U.S. companies of all sizes in recent months have wrestled with developing policies governing their employees’ return to their offices and normal work procedures. Senior executives and corporate boards have debated mandating Covid-19 vaccines for all employees, requiring regular tests for the unvaccinated, and limiting in-person office attendance to the vaccinated.
Some U.S. companies, apparently including JP Morgan Chase & Co., have hit on another option: allowing only vaccinated employees to travel for business. The financial services company, one of the largest U.S. spenders on corporate travel, also has restricted meeting attendance to the vaccinated, according to Reuters.
JP Morgan isn’t alone. About 18 percent of respondents to a July of Global Business Travel Association poll of member travel buyers and procurement executives indicated their companies would require a vaccine before traveling for company business, and 40 percent of such respondents to another GBTA poll this month indicated their companies would limit business travel “and/or” meeting clients face to face to the vaccinated.
The decision of how to approach the vaccines, travel and return to work often are being discussed and made at the highest levels of an organization, and not always with the travel manager’s input. Still, any corporation that implements a business travel ban for the unvaccinated will need procedures and mechanisms to deploy and enforce that mandate, and that’s where the travel manager comes in.
Those things can be done. You just have to get with the right group to make sure that they’re pulling that field in, and it’s up to HR to help the travel group solve that problem.”
Partnership Travel Consulting’s Jim Wilkins
Developing and executing a strategy to limit business travel to vaccinated employees could be a complicated endeavor, and several travel executives suggested staying in close contact with senior management to fully grasp the aims of such a mandate. Pre-trip authorization technology and travel profile management strategy also could be valuable tools in bolstering a travel mandate.
TMCs: Maybe Not Us
Travel management company partners, however, might not be eager to help design and enforce business travel bans. Several TMCs declined comment for this report, and sources indicated reluctance on TMCs’ part to serve in any sort of enforcement capacity for a vaccine-related travel ban.
“Most TMCs aren’t touching Covid-related travel policies, or travel enforcements as it relates to Covid within an organization, with a 10-foot pole, just because they view it as an HR issue,” said Brandon Strauss, co-founder and partner of business travel consultancy KesselRun Corporate Travel Solutions.
“It’s not the TMC’s job to police the policy. That’s the travel manager’s job,” said Jim Wilkins, SVP of corporate buyer solutions at business travel consultancy Partnership Travel Consulting and formerly senior director of global travel at WarnerMedia.
Still, there are steps travel managers can take to enact measures to keep unvaccinated employees from traveling, of varying degrees of complexity. Among the blunter methods they could use would be to simply remove from travel platforms the profiles of travelers who wouldn’t demonstrate their vaccinated status, Strauss said.
“If he tries to travel, there’s no login, and there’s no recognition of him when he calls into a travel counselor,” Strauss said.
Profiling the Situation
Travel profiles could be used in other ways to enforce such a mandate. Tammy Krings, founder and CEO of travel management company ATG, said the ATG profile management system includes a field for travelers’ health information that could be used to log vaccination status with supporting information.
“When we created ours, we had had many, many instances where people had gotten sick on the road or something had happened while they were traveling, and we needed to know more about them,” Krings said. “We’re treating Covid the exact same way that we treated the other illnesses, except for the fact that in some cases it’s mandated. We are seeing a significant increase in people putting their vaccination information in their profile, even if their company doesn’t mandate that they’re vaccinated.”
They’re going to find that travel is going to be almost impossible if they’re not vaccinated.”
ATG’s Tammy Krings
For those that do, bookings are only allowed to go forward online or via a live agent if that profile field includes vaccination information, she said. “We treat it as if it’s a normal policy. So if anybody’s breaking any other policy, it’s the same level of treatment,” she said.
Watkins suggested that human resources management software also could be adapted to include vaccination information on employee profiles, which then could integrate with travel technology.
“One thing that we’ve been talking about is some type of mechanism that is incorporated into the HR feed that can populate a profile,” Watkins said, noting that at WarnerMedia, “I worked with our programmers constantly to make sure I could identify traveler levels—from executives, what their entitlements were, versus the rank-and-file employee. Those things can be done. You just have to get with the right group to make sure that they’re pulling that field in, and it’s up to HR to help the travel group solve that problem.”
Beyond profile management, travel managers could lean on pre-trip authorization processes and technology to help flag would-be unvaccinated travelers.
“There could be a pre-trip authorization component of it, but this is under the assumption that the company has pre-trip technology, which most don’t,” Strauss said. “Or, they don’t in any hard-stop automation kind of way.”
Krings said one ATG client requires two levels of managerial approval for an unvaccinated employee to travel for business, with the approval request automatically routed to one manager, then the second if approved by the first.
“A lot of them do get denied,” Krings said. “Unlike a lot of other approval processes, these aren’t getting approved. My guess is it’s right around 60 percent getting approved and 40 percent getting declined.”
Things Change, Sometimes Quickly
The late-summer spread of the delta variant of Covid-19, and the sharp rise in case counts, pushed many companies to quickly and drastically change the return-to-office plans developed weeks earlier. Office reunions were delayed, travel plans postponed, and in some cases, new regulations for unvaccinated employees were developed. Will those plans change again, now that new Covid-19 case counts are on the decline, at least in the United States? It’s possible that some companies that have adopted travel bans for unvaccinated employees could have a change of heart. (Southwest Airlines, for one, has backtracked on similar plans.)
Even if those bans are permanent, that doesn’t mean companies won’t find cause for exceptions, Strauss noted.
“If you have an employee who is marginally important and they don’t want to get vaccinated and they need to travel, they probably won’t be working there very long,” Strauss said. “But I think the bigger problem is, what do you do in the event where you’ve got a highly productive employee who needs to travel, and the employee says, ‘I’m not getting vaccinated?’ “
Strauss suggested some companies would bend their own rule in that situation. “As a practical matter, if you’ve got an unvaccinated employee who is an important employee and the business unit has a goal, they’re going to tell that employee, ‘just go do what you need to do.’ “
On the other hand, Krings suggested the difficulties of unvaccinated travel could spur companies’ interest in ensuring travelers’ vaccination.
“They’re going to find that travel is going to be almost impossible if they’re not vaccinated,” Krings said. I’ve been to Romania, the Netherlands and Germany, and every single restaurant has asked for my vaccination card, and every single hotel I’ve stayed in has asked for my vaccination card. [These companies] are looking at setting their people up for success while they travel and not to have to subject [them] to constant PCR testing.”