As travel has begun to rise with the rollout of vaccines, we’ve been receiving more queries from clients about how to restart their travel programs. Our response: It depends on how soon you plan to relaunch. Later this year, later this quarter, or later this month?

To help companies think through the steps of each phase of the relaunch, we’ve created this stage-by-stage guide.

If you’re 6+ months out from traveling

You can begin by building a project plan for welcoming the return to travel and in-person meetings at your organization. This process will entail mapping out key milestones connected to duty of care, suppliers, budget, traveler safety, well-being, etc.

Next, define the stakeholders who will be involved. The choice may be obvious if you already have built relationships and committees with representatives from the HR, legal, security, finance, and executive leadership teams that have weighed in on travel program decisions during the pandemic. Continue relying on these partnerships to navigate the new realities ahead, including health passports and travel restrictions. Your travel management company (TMC) also can help you to manage these complexities.

Something else that can be added to the agenda: building a better travel program that aligns with your company values. The relaunch poses the perfect opportunity to weave in and introduce sustainability targets and inclusivity initiatives.

If you haven’t already, start gauging how employees feel about traveling again. You could chat directly with the company’s top travelers to understand their desire to return to travel and concerns as well as enlist HR’s help to conduct surveys that capture the sentiments of a larger base of employees who take business trips.

Now’s also the time to develop a communication strategy and training plans to ease into the transition. You’ll want to draft messages that demonstrate the efforts made to keep employees safe, any new policies they’ll need to follow (e.g., a pre-trip approval process), the tools and resources available to them, and where they can seek help if they have a travel-related query or issue. Finding ways to step up communications before, during, and after a trip can also help employees feel supported as they travel again.

If you’re 3+ months out from traveling

From employee surveys, you may discover that some travelers are eager to get back on the road, while others are still hesitant. Use this feedback to create traveler risk profiles to identify how the return to travel and meetings may impact different employees and devise strategies to alleviate the concerns of those struggling with the idea.

While you may have already created a COVID-19 travel policy to guide employees on new processes and protocols, take a second look to make sure you’ve taken into account any recent developments that could impact your program, including new supplier changes and government regulations. You can use our Travel Vitals™ site to compile a lot of this intel.

Some essential guidelines to cover in a COVID-19 travel policy: what constitutes “permissible” travel; who will be able to travel (i.e., perhaps only those who have been vaccinated?), safety initiatives that have been implemented, and any new guidelines that have been adopted to support traveler wellness, sustainability, and inclusivity goals.

Also spell out the process for a pre-trip approval system that may have been set up since the pandemic, including the criteria that will be used to evaluate trip requests.

Before creating a final draft of the policy, you may want to run changes by your frequent travelers and team leaders to see if they have any suggested revisions.

Because of all the changes happening within the industry, you should connect with your preferred suppliers at this point to understand how ready they are to receive your travelers. Hotels may have come under new management or closed permanently and airlines may have altered some routes that impact your company’s top destinations. If there are gaps, work with your procurement team to find other solutions and be sure to convey these changes to travelers.

If you’re one month out from traveling

During this month, the focus will be on testing all the program elements to facilitate a smooth transition. New tools and systems that have been put in place should be checked to make sure they are operating well to avoid chaos and confusion when the switch is flipped.

Make sure the online booking tool is working properly. You may simulate bookings to confirm the correct content is being displayed and that any push notifications you have included in the tool are popping up on the right screens. Test out the pre-trip approval tool to verify that reviewers are receiving requests and able to take action.

So your partners are fully prepared as well, notify your TMC and other suppliers about your plans to relaunch the program and any program changes they should be aware of. This way, they can conduct capacity planning and be fully ready to welcome back your travelers.

At this stage, also notify your employees of the relaunch. HR may send company-wide announcements informing employees about the countdown to the return of travel and in-person meetings, with subsequent emails focusing on critical policy changes and the resources available to travelers.

After these announcements go out, there may be a flood of emails with questions and concerns from those who potentially will be traveling again, so you may want to form ahead of time a committee who can field these queries and let employees know where they can turn for help. The committee might be comprised of representatives from HR and the travel department as well as frequent travelers who can serve as ambassadors to their peers. Training guides and travel-related resources that can aid with the transition should also be prepared and finalized at this stage.

You can share these Traveler Pro Tip guides we’ve put together – a collection of our best advice on how employees can safely resume business trips.

You are ready to travel

It’s ready for program takeoff. As travelers are given the green light to begin taking their first work trips since the pandemic, communication and training are key.

First, send a company-wide announcement via email, intranet, and/or townhall, indicating the reinstatement of travel. Detail the resources that are available to travelers and provide training on policy changes, offering guidance on what types of trips they can take and any new protocols on booking processes. Follow up with additional emails and an internal blog summarizing key points.

With all the changes that have taken place in the industry, the return to travel may not be the smoothest ride, and travelers will need all the support they can get. We recommend organizing a dedicated team who can assist travelers with the questions and challenges that inevitably will arise.

Frequent travelers who’ve taken business trips since the pandemic also may be of assistance, sharing their experiences and tips in a video or internal blog.

Your TMC can serve as a support system as well, guiding travelers on booking decisions and making them aware of destination-specific travel advisories and requirements. By the way, this is a good time to supply travelers with the contact information and chat assistance for the TMC’s traveler care team they can use when they need help with bookings or on the road.

Your TMC may have many other resources you can share with your employees to help them navigate the return to travel. In fact, we’ve built an entire #TravelReady site where travelers can access the latest travel updates, guides, and tips to confidently make plans and preparations. Be sure to check it out – the site is a valuable resource for travel managers and travel arrangers too!

We also are hosting a “Getting TravelReady” webinar to help companies that are still grounded relaunch their travel programs. It is being led by Matt Burnett, a senior consultant with our Global Business Consulting team, and Paul McDonnough, manager of account development.

Register here.