers assurance by using technology and tools to keep them informed at every stage — as they plan and book a trip, before they go, and while they’re on the move — putting all the information they need at their fingertips, the report said.

Travel managers can also learn from travelers, gathering feedback through wellbeing questions in employee and post-trip traveler surveys. Those insights can then be harnessed by travel managers, HR, finance, and other relevant partners across the business to improve the overall employee experience and ensure travel programs and policies align with people’s expectations.

Historically, corporate travel was divided into internal versus external trips — with external travel being about networking, creating and sustaining customer and vendor relationships, and completing a business transaction.

While Konwiser believes external travel will remain key to “revitalizing” past business relationships after the pandemic, internal travel is where the organizations will experience bigger change.

“Historically, internal travel was seen as more discretionary and I think now with a more distributed workforce — where you’ve taken away the office [as] a culture and collaboration driver — I think internal travel will be one way to fill that void,” Konwiser said.

Internal corporate travel will be less frequent than a daily commute — perhaps once a month or quarter — and it will be more focused on achieving specific goals. In other words, outcomes will be thought of as an investment in existing talent, as well as a strong recruiting tool, Konwiser argued, because it will be part of an overall employee quality experience.

“We a have customer where any new hire who works remotely gets an internal travel budget to spend time at the office monthly or quarterly and to go and spend time with their new boss,” Konwiser said. “Not only is it a nice thing on an offer letter to say you get a budget to get to do that, but now the new employee gets to build an interpersonal relationship with their new boss in the first few weeks of their job. That’s a massive advantage for that company in culture building and setting up a first right step for that employee. And that’s a massive competitive advantage.”

Chief Journey Officers would also be focused on ensuring travel is enjoyable. For example, was the employee able to get to their destination non-stop, and did they stay at a quality hotel where they could unwind?

“All of those experiences now become part of the competitive landscape for talent,” Konwiser said.

One Amex GBT customer is giving away vacations to all their employees as part of a “wellness program” to help  workers unwind, Konwiser said.

“Companies want to make sure employees have a positive, destressing experience as part of a wellness program,” Konwiser said. “Again, this is something that at this point very few [companies] do, but it’s a competitive advantage. These programs you’ll see more and more of as companies compete for talent.”

Chief Journey Officers would also be responsible for helping to reduce a company’s carbon footprint, which could boost demand for greener travel options. Travel and meetings can also drive progress in diversity, equity, and inclusion.

The bottom line, according to Amex GBT and CULTIQUE report, is that travel should no longer be seen as a commodity but as an investment in long-term profitability and culture.

“Thinking like a Chief Journey Officer underscores the integral role travel should play in a distributed workforce. It’s a powerful way to differentiate,” Sarah Unger, partner and co-founder of CULTIQUE, said in a statement. “To better relate to new employee desires and societal expectations, companies need to shift their business travel mindset from automated to intentional.”

By Lucas Mearian