Rosanna Caira: What was 2020 like for your company as you’ve navigated the pandemic?
Patrick Doyle: The last year has been an opportunity for American Express Global Business Travel (GBT), along with the wider travel industry, to re-examine, evaluate and clarify priorities, as well as to strengthen relationships with our clients and partners. Travel-management companies such as GBT are designed to respond in emergencies and times of disruption; and adversity propels innovation.
RC: What has your company done to support other companies through this challenging period?
PD: We have supported and delivered solutions to our clients in many ways during the pandemic. When the world went into lockdown, GBT mobilized its global workforce of travel counsellors to help re-patriate passengers and process refunds; we also worked with clients, partners and industry bodies to drive implementation of bio-safety standards and protocols.
Good communication plays a crucial role in gaining traveller confidence, and technology is key to enabling this to scale. Over the past year, GBT has developed new products and services including Travel Vitals, a tool that aggregates from hundreds of reliable sources to provide up-to-date COVID-19 information for travellers – not just for GBT clients, but for everyone. You can search by destination, airline, airport, hotel or transportation provider to get information on travel advisories, safety protocols, changes to service, et cetera. We also launched a new push-notification feature on our mobile app to allow travel managers to send timely messages, travel information updates and tips to their travellers.
RC: GBT recently launched a new workspace booking service for remote workers and small teams. Can you tell us what fuelled this introduction and how it works?
PD: In March 2021, we launched a new innovative solution called Workspaces, which offers individuals and small teams the ability to make flexible, daytime bookings of hotel meeting rooms, meeting venues, co-working spaces and converted suites to use as work and collaboration spaces.
Prior to the pandemic, working remotely was already a growing trend as the technology became more widely accessible; but when it suddenly became mandatory in 2020, it prompted a re-think and change in mindset for organizations around its operational models. Although companies recognized the benefits and efficiencies of remote working and adapted new ways to conduct business, I think we can all agree that everyone is experiencing the limitations of virtual meetings in varying degrees.
More than anything, this past year has made us appreciate and understand the value of face-to-face interactions. Research shows the vast majority of people and organizations believe that for important moments there is no substitute for engaging with a person face to face. Video conferencing is hindering our business relationships, productivity, and morale. There is also greater awareness that remote workers need a break from their at-home environment, or a quiet space where they can work away from distractions. Some may be feeling isolated, missing interactions with colleagues and are less engaged because of Zoom fatigue.
For all these reasons, we introduced the Workspaces booking platform to offer solutions to a wide range of both COVID-19-impacted and post-COVID-19 challenges — especially now, as vaccine rollouts to pick up stream across the country and indications of workplace readiness.
RC: Can individual customers sign up to this as well, or is it only offered for SMBs?
PD: Unlike other meeting solutions designed for meeting planners, Workspaces is aimed at individual travellers, employees and small groups up to 10 people (where it is allowed under public-health guidelines). Workspaces offer a variety of booking options to accommodate a wide range of needs and hybrid work environments. It’s a flexible, low-cost working environment that is great for start-ups, and can also benefit workers whose company premises remain closed; employees without suitable office space in their own homes; sales professionals and start-ups seeking professional settings for client meetings; small team meetings; and meetings with same-day travel.
RC: How many hotels are involved in this initiative and what kinds of spaces do they provide?
PD: There are currently more than 500 Canadian venues on the platform (hotel suites, meeting spaces and shared office venues) with more than 50 instantly bookable workspaces, growing daily. As a result of the demand, hotel groups and meeting venues have been optimizing the use of their inventory by offering spaces that are available for daytime bookings.
Some of our hotel partners include Hyatt and Radisson, along with boutique hotels, and co-working (non-hotel) venues across the country. Examples of Workspaces include hotels that have converted their guestrooms to feel more like home offices; rooms that have been re-arranged so that the desks offer spectacular views; and suites that have been re-designed to provide more optimal living spaces, distanced seating arrangements and larger tables for multiple use and/or multiple people.
And, of course, all properties will include their hygiene/cleaning standards and protocols in a format that is visible to the booker to help bookers confidently choose a safe working environment.
RC: Do the customers using these workspaces benefit from any preferred perks?
PD: Yes, we collaborated with key suppliers to get the best deals and perks for our customers. At hotel properties, this may include preferential rates, discounts on food, beverages and parking, free bottled water and access to amenities such as the fitness centre to work out, or to take a dip in the pool after a productive meeting.
RC: Where are these services currently offered?
PD: GBT Workspaces are currently only available for customers in the U.S. and across Canada in most major cities including Toronto/GTA, Ottawa, Montreal, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Vancouver and Halifax. We are actively speaking with clients around the world and plan to expand to other countries as soon as we complete North American implementations.
RC: How does the Meetings- Express platform work?
PD: GBT Workspaces bookings are made via GBT’s Meetings Express platform, which was launched in 2019 to offer customers a single global interface for sourcing small, simple and recurring meetings. Workspaces offers a user-friendly booking experience and mobile-responsive website. Self-implemented registration requires only a few company/individual details that will provide a secure link to begin using the platform and search for content, view each property’s description, set criteria and compare rates. GBT Workspaces is supported in partnership with the booking platform MeetingsBooker.com. Registration is easy, and GBT is not charging any implementation or transaction fees.
RC: When the pandemic eventually comes to an end, will this service continue to be offered? How might it change?
PD: It’s possible that demand will grow in the longer term as companies look for innovative meeting and work solutions. Companies are reviewing their real-estate strategies and looking at overhead costs; and where they do decide to reduce office space, they may invest more in these types of flexible workspace options. Surveys have shown that there is a desire to return to the workplace, and a readiness to safely gather for in-person meetings; but flexibility is key.
RC: What is your company doing to provide the right solutions to meeting planners?
PD: GBT offers a range of consultancy services and tools to support travel managers and meeting planners. With the acceptance of remote meetings and imminent re-start of travel, it is more important than ever for meeting planners to have the right planning tools to make the determination on whether in-person, virtual, or hybrid is the right approach.
Our travel and expense-management tool, Neo, and New Fare Display (NFD) helps travel managers improve compliance and support the goals of managed travel programs, including savings and duty of care. In 2020, GBT launched a new carbon-emissions filter to help travellers make better informed, more-sustainable booking decisions for air and rail, and recently hotels. The Green Badge hotel feature in Neo allows companies to choose which certification is right for them and configure options based on carbon offset programs and/or preferred eco-certification.
American Express Meetings & Events, a division of GBT, supports meetings and events planners in choosing locations that minimize group travel emissions, and sourcing providers that that are minimizing food wastage, food miles and single- use plastic, and partnering with local charitable projects.
RC: How quickly do you think the meetings sector will rebound?
PD: Following a year of uncertainty, businesses have quickly adapted M+E programs to keep customers, prospects and employees engaged. Meeting planners have learned to implement new safety-and-security protocols, and accelerated the use of existing technologies across virtual, hybrid and in-person formats.
We are already seeing a rebound in the meetings sector, more rapidly in the U.S., as vaccinations have accelerated and in-person events are opening up again. Domestic (U.S.) business travel for meetings is increasing to near 2019 levels, especially among our small to mid-size enterprise clients. GBT’s 2021 Global M&E Forecast found that planners expect small and simple meetings to be the most prevalent and fastest-recovering category of event.
The virtual/hybrid component will be a part of the new meetings experience for the long term, even when we can return to face to face.
Rosanna Caira: What was 2020 like for your company as you’ve navigated the pandemic?