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ExCeL London - 24-25 February 2021
GBTA COO & Executive Director Scott Solombrino talks...
On the heels of layoffs at the Association of Corporate Travel
Executives, Global Business Travel Association chief operations officer and
executive director Scott Solombrino told BTN editorial director Elizabeth West
that GBTA, too, has suffered losses. The association has reduced staff by one-third,
even as lobbying efforts, research and other industry outreach efforts ramp up
during the Covid-19 crisis. The organization's annual convention is still on the
calendar for July 25-29, but contingency plans are in place. In the hours after
this interview took place, the U.S. Senate came to agreement on a $2 trillion
relief package for the U.S. economy, including the travel industry. That bill should
move to the Senate floor on Wednesday for a vote.
BTN: GBTA released data on Tuesday that showed corporate
travel basically grounded around the globe. Do you have any comment on those
Scott Solombrino: It's so much worse than anyone believed
it could ever be. We are all still stunned that this is where we find ourselves.
I was on a call with our Europe teams and it is out of control there, with the
breakdown in healthcare. When I asked what we're doing about [our lobbying efforts
on] bailouts and what do we think that's going to look like, [our people on the
ground there told me] Europe is just trying to fund healthcare. They're not
even on corporations or jobs yet.
BTN: GBTA did a lot of work lobbying for supplier
members for government relief. What was GBTA's support strategy since essentially
all your supplier members are in a crisis.
Solombrino: With each member vertical that came to
us, we got onboard with their lobbying efforts to support what they are lobbying
for. Obviously, we made requests when we thought things were unreasonable. We'd
say to them, "You can't make a $500 billion request for one industry. You
have to be reasonable so congressional members will take it seriously." We
were on board with the airlines' $50 billion package request, which made a lot
of progress. The hotel industry was very aggressive; they are asking for $150
billion because it's a real estate issue. … If they all default, we'll have a
massive banking crisis on our hands. So we think they will get something in the
package, but we're not sure what. The ground transportation industry asked for
$12 billion. We signed onto that legislative request. The American Society of
Travel Advisors also put forward a package, which we endorsed.
BTN: Boeing is a GBTA member. It temporarily suspended its
operations in Seattle area manufacturing facilities this week. It's also asking
for $60 billion in government aid, but there's a question about an equity
Solombrino: [The recovery] has to start with the
airlines. Without an airline system, what happens to travel? Boeing is critical
to the manufacturing base of the U.S. and the airline sector. Only two
companies make airplanes: Boeing and Airbus. You can rest assured that the European
Union is not going to have a choice; they are going to have to bailout Airbus.
The U.S. will have to do something with Boeing. Like they did with [General
Motors] during the financial crisis, the government could require an equity
position and that could affect shareholders. Of course, if that would save
Boeing, we would support it. We'll have to see the details.
BTN: Industry associations won't go through the
Covid-19 crisis unscathed. ACTE laid off its entire staff this week and suspended
operations. Only key executives remain to run the business and programming. Has
GBTA made any similar moves and are member benefits impacted?
Solombrino: First, I want to say we feel terrible
that any of our industry associations are experiencing pain like this. At GBTA,
we are going through a similar problem. We have laid off essentially one-third
of our employees. We made the decision because we wanted to give them the quickest
opportunity to get relief and to go through the government processes and get the
benefits available. We didn't want them to be delayed in accessing that. We've
also gone to a full work-from-home strategy because of the coronavirus. But the
work doesn't stop. Our lobbying efforts don't stop. This a member benefit for
all the companies we are trying to save on the agency side, airlines, hotels,
ground transportation—that work has to go on. Same thing with our research. The
U.S. Department of Commerce is using our data points to help make the case that
travel is an essential industry for the U.S. economy. So we have a very busy
time here in research, communication, marketing. We're doing twice as much work,
with one-third less staff.
BTN: What about the convention scheduled for July
25-29 in Denver, or other face-to-face events currently on the calendar?
Solombrino: We have not cancelled or postponed our
convention in July at this point, but there is a backup plan. We do plan to
execute a convention in 2020. We did postpone our event in Mexico [due to
underreporting of virus infections there]. We have postponed our Ladders event
to June. We'll postpone our Canada event, but we don't yet have a date.
Everything is on a rolling postponement schedule. We don't think we have to cancel
[anything], but we are watching the calendar carefully and we have a plan. The government
is going to have a lot to say as to when the association businesses can recover—and
the meetings business in general. But we serve a purpose to educate people and
help further careers. I've gotten so many calls from members saying how
important it is for us to hold a convention this year, to provide a place and
opportunity for the industry to coalesce.
BTN: What else have you heard from buyers—how are
they feeling about their jobs, the future of their travel programs as the industry
grinds to a halt at least temporarily?
Solombrino: Buyers are concerned about how their
companies will travel when they start to travel again, but I haven't heard of
many layoffs. Buyers are in a holding pattern. Corporations don't want to
dismantle something that has saved them billions of dollars in procurement and
is well managed. It's like a machine, and when you dismantle a machine, it gets
complicated to put it back together. But corporations are definitely
going to have to travel. The Harvard Business Review has said people are more
productive when they can do business face to face. Our own survey that [GBTA
has] run for a decade has said the same thing. People can't give up the human
factor. It's not easy to change that kind of behavior.
BTN: What happens until then?
Solombrino: GBTA is going to keep working. We are
planning now for what the industry recovery will look like and what role we can
play in making the recovery faster, easier and smoother for everyone. That doesn't
mean we might not have additional layoffs between now and when that recovery happens,
but we [still have] people on the ground in many parts of the world and we want
to respond to our members as they are doing business. We have less people now but
hope to be able to call people back when a sense of normalcy returns. But these
are hard times and there may be more difficult times before this is over.
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