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World Travel, Inc. hosted our first-ever virtual symposium, which focused on the travel industry's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, on Thursday, May 21, 2020.

This year's altered event may have lacked some of the interaction that made our previous in-person events so special, but the symposium's expert speakers offered important and timely insight into a number of pressing business travel issues. And in typical symposium fashion, entertainment and prizes spiced things up in between panels.

Director of Travel and Expense for Johns Hopkins' University Amy Page kicked off Thursday's event with an informative question-and-answer session alongside Executive Vice President of Business Development for World Travel Mike Farrell. Page outlined her university's pandemic response, which included locating and contacting its travelers, coordinating with risk professionals to understand how travel restrictions would impact programming, and partnering with health systems to provide housing for healthcare professionals.

For Page, the question facing corporate travel following the pandemic is "how do we move along in industry, how do we move along with our a world that is going to look very different."

Page said that the pandemic has shown the importance of booking within the company program for visibility purposes. She also raised the possibility of instituting a pre-trip approval process in the future. But for now, Page explained, the university's primary focus is finding a way to safely return students to campus and provide housing.

American Airlines Vice President of the Eastern Division and Global Sales Jim Carter presented next. Carter focused on the pandemic's severe impact on the entire airline industry and provided a glimpse of the future of passenger experience.

Focusing on American Airlines' data, Carter said that international travel and flight scheduling to Europe and Asia had drastically decreased, but that a small number of corporate travelers were beginning to return to the skies. American will retire about 100 aircraft, he said, while citing the need for policies that would extend ticket validity and offer ticket name changes as travel slowly begins to resume.

But the most important industry change will be a heightened focus on traveler safety.

"Traveler well-being and cleanliness are no question moving to the top," Carter said, adding that airlines would need to take a "whole-journey" approach to air travel in order to combat the pandemic's effects. Carter explained that American had already taken or planned to take measures such as closing lounges, limiting ticket counters, cleaning high-contact surfaces and implementing a touchless boarding process to promote separation and cleanliness. American is also requiring all passengers to wear face coverings throughout the trip, deep cleaning its aircraft after every flight, and planning to notify passengers of their scheduled flight's capacity in the future. The airline is also using its cargo capacity to ship essential supplies and donating vacations to New York healthcare workers.

The challenge facing American and other airlines, Carter explained, is attempting to provide service while also maintaining separation aboard the aircraft. This can sometimes be managed by not reserving 50% of the middle seats, but this practice may cause challenges as demand builds.

Andrew Miller and Jeremy Prout of International SOS, the world's largest medical and travel securities firm, closed the day's guest presentations with an examination of the future of business travel.

After a short overview of current COVID-19 projections, Miller discussed the importance of monitoring and maintaining mental well-being during the pandemic.

"Duty of care is critical," he said, adding later that the travel buyer will now need to work closely with departments such as human resources to ensure comprehensive workforce management.

Team members, he explained, should accept their worries and emotions, consider their information sources, focus on controllable factors, and ask for help or support if necessary. Managers can express empathy, practice active listening, encourage positivity, build trust, and take care of their own physical and mental well being to support their team.

Miller and Prout then outlined the process of returning to previous travel schedules as restrictions begin to lift and reopening takes place. This begins with a focus on determining the need and context of each trip while educating employees on local and workplace regulations related to COVID-19. This stage of preparation includes defining essential travel through assessing fitness to travel, outlining an approval process, and monitoring compliance, among other factors.

This segment also included the following to-do list for industry members:

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The World Travel team then offered several updates, with Chief Information Officer Ivan Imana and Chief Innovation Officer Rock Blanco introducing WorldWatch: a comprehensive traveler safety monitoring tool. Their presentation focused on WorldWatch's new COVID-19 case mapping capabilities. CEO and President Liz Mandarino closed the morning's discussion by outlining World Travel's response to the pandemic, noting that the company transitioned to a work-from-home environment on March 18 but that employees have conducted thousands of hours of training and produced several new products, including WorldWatch. 

"We will be ready to service quickly and efficiently," Mandarino said. "World Travel is going to come out of this on the other side an even greater company."

For a complete archive of Spring Symposium 2020's performances, which were written, produced performed and recorded by our own employees, visit our YouTube channel.

Jimmy Davidson

Written by Jimmy Davidson