Covid-19 travel restrictions around the world continue to ease, but the heightened challenge of making sure business travelers understand and meet various entry requirements remains a burden for many travel managers with global programs.
International business travel has been picking up in recent months, but staffing levels remain below pre-pandemic levels across much of the industry, including travel management companies as well as the consulates and embassies that process visas and other immigration services. With fewer resources available, there’s more on travel managers to supply key information.
“All of a sudden, you have become the visa desk or the visa expert,” Stephen Gheerow, senior manager of global travel at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation said during an education session at the recent Global Business Travel Association convention.
Gheerow, along with Takeda Pharmaceutical Co. global travel manager Faye Zeidlhack and Carsten Østberg, managing director of Europe for immigration and visa services provider CIBT, highlighted some of the key areas travel managers should be prepared to address.
As the annual planning process kicks off at many companies in the coming months, Gheerow suggested that travel be a part of that process—and not just from a budgeting perspective. Groups and employees should start thinking about how many trips they are planning, the cities they will need to go to and the clients they want to meet.
“This can put a light bulb in their heads,” Gheerow said. “If I’m going to go to Brazil in the first quarter of next year, what do I need to do to get there?”
Appointment wait times remain long at many consulates and embassies around the world, with some seeking U.S. entry unable to get an appointment in three months or even into next year, he said. If a U.S. company has plans to bring in several employees from overseas next year, they might need to start planning now.
The new entry requirements are complicated and are staying complicated, so I get nervous. All your ducks better be in a row, or you could be denied boarding.”
Takeda’s Faye Zeidlhack
Even if less complicated international travel is required, those who have not traveled internationally for the past few years should check passport expiration dates. Zeidlhack already has fielded a few frantic calls from employees who were about to embark on a personal international trip—the travel department still wants to help them out even if they’re seeking advice on leisure travel, she said—and realized their passports had expired.
Gheerow also noted that U.S. citizens are allowed to get a second passport book if, for example, they have a heavy travel load and don’t want to risk being stuck without their passport while it’s at a consulate getting a visa.
Doubling Down on Communication
With Takeda’s headquarters in Japan and some travel required related to vaccine development, Zeidlhack throughout the pandemic has had to help international travelers navigate the strict entry process to Japan: paperwork, testing that had to be precisely timed and the process of getting through the airport, which could take as much as six hours.
“The new entry requirements are complicated and are staying complicated, so I get nervous,” she said. “All your ducks better be in a row, or you could be denied boarding.”
While TMCs are a resource, they generally do not have the capability to spend hours making sure each traveler understands every requirement, Zeidlhack said. As such, they often provide websites with information and links, but it is up to the travel team to ensure that information is read and understood by travelers.
That requires “training, training, training,” she said, such as a series of calls with senior administrators to make sure they had a deep understanding of what was required. When travelers receive a notification of requirements prior to travel, Zeidlhack said she sends out a second note from the travel department making sure they actually read it.
Throughout the pandemic, Japan Airlines itself was a key resource, with a rep that “saved us a couple of times,” she said.
“They would get on the phone with travelers and go through everything,” Zeidlhack said. “Every Saturday, they would be on call to make sure they got on the one flight from [Los Angeles] to Osaka.”
We need to start arming our travelers, because the travel world we’re getting into is really self-service.”
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Stephen Gheerow said.
Communication also includes ensuring travelers have information once they are at their destination, such as knowing where they can get an approved Covid-19 test if necessary, Gheerow said. A company might consider providing a list of clinics and hospitals close to its international headquarters or preferred hotels along with links to how travelers can make appointments, he said.
“We need to start arming our travelers, because the travel world we’re getting into is really self-service,” Gheerow said.
E-Visa Dos and Don’ts
Several countries suspended e-visa and visa-on-arrival programs during the pandemic, but they’re rebounding now, with more countries introducing them in part as a solution to visa backlogs, Gheerow said. While a simpler option in most cases, they still “come with a certain amount of risk,” he said.
For one, many countries limit what visitors with e-visas can do in the country, which might exclude some business tasks, so they won’t always work for business travel, he said. Additionally, some countries that have visa-on-arrival programs have pre-authorization requirements that must be completed before getting there, so travelers and travel managers should take a close look at all requirements and restrictions.
The application process can have a few snags for travelers as well. To receive an e-visa from Indonesia, for example, the form must be filled out during Indonesian business hours—which for U.S.-based travelers would be late afternoon to night—so a U.S. traveler trying to complete it during normal business hours might face frustration, Gheerow said.
In addition, travel managers should ensure travelers are procuring e-visas from the proper channels. A Google search for e-visa information returns “a lot of fraudulent sites” that trick travelers into providing personal and payment information, he said.
Scammers waste no time in targeting travelers. Østberg noted that fake sites already have launched mimicking the European Travel Information and Authorisation System, which is not even set to be operational until late next year.
Avoiding Tourist Traps
Facing long waits for business visas, some travelers are tempted simply to apply for a tourist visa, but that risks dire consequences, as it’s “technically lying on an application,” Gheerow said.
In some cases, a tourist visa might suffice for a business trip. Some countries allow a traveler to attend a conference on a tourist visa, for example. In such situations, travelers will have to assess everything they will be doing on their trip to make sure none of it violates visa restrictions, Østberg said.
Generally speaking, “if you are signing a contact, training staff or traveling with [business] tools, you cannot go on a tourist visa,” he said.
That also applies to travelers who are combining business and leisure trips, as they’ll still need business visas even if the business is only a small part of their trip, Gheerow said. If caught violating visa terms, the ramifications can affect not only the travelers but the entire company.
“[The traveler] can get detained, and if the company is doing business in that market, they can get sanctioned or their operations shut down,” Gheerow said. “It’s the path of least resistance, but lots can go wrong in that process.”
Source by www.businesstravelnews.com