Suzanne Neufang: A time for boldness and empathy

Suzanne Neufang is the new CEO of the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA), an organisation whose members are so battered by the pandemic and travel freeze. As one to see bright sparks even in the darkest depths, Neufang believes there are countless opportunities for GBTA to reinforce its support to members and relevance for the industry.

These are tough times for business travel professionals, yet GBTA has also reached a milestone with the acquisition of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives (ACTE). How does this situation shape your leadership to-do list?
My first action as CEO has been to actively learn and listen – with staff; members, including former ACTE members); sponsors and suppliers; chapters; and volunteer leaders – in Canada, the US, Europe, Latin America and even Asia-Pacific. My goal was to cover as much ground as possible in my first 60 days.

I have just completed a series of listening tours in each of the regions, to hear directly from buyers and suppliers about their regional priorities and how GBTA can add value.

My second action is to make sure we have the right priorities, strategy and resources to deliver the mission that our members and sponsors need us for – in education, networking and, of course, our advocacy efforts to aid industry recovery this year.

In your appointment statement made in February this year, you spoke of finding opportunities to be bold and to excel in times of crises. What opportunities do you see in the near term for the association, your members and the business travel industry at large?
My focus is really on the next two years…as the pandemic has taught us. Year One: to get the industry and association on sound recovery footing, first and foremost. I will also make sure we are incorporating the best of ACTE’s assets and best practices which we purchased last year – and that includes education programming and global focus.

Year Two will be about strengthening, modernising and improving on the value we deliver to our members and sponsors.

It is also an opportunity to reset and engage with members to address the issues top of mind for our industry – creating more relevant content and opportunities to learn and engage, and offering new ways to access that content and engagement.

We are also heavily involved in advocacy efforts in several regions to ensure business travel as an industry is considered as international borders open up again.

What has been done to achieve all that?
Our association has taken the opportunity to review our bylaws following a survey of the membership. A very active working group put together amendments for the global membership to consider – around governance and global representation. The first set of bylaw amendments are actually under consideration by membership vote now, and will ensure we have a robust global structure and governing process going forward.

We also had a task force looking at the ACTE-GBTA merger to ensure we capture the best of both associations to build a solid global education and engagement programme (that will) address member needs and requirements.

Finally, we have launched two new global committees. Our Global Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Committee incorporates new guidance and strategies into our programming for the first time, and will be putting forward position statements around DEI issues in and across business travel. This is our first truly global committee with representation across multiple regions.

I’m also excited about our Sustainability Committee’s work to drive not just sustainability discussion, but also actual practice, measurement templates, and recognition within business travel.

What strengths will the ACTE acquisition bring to both the association and members?
Our task force of industry volunteers, committee members and board members from both ACTE and GBTA – named, project UNITE – spent a dozen hours last month surveying and (holding) regional discussions with members to hone in on the most important opportunities from the acquisition.

At the beginning of February, we completed the analysis of over 1,200 global responses to the survey…to gather thoughts on what people have valued about the two associations, what wasn’t working, and what can be done to create a stronger, unified and more global GBTA. Key findings from the survey and focus groups showed that networking, education and research are some of the most valued member benefits. We also found that offering a range of event sizes and platforms, from under 500 all the way up to our large global conferences, would meet the preferences and needs of most members. Participants welcome a global view in our research and education with localised educational content to address key challenges and cultural differences in regional markets.

The state of business travel performance and recovery differs across the world – it is returning in the West but barely in the East where strict border lockdowns are not showing signs of budging. Has this fragmented state of affairs presented varying member needs across regions? What are some of the key forms of support and assistance members are wanting from GBTA?
We know from our Covid-19 polling that vaccinations are the single most important tactic that will get our members’ companies traveling again – that is true in every region. The vaccination rollout in GBTA’s primary member markets is something we track closely.

Second, we are actively engaged – on our own, with our lobbyists and with industry partners – to rally government policymakers to create safe but business travel-friendly rules on such things as border crossings, testing, and quarantining. GBTA believes that governments can mitigate risk but should not try to eliminate all risk, by focusing on science-based, smart controls and guidance on masking, hygiene/air flow and social distancing – and with testing protocols for international travel.

We also need strong government cooperation to create a cyber-secure health pass registration and tracking system so all border crossings in the near future have a standard way of recognising that a person has the proper vaccinations, negative test results or antibodies to bypass quarantine rules when on a business trip.

We need to keep teaching policymakers the difference between business travel and leisure travel – and that our industry’s “purpose of trip” brings with it lower risk in general, an audience that is more used to following risk mitigation and management best practices already.

The GBTA Ready.Safe.Travel. campaign has multiple resources to help suppliers and buyers manage the transition as countries ease lockdown and business travel starts to resume.

Is it challenging for GBTA to orchestrate a support system that is relevant to members from all over the world? How are you managing this?
We have a truly global membership and regional GBTA teams in the US, Europe, South America, and Canada to ensure we are offering regional support and addressing the issues around the world. Our work to expand in Australasia will be a focus in the coming months, and we will build on the educational base that ACTE successfully built over the past several years.

One of the key values offered by an association membership is the network opportunities. Faced with international travel limitations, how is GBTA delivering on networking promises?
Throughout the pandemic GBTA has continued to support members through monthly regional town halls; regular education programmes, including webinars; interviews with industry leaders; and research projects. While nothing will replace the value of face-to-face meetings, we encourage members to use the GBTA online resources and to network virtually within our global membership. We have a great support network should members have any industy-related questions for each other.

Despite business travel standstill in Asia, economists are still maintaining their bullish economic outlook for this region. Will this spur more GBTA activities in this part of the world? What can Asian business travel professionals look forward to in 2021 and 2022?
Absolutely, I think there is great opportunity in Asia for business travel recovery and it has been encouraging to see our members, both suppliers and buyers, report on their signs of domestic recovery in the region. One of my personal goals is to build a stronger GBTA foundation in the region, so watch this space. Personally, I look forward to visiting Asia again!

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