Interview: Business Travel's Big Revival

red plane trails

8.5min read

Published 17 April 2023


Zoom calls are great - but for many businesses, there’s no replacing the face to face meeting. So has corporate travel recovered post-COVID?

Cameron Harris - Global Leader of Flight Centre Business Travel - talks to Sean Aylmer about the rising demand for corporate travel on the Fear and Greed podcast.

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Interview Transcript

Sean Aylmer: Welcome to the Fear and Greed daily interview. I'm Sean Aylmer. Sure, Zoom calls can be pretty convenient, but for many businesses, there's no substitute for a face-to-face meeting. If the number of flights at capacity is any measure, plenty of people feel the same way. So is corporate travel back? Cameron Harris is the Global Leader of Flight Centre Business Travel, a supporter of this podcast. Cameron, welcome to Fear and Greed.


Cameron Harris: Good afternoon, Sean. Thanks for having me.


Sean Aylmer: So is corporate travel back?


Cameron Harris: Corporate travel is definitely back, Sean. It's probably coming on 12 months now since we started to see borders open and a real pent-up demand for I guess everyone across different levels of corporate organisations wanting to get back out there and really having a need to travel.


Sean Aylmer: Okay. Is it back to pre-pandemic levels yet?


Cameron Harris: I would say the last couple of months we've been looking very close to our 2019 from I guess a volume point of view.


Sean Aylmer: Right.


Cameron Harris: We are seeing probably a bit of a shift in that, probably a slightly reduced number of organisations are travelling, but we are seeing the demand is there. It's probably not being as matched closely by the current supply levels in some areas of the travel market. I guess what we're also seeing the overall spend is there for customers, but that's somewhat being impacted by the environment that we're in with inflated air prices at the moment which is really a supply and demand balancing act.


Sean Aylmer: Okay. So certainly airfares are high at the moment, but I think most people would agree that after a time it will balance back to a more sustainable level. Do you think that we will then see a big jump in corporate travel?


Cameron Harris: Well, corporate travel, it's really just continuing to grow. We've been coining the phrase the sugar rush, which started back around March, April last year, and we're seeing that pent-up demand still continuing month on month. We're seeing organisations I guess continue to make smart decisions around where travel is important to them. There has been a shift in the behaviour. You'll get some companies that are now doing what used to be one in three trips is moved to online, but the value of actually getting back out there and travelling for multiple reasons is as strong as ever. We're now seeing a good percentage of customers that are still yet to travel since borders opened now having a lot more confidence as this calendar year has also opened up as well. So we've probably got two parts there. One, the customers that really have ramped things up since March last year and those that are now just coming back online as confidence starts to grow as well.


Sean Aylmer: So where is it busiest? I presume Sydney, Melbourne is always busiest, but Canberra, the capital cities, Brisbane, Perth, et cetera?


Cameron Harris: Well, we generally find what we call the golden triangle, the Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane route is traditionally the busiest. However, we've also had a good demand within the regional areas. So a lot of the resource sectors, a lot of the health sectors. We're seeing, I guess those regional Queensland areas or those regional WA areas have been strong throughout this period. There was a lot of organisations that kept on traveling through COVID just because their businesses required it. From an international level, our main routes that have opened up, New Zealand has been strong since day one, back to North America and then the UK has been strong in sort of the last six months as well. Asia is the area that we're starting to now get a lot of inquiry as China has opened back up. So we expect that to be the next hot destination from a corporate perspective over the next couple of weeks.


Sean Aylmer: Does Zoom save money? Now, I'm being devil's advocate here.


Cameron Harris: No, look, I'll be honest, I'm fortunate or unfortunate to travel a fair bit for work and there are certain meetings that are I will now conduct on Zoom or on digital platforms. So in one way, yes it does, but what we've found, it's now been integrated into companies' overall travel programs. So we know there are certain meetings or interactions that have a time and a place on technology, but there is still a large percentage of travel that is back in a face-to-face environment.

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Sean Aylmer: I'm speaking to Cameron Harris, global leader of Flight Centre Business Travel. Okay, so let's bring it back to smaller businesses, SMEs, what are they looking for in corporate travel?


Cameron Harris: Yeah, so I guess what they're looking for and why companies partner with us is we look at travel from a holistic point of view. Many people think travel is just jumping online and just booking a flight. For us, we really look at it from an end-to-end. SMEs are generally time-poor or resource-poor and therefore they've got to, I guess, prioritise what they can outsource to the experts.

We partner with SMEs or corporations to make sure that everything from the research, the booking, the trip management, so the duty of care and knowing where their people are at all times, I guess the traveller experience, all of us have travelled and in one way or another and the experience of knowing that you're capturing your frequent flyer points, if you are staying in regular hotels, you know where you're going to and from the office. We know with SMEs the bottom line dollar is extremely important. So making sure that they've got all of their spend consolidated in one place and they're not waiting for one of their employees who hasn't done their expenses for three months and then they finally come in with all these unknown costs that have to be allocated somewhere and just giving real visibility over what their entire travel program looks like.

We really know that when a company sits down and works out their goals for the year and what part does travel play in that, they then have to allocate the budget that's going to help them achieve those goals. That's where we work closely with organisations and really add value to their overall travel program, be it through making sure they've got a strong policy, making sure there's adherence to it and making sure that their people are supported throughout that journey. We've even found from really a mental wellness or an employee benefit point of view, just giving their travellers comfort through what has been a challenging period of travel has not only helped them when they're out on the road but it's also been a great benefit when they're back in the office as well.


Sean Aylmer: I mean that is something which I haven't really thought much about, the fact that you can actually bring to the SME disciplines. If you know the SME, company ABC are using you guys, Flight Centre Business Travel knows what's acceptable and what's not acceptable, what's the norm, shall we say, and can help out in that sense?


Cameron Harris: Agree. That's what we find, a travel policy we sort of say is the number one cost-saving tool that you'll have in a business. When we can make it really clear for companies around what they can and can't do and what's governed by their organisation and then we're the ones that enforce that for them. You will save a lot more over a longer period of time than if you've got someone who's jumping onto a website to book a flight and claim they saved a couple of dollars here and a couple of dollars there. But it also gives employees of organisations the confidence around what they can and can't do when it comes to their travel program. So it's actually great support across multiple different levels and that's where we add a huge benefit to any organization when partnering on their travel.


Sean Aylmer: I must say, what I found personally and then when I was running kind of a team previously, why using someone like you was great was because it's easy to jump online and do it really cheaply, there's no doubt about that. But inevitably in business, I have to change it. So if I'm planning something four weeks in advance and I've got to change it and it becomes very expensive because the cheapest flights are non-refundable and you can't change. So that's kind of where I've suddenly worked out the value in somewhere like flights and business travel. It's much more than actually how much you are paying. It's in the long term you can save money if you have someone that knows what they're doing, I suppose.


Cameron Harris: Correct. We look at it from an overall what are the time and cost savings and what is the value that's being added to an organisation. When we sort of meet with prospective companies and they all say, " Oh, we just jump online and book it ourselves," it's generally then, well, when do you find the time in your day just to jump online if it's not the core focus of your role. So people are saying that but what they find is their travel or I guess sitting down and actually getting it booked and done is getting pushed further and further back because it's not necessarily a priority in their day or in their role.

That's where we take that responsibility away from them and manage it for them so they can get back and really focus on what the core functions of their organisation or what the core functions of their role are. Then we're there 24/ 7 to support them. So we've got our business operating hours with your dedicated travel manager, a dedicated team that supports you, but then we've got our global 24-hour assist team who are there to make sure that you're supported through those challenging times, or even if you do just need to make a change because something's changed in your agenda or schedule.


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Sean Aylmer: Cameron, you must get some desperate calls. As you're talking there, and I thought, "Oh my God, I'm sure there's some situations, which are pretty amazing."


Cameron Harris: Yeah. Look, and that's where our team of experts across Flight Centre Business Travel are put up on a pedestal once they partner with these organizations because some of the guidance or the expertise or the situations that they navigate people through or help them out with, yeah, there's some many different varying weird and wonderful challenges they face.


Sean Aylmer: Yeah, a bit of a Dorothy Dixer for you the last question, Cameron Harris, tell me about the corporate travel grant program, which is of course being run by yourselves, Flight Centre Business Travel.


Cameron Harris: Yeah. So the corporate travel grant is back after a little hiatus across the COVID period. This is an initiative where we want to make sure that we can support the backbone of the economy, the SME business is out there. What we've done is we've put together a $30, 000 travel grant for the winner that will see them have, I guess, greater support and a budget for them to be able to put towards their travel expenses for the next year.

So we've partnered with Virgin Australia as our main partner along with IHG and Hertz, and what we'll do is customers or companies, sorry, all across Australia, have the opportunity to submit a one to two-minute video online and talk to us about what will this travel grant do to their business, what it will allow them to do, what opportunities would come out of it if they were lucky enough to win this. We'll then narrow that down to five finalists who will fly up to our global headquarters in Brisbane and they'll get the opportunity to present in front of a judging panel where the winner will walk away with a $ 30,000 travel grant, but the forerunners up will also share with a $ 10,000 travel credit as well. So great opportunities there for them to be able to really kickstart their business or make sure that they can solidify what is needed from their travel program for the year ahead.


Sean Aylmer: So to have a look at that, I suppose you just use your search engine, Google Flight Centre Business Travels corporate travel grant or something.


Cameron Harris: That's it. Just log on to, all of the information is there, easy to upload your video and further information around us as a brand, the travel grant itself and the partners involved with this.


Sean Aylmer: I'm going to get my colleague Michael Thompson or perhaps Adam Lang to do it because they're much better on video than me, I've got to say.


Cameron Harris: Oh look, and some of the entries that we get are fantastic, right?


Sean Aylmer: Creative.


Cameron Harris: Creative. We don't want to put pressure on people at all. It's better if you're conveying what it actually means to you as an organisation. So we've had finalists that have filmed it in the middle of a mine site just on their iPhone.


Sean Aylmer: Oh, wow.


Cameron Harris: We have others that go to the limit of bringing in production companies, but it's really up to you as an organization how you present it. But the judging is based on what this travel grant will mean to you and what a difference it makes. I can give you the insight that one of our previous winners, Almo Milk, they were fortunate enough to win this back in I think it was around about 2019, which meant that it gave them the opportunity to really grow their distributors and sales went up by 200%. They grew in new markets across Asia and they went on to grow a new development, a new product range as a result of it. So the impact it actually has is huge for these businesses. So yeah, we want to see everyone entering because we really want to get behind those SMEs as well.


Sean Aylmer: Fantastic. Cameron, thank you for talking to Fear and Greed.


Cameron Harris: Fantastic. Thanks for having me, Sean.


Sean Aylmer: That was Cameron Harris, global leader of Flight Centre Business Travel, a supporter of this podcast. This is the Fear and Greed daily interview. Join us every morning for the full episode of Fear and Greed, Australia's most popular business podcast. I'm Sean Aylmer. Enjoy your day.

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