A new COVID-19 variant is threatening to challenge the progress made this past year, but exactly how much should businesses worry about the latest variant and its potential to upend travel?
Known as “omicron,” the headline-grabbing COVID-19 variant may be new, but it is hardly unexpected or surprising. Scientists have predicted continued variants will be the norm for the foreseeable future, posing significantly less danger over time as the global pandemic slows and transitions to more contained epidemics on regional levels. Early research also seems to indicate that those infected with the omicron variant exhibit “extremely mild” symptoms.
Still, the latest variant poses a test to the travel industry, which has been slowly growing and rebuilding for much of 2021. Fortunately, the past surges of COVID cases have strengthened the industry’s resilience and its ability to respond with speed and flexibility. Below, we outline the five big reasons the travel industry is ready for any temporary disruptions posed by omicron or other future variants.
1. Vaccination and Booster Rates Are Increasing
It’s hard to imagine a world without COVID-19 vaccinations, but that was the case less than a year ago. In a short amount of time, record progress has resulted in more than half of the global population receiving at least one dose of the vaccine and approximately 31 million doses are still being administered on a daily basis. In North America, Canada leads the way with nearly 80 percent of residents vaccinated and the U.S. continues to grow, with almost 70 percent now partially vaccinated.
For travel, this has meant the reopening of borders and the return of face-to-face meetings at levels not seen since early 2020. Countries have introduced new systems for verifying traveler vaccination status, including health passports and pre-entry wellness surveys. While omicron has prompted some governments to reinstate restrictions on select countries, studies show that such travel bans do not help prevent the spread of disease.
Fortunately, booster shots offer a new way to strengthen immunity and mitigate viral spread without negatively affecting businesses or travel. In fact, scientists have found that a third vaccine dose reduces the likelihood of infection by 95 percent in comparison to those who only receive two doses. As booster shots become more readily accessible, travelers will be further protected in the event of future outbreaks.
2. Suppliers Have Established New Standards of Care
One of the earliest forms of preventing the spread of COVID-19—sanitation and PPE measures—continues to serve as the first line of defense for travelers on the road. Airlines, hotels, and rental car companies have permanently altered their business models and product offerings to prioritize the health and wellness of the traveler.
In addition to increasingly commonplace measures, like hand sanitizer stations and UV light tools for disinfecting surfaces, airlines have experimented with innovative safety solutions, including altering cabin arrangements, creating antimicrobial seat fabrics, and improving ventilation of planes. Business travelers have learned to not only accept, but to expect these new travel norms—changes that may include reduced frequency of housekeeping, mandatory masks on public transportation, and touchless payment options.
3. Businesses Have Adapted Their Travel Programs
When the novel coronavirus arrived on the global stage in March 2020, it caught businesses off guard—few had concrete processes or contingency plans in place to handle such a situation. As a result, this pushed many organizations to work with their Travel Management Companies (TMCs) to rebuild their corporate travel programs from the ground up.
Most notably, businesses have retooled their travel policies to establish clear parameters for identifying which employees can travel, based on both the current COVID climate and the tiers of travel most important to their business. Automated trip approval has streamlined these pandemic complexities, delivering clear and consistent decisions in a way that balances employee safety with the business needs. Additionally, new investments in technology mean better risk management tools and new ways to protect employees on the go.
4. Travelers are Ready to Get Back on the Road
Thanks in part to the three developments listed above (vaccines, supplier safety, and travel program changes) travelers feel more prepared returning to the road. While this eagerness to travel tends to ebb as new variants emerge or outbreaks spread, traveler confidence has steadily grown the past year.
Employees accustomed to being on the road feel more productive when they travel, and they crave the engagement from in-person interactions that Zoom meetings often fail to deliver. New variants like omicron may present an initial barrier, but fully vaccinated (and boosted) employees will still choose to travel, as long as they are presented with flexible options in the planning process. A survey from SAP Concur taken earlier this year found that nearly 3 in 4 business travelers expect their travel programs to offer increased flexibility when booking travel. By providing travelers with flexibility, businesses can help instill greater confidence.
5. Advancements Continue in Health & Science
The development of not one, but several highly-effective vaccines remains arguably the single-greatest contributing factor to the return of travel and employees feeling safe on the road. Booster shots are the natural continuation of that progress, and additional advancements in modern medicine will further lessen the impact of future COVID variants.
For example, a treatment pill in the works from Pfizer reduces likelihood of hospitalization and death by 89 percent, which could save lives and provide significant relief to the medical system. Encouragingly, this oral, anti-viral medication is expected to be effective against omicron and future variants. The readily transportable and easily administered format of the drug make it a natural solution for travelers, providing relief and peace of mind in the event of unexpected illness on the road.
Further research continues, which will play a role as COVID-19 recedes and a post-pandemic future emerges. To stay informed as new information becomes known and governments adjust their travel restrictions accordingly, we recommend visiting our Travel Intelligence portal to check real-time requirements before booking travel.