Arlette van Bezu, Commercial Director at Schiphol Travel International, and her colleagues faced a challenging time during the coronavirus crisis. She talks about the impact on herself and the business, the future of business travel and the assistance provided to two travellers who were stranded in New Zealand for four months due to the lockdown.
‘We had to close our office from mid-March. Everyone started working from home, and we weren’t used to that at all. It was hectic during the initial period; the telephones were ringing incessantly because clients wanted to return home quickly. We were extremely busy bringing back and repatriating travellers, postponing existing travel arrangements, rebooking travel arrangements and arranging travel vouchers. We extended our opening hours during the first weekends because of the hundreds of extra questions we received.
The situation was changing daily. You have to take orange and red areas into account or a test that travellers have to take before entering a country. Our key task was to assist our clients to the best possible extent by providing them with the latest information, the correct forms or advice on the safety situation. It largely involved figuring out what was and what wasn’t possible.’
‘We were in contact with two travellers who were stranded in New Zealand after the country went into lockdown. They opted to stay there temporarily, but after four months, we decided by mutual consultation to bring them back. We constantly monitored whether there were any flights, and if a flight was going, we had to act quickly because flights were also being cancelled at the last minute. It was anyone’s guess whether the flight would actually depart, even on the day of departure. We kept in touch with them both before and during their journey.
I later checked on Flightradar whether the plane had taken off. And that turned out to be the right moment, because the country went into lockdown again a week later. At a time like that we’re all happy, you empathise with what your clients are experiencing and make things happen as a team. As a thank-you from our clients, we received a beautiful bunch of flowers, a bottle of wine from New Zealand and a personal email addressed to the team saying that they had returned home safely to their family.
Clients want flexibility
‘Travel behaviour will change. There will still be a need for business travel, people want to visit factories or projects abroad to maintain personal contact. However, we have found that clients are opting more for quality and direct flights. If they are taking a flight from Amsterdam to Bangkok, they do not want to transfer at another airport where they may need to under undergo further checks. We have noted that travellers are opting to travel to a destination once rather than three times, but are staying at their destination longer. And clients want flexibility. They want to book a trip, but it should come with a rebooking or cancellation guarantee.
Our clients still enjoy travelling, but are more cautious and want tailored advice. They need someone who can tell them over the phone what steps they need to take and what changes there are in their travel itinerary. If a traveller is in a country that is assigned a different colour code, we phone them and discuss what the best solution is.'
‘Being in contact before and during the journey has become more important, and that’s the difference between our company and other business travel agents. Most travel agents often have a call centre or an online booking tool, whereas our priority is personal contact with our clients. Personal contact with clients makes our work really enjoyable. Providing a full service solution, making bookings and figuring out everything for clients. Clients are assigned a personal travel advisor who arranges everything, from a to z. A traveller is not a number, but a human being. During the coronavirus crisis, our clients were very happy that they were able to consult a real person rather than a website. I am optimistic about the future of our business, because there is a considerable demand for a personal approach.'
Return to office appreciated
‘I thought that I had seen it all in more than 20 years of experience in the business travel industry. We had the volcanic eruption in Iceland when air traffic was halted worldwide and we had the SARS outbreak, but the impact of the coronavirus is far greater, and I have never experienced that before.
After months of communicating through Zoom and Microsoft Teams, people want to see each other again. We have gradually resumed operations and are now working in the office two days a week, and three days from home. Everyone really appreciates returning to the office again. Once business travel picks up again, we will all be ready. Our staff have undergone a considerable amount of training internally in the recent period, so that we can serve our clients even better. The airlines are resuming their flight schedules and are adding destinations. This is happening gradually, but it is heading in the right direction.’
- Who: Schiphol Travel International was one of WTC Schiphol Airport’s first lessees more than 20 years ago.
- What: business travel for large companies, such as law firms and the maritime sector. Other clients include famous Dutch DJs who travel the globe with their crews (musicians, stylists and stage builders).
- Number of employees: around 100. The company also has an office in Rotterdam to serve maritime clients.
- Flight tickets booked in 2019: 160,000.
- Overnight hotel stays booked in 2019: 110,000.