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Fred Gonzalez, Managing Editor

Recently you flew from London to Spain and Greece with your family. How was that experience?
I have to say, it was fantastic to be back flying again and exploring the world. The experience was a little different, but it was very simple, seamless and civilized. We walked into the terminal, and there was a scanner automatically taking your temperature. In the lounge you could order your food and drink, but through an app and not face-to-face. There were no queues [lines], which was fantastic. We boarded from the back of the plane. And, of course, everyone was wearing a mask, which was the only visible difference. All of these things just made me feel more secure and I didn’t view them with any concern. It created a sense of confidence. 

Did any of these measures catch you off guard?
Well, I was very well informed about what to expect, and that’s critical. Communication is the foundation of building trust—if you know what to expect, you can get the world safely moving again. 

How did you learn about these travel protocols ahead of time? 
We have a service called Travel Vitals, which essentially lays out for the traveler their complete journey and what’s required at every step along the way. That’s one of the things that’s unique about a travel management company. An individual supplier or individual provider, such as a hotel or an airline, is not trying to educate you around the entire journey. But that’s our role, to make sure that we provide a very clear, step-by-step instruction.

Paul Abbott / Image courtesy of American Express Global Business Travel

In terms of communication, what are different ways that airlines can lead the way during these challenging times? 
It’s a collective responsibility of the travel industry to consistently deliver accurate and reliable information. It’s also a responsibility to lead innovation with new technology, whether it’s contactless technology or digital communication channels, such as push notifications to travelers on exactly what to expect wherever they are. I see a lot of that happening, which is very encouraging. 

What are some innovations or communication strategies that you think are working? 
I go back to the contactless check-in process. Why did I have to hand my phone to someone else who then basically fiddled around with it? Why can’t I just scan it myself? And leveraging digital channels to push real-time notifications. There is an app so that you can order food and drinks in the lounge and you don’t have to get up from your seat. Sometimes it’s just simple things like that but doing it at scale, allowing the customer to be in control, which I think is always a better experience. 

You see travel becoming contactless, but people continuing to have face-to-face meetings? 
I’m very passionate about this subject because I think video conferencing has been a good substitute in these circumstances, but I haven’t heard anyone tell me that it’s better than meeting in person. To suggest that video conferencing is somehow a permanent substitute is inaccurate. People say we’ve been getting by, but the aspirations of most companies, and certainly my company, is not merely to get by. Things that are critical to competitive advantage (trust, motivation, engagement, creativity, innovation, inspiration) are things that actually make successful companies. Those things are not built on Zoom.

I always refer to this quote by Warren Buffett: “You’ll never see eye-to-eye if you never meet face-to-face.” It is a very appropriate and powerful quote. Meeting face-to-face builds a deeper level of trust, a deeper kind of knowledge. And I would also say that travel is the engine room of the global economy. Look what's happened to the global GDP [gross domestic product], specifically because we’ve restricted the movement of people. 

You’ve mentioned in previous discussions that traveling builds respect among cultures, which is an important topic now.
Absolutely. There is a quote that reads “Knowledge is power,” but understanding is way more powerful. Travel really builds understanding and tolerance and respect for other cultures. The rise of nationalism and reduction in travel is not good for society. It’s incredibly important—both for economic reasons and for society—that travel recovers and recovers strongly.

Illustration: Sébastien Thibault

How does society shift to more active travel?
The single biggest challenge right now is developing a more sophisticated approach from governments. Testing and screening has to replace these blanket travel bans in order for people to be free to travel. And I’m very confident that the demand for travel is there. Where travel is permitted, we’re seeing domestic travel return at levels close to 70 percent or higher. 

The second thing that is needed is building trust and confidence. Communication and consistency are the foundation of that. An airplane has hospital-grade air filtration systems and you’re wearing a mask. It’s curious that people feel more confident going to a bar. That’s a lack of understanding. That’s a lack of knowledge. So this is a really important educational aspect for airlines. 

What is your group doing along these lines?
Our role with Travel Vitals product for American Express Global Business Travel is to make sure that the traveler knows exactly what to expect. We’re treating every trip right now as if it were an event, and providing a complete, end-to-end management of that experience. We provide clear expectations from the ground transportation, the experience through the airport, the experience on the plane, the experience at the hotel. We are even helping companies make sure that employees have information on restaurants that we think are appropriate and conducting social distancing. We also provide clients with information regarding the safety protocols for any country they're visiting. There's a lot of complexity there, but we are laying all of that out for travelers as if they were attending an event.

What other challenges must the industry overcome? 
I’ve been advocating for greater consistency because we need confidence in the system and not necessarily in a single provider. Frankly, it’s not helpful for individual providers to use safety measures as a kind of competitive advantage. It just creates doubt in the minds of the travelers. The last thing we need is a debate about who is safe and who isn’t. We need people to have confidence that the system is safe. And that requires us to act in a more integrated and consistent fashion. 

How do you think travelers would react to that?
People will adapt. We've seen that throughout history. But you can't adapt if you don't know what to adapt to. So, it comes down making sure that people have a very clear understanding of what to expect. Take the restaurants in the UK, for example, that have opened and are busy. Now servers are wearing masks, tables are divided, and guests use an app to read the menu. Everyone has adapted.

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