Business Travel is Back: 2023 Trends with Kevin Fliess, CMO at GBTA

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Episode description

Is business travel really back?

With whiplash from the pandemic and now an economic downturn, it doesn’t seem promising, but Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) new CMO and former Cventer Kevin Fliess has a different opinion.

A 25-year marketing and events veteran who’s worked in the travel, software, and technology sectors, joins us to talk about trends he’s seeing in the travel industry’s path to recovery. Listen in as he shares the benefits of blended travel, the power of sustainability in business travel, and what it takes to succeed as a travel professional.

Show notes

  • How the travel industry is adapting to the post-pandemic era with the emergence of blended travel and the benefits that come with it
  • How the business travel industry is prioritizing climate action and sustainable recovery
  • What it looks like to incorporate bleisure events into your marketing and events strategy

Things to listen for:

[01:10] Getting to know Kevin
[02:54] What Kevin’s excited for in 2023
[05:13] Building on momentum
[07:13] Business travel is back with a vengeance
[10:52] Benefits of blended travel for retention
[18:12] Let’s talk about sustainability
[24:35] What companies can do to be more sustainable
[25:52] Kevin’s advice for his younger self

Meet your host

Rachel Andrews Senior Director, Global Meetings & Events
Paulina Giusti Senior Manager, Global Meetings & Events

Meet your guest speakers

Kevin Fliess CMO, GBTA 

Additional resources

Episode Transcript

Rachel: Hello everyone and what is going on in our crazy awesome world of all things marketing and events. I'm Rachel, and we have Paulina as well on today's Great Events podcast.

Today we are joined by newly minted GBTA CMO, Kevin Fliess. Kevin, welcome!

Kevin: Thank you so much Rachel and Paulina. It's great to see you guys again. I feel like this is a reunion of sorts.

Rachel: Yes, definitely, definitely. All right, so for those of you who don't know, GBTA is Global Business Travel Association, which does an incredible job uniting the business travel industry. And another fun fact, Kevin mentioned we're a little bit of a reunion here. Kevin is also former Cventer. So we've worked with him personally on a ton of marketing initiatives in the past, including Cvent CONNECT and Global Business Travel Forums.

Kevin has a wide spectrum of marketing experiences in numerous sectors. So really excited to hear from him today and grab all of his wonderful knowledge on travel trends, but also just him and his experience. So before we get started, Kevin, I'd love for you to give our listeners a little background on you throughout your career.

What you wanna share with our listeners and ultimately what landed you at GBTA in the top dog marketing seat.

Kevin: So I'll give you the thumbnail sketch. I've got 25 years of experience across travel, software, technology, marketing, product management. I've held a variety of roles. I've been a founder, CEO, I've been a product manager, a marketer. I've worked for early stage startups and big multinationals like SAP.

My first job in high school was at a hardware store, and the reason why I bring that up is because I think everyone should work with the general buying public at least once. It's a humbling experience. But professionally, I moved to Silicon Valley in the late nineties, so I've lived through and survived the .com bubble.

Kevin: I've seen the rise of web 1.0 and 2.0, and now 3.0. AI and everything else people are talking about. But move back to DC in 2014 where I was born and raised to work for Cvent. So what drew me to GBTA is it sits at the heart of the travel ecosystem and it's got an incredible mission. And I'm just a big fan of how they are really transforming themselves as the travel industry itself goes through transformation, so it's a very exciting time.

Rachel: Oh, that's great. Well, we're really happy to have you. Today's topic in general obviously is talking to you, but we're also gonna cover all things travel trends in 2023. GBTA is doing a lot of great stuff for folks in the marketing and events. Let's dive right in.

What are you most excited for in your new role as CMO at GBTA?

Kevin: Yeah. Rachel, like you said, GBTA is this fantastic association. It's been around over 50 years. I would sort of describe it as the world's premier business travel and meetings organization. We've got operations on six continents and our members manage more than 350 billion of global business travel annually.

And really our team delivers education, events, research and advocacy to our network of about 30,000 travel professionals. So in terms of excitement, I would say there's three things, I'm really jazzed about. The first, as I mentioned, is we've got a great team, from our CEO, Suzanne, on down through staff and volunteers and board members.

It's obvious that everyone is really committed, creative, and unified in our mission and purpose. I think the second thing is that GBTA, as I said, sits at the heart of this business travel ecosystem, which means every day is different. Our members are made up of both buyers and suppliers from around the globe, and we provide this unique platform that brings those two sides together.

And the third thing I touched on as well is I'm always been drawn to organizations that have a real purpose, and GBTA has this clear mission to bring the global business travel industry together. So members can learn from one another, develop as individuals, and collectively move the industry forward.

You know, like the travel industry is about a third split between corporate meetings and leisure. And now I've had the opportunity to actually work in all three so it's great to see it coming together.

Paulina: That's amazing. I mean, just hearing that you've had the opportunity to work across all three leads me to kind of wanna ask, you know, what are some of the big initiatives that you see on the horizon for GBTA in 2023, especially on, the coattails of a crazy couple years for the travel industry.

Kevin: It has been a crazy couple of years, and I think the operative word probably is momentum. Like a lot of travel organizations, the pandemic left us leaner, and a more focused organization and we really had to rethink our approach to this entire sector that's being transformed.

I think really starting last year as the pandemic started to wane. We've had some great momentum. We did our first in-person convention since the pandemic in 2021 in Orlando. And last year we built on that in San Diego. We also launched a major sustainability program. I'm sure this is a topic we'll get into, but it's something that is on top of mind of both buyers and suppliers.

Kevin: And we relaunched our GBTA brand last year, which was a Herculean effort. But with a new vision and a new purpose and a new look. But I would say the one thing that hasn't changed is our mission to support the business travel industry. That's never shifted. So, you know, as we look to this year, 2023, like I said, we're building on that momentum.

We're growing our events, education and community globally, as I like to say, putting the capital G and GBTA. We're continuing our digital transformation and I will point out starting with Cvent, which we're using for all of our events across all modules, across all regions, registration, onsite speaker management, and that's been a huge win for our marketing organization, just making their lives, a lot easier.

So lots of great things going on.

Rachel: We love that.

Paulina: Love to hear it. That sounds like a ton of amazing initiatives. It sounds like a really amazing culture that you all have within the association. It sounds like, you know, you're contributing to a number of programming areas and initiatives across the org.

Are you seeing any unique trends rise to the surface travel trends for 2023?

What's going on with business travel? Are you any predictions you wanna share with our listeners?

Kevin: Yeah, we're really fortunate to have a great research team in-house and every quarter we pull our constituents, to get their take on what's happening out in business travel. So I can share with you a couple of thoughts. Just based on some fresh data from Q1. I think the first thing about what's going on with business travel is that it's coming back.

Optimism is definitely the word of the day. In our most recent poll, 89% of the industry professionals we surveyed feel optimistic. About the industry's path to recovery, that's 89%, and that's up from 77% who reported being optimistic in the previous poll in October. So people's enthusiasm, and excitement around the recovery, around business travel is definitely growing. But the second thing is that it's not just recovery at all costs. There's a big focus on sustainable recovery. Buyers are looking at how they can thoughtfully rebuild their travel program. We did this study last year where nine outta 10 industry respondents said that sustainability is already a priority for their company, and we know there's a lot more that needs to be done in this area.

Kevin: You know, airlines and hotels are setting 25, 30 year goals to become carbon neutral. So GBTA, we're in a unique position to help facilitate that dialogue across industry stakeholders. And a big priority for us this year is to develop the research and the tools that help suppliers and buyers navigate that sustainability journey.

I guess the third big trend that we're seeing is that the profile of the business traveler is shifting. I'm living proof of this. I used to go into the office every day and now, I'm fully remote. GBTA is a fully remote global organization with operations on six continents. So that's really fueling this need for teams to connect.

So you know, whether it's short, high impact in-person meetings, there's real value in that. So in fact that's how I kicked off my tenure at GBTA. I got my team together, for an offsite in Miami for a couple of days. Not a bad place to meet as a team.

Rachel: Was gonna say, nice location, Kev.

Kevin: I know it definitely took one for the team there.

You know, somebody had to do it. Um, and you know, lo and behold, a couple of folks on my team may have tacked on a couple of extra days. I guess they call that blended travel or leisure. So again, this whole way of working and the way people travel is shifting. I think travel, business travel just needs to become a lot more intentional.

There needs to be real purpose and value behind it.

Rachel: Yeah. I was reading your Q1 poll results, which we'll definitely share with our listeners. Really interesting data. what I loved and I thought was, Kind of a interesting tidbit was 12% of people were exceeding travel from pre pandemic. And you've heard the term revenge events. I think it's revenge travel.

I think it's what you said about shifting, organizations from to remote organizations and needing to travel more and they're exceeding pre pandemic levels. That's pretty wild. And the leisure, I gotta say I love this trend. I hope it continues forever, it's a very awesome part of traveling for your business and work-life balance, right?

Paulina: I think there's another word that you came up with Rach. I wanna say it was like workcation.

Leisure location. The industry has not settled on a term yet. Maybe we can do that today. I've also heard blended. That's probably the least, uh, controversial. I agree with you. There's real value in it and, I don't know if we wanna talk about that now, but, I think blended travel's been around.

Kevin: It's probably been around for a long time, but I guess you could say it's having a renaissance. I mean, as we all said, it's become a much hotter topic in this post pandemic era. I like you were saying, Rachel, the jury is still out, how big this is, and whether this is part of the new normal or is this just the pendulums?

Swinging so far the other direction because people have been pent up for a couple of years. that they're just really eager. Hell, my first trip happens to be a business trip and therefore I'm gonna tack on a couple of days. I think it's probably part of the more of the new normal, um, part of that sort of intentional travel.

And there are some real benefits to this, leisure or workation or blended travel. I mean, their benefits to the employee. I think you touched on that, Rachel. The employee can take a couple of days of PTO before or after the trip. That's gonna lead to a happier employee, which leads to employer retention.

The other thing is from a sustainability perspective, if you can combine business and leisure that's taking one flight versus two, which is great for sustainability.

Rachel: Yeah. That's great. I mean, I, I would like for this trend to become just part of the norm. I think it's, it's a healthy, a healthy thing. If businesses are cool with it and, on board, then the more the merrier. And I think, Paul and I were also talking about, with our own events, like how do we, create experiences before and after for people flying in, because I feel like it creates also for your own events. It creates more value ads to, to go to a destination and have those before and after experiences. Especially if you're flying in a little earlier. the only flight you can get in is the morning before or the afternoon before you have time to explore.

Why not take it! That's my philosophy anyway.

Paulina: I love it. And, Kevin, you mentioned we need, you know, in order for people to travel, it needs to be really compelling. People are probably adjusted to some of their routines at home. It's a lot more difficult to get people to travel for some events, so we're always talking about how are we just.

Designing the most engaging experience, the most compelling, creating tons of value for that attendee base. And, and you know, part of that is this leisure conversation, right? How are we topping and tailing that content learning experience or that networking experience with things that, you know, it's got the attendee what's in it for me mindset.

You know, what are some of the ways that, GBTA is thinking about incorporating leisure in terms of your event strategy or your event programs?

Kevin: So, you know, it always helps when your events are held in world-class cities. I think that's just kind of the starting point. this year our major events, uh, convention, GBTA convention is in Dallas, GBTA Canada is in Toronto. Our Latin America event is in Mexico City. Our European event is in Hamburg, Germany. I think the other thing is our GBTA convention, our main US event, begins on a Sunday night with an opening reception, which affords delegates the opportunity to arrive early, they can enjoy the city, and all it has to offer the weekend prior. But I can tell you this is certainly a topic of interest and it'll, factor into our programming at GBTA convention this year.

I know this is something I think buyers and suppliers will like, want to talk about and learn more about.

Rachel: Yeah, we know Dallas well. We have fun at that margarita mile. They have. I've heard great things.

Kevin: All right. I'm adding it to my phone right now. Just making a note. Note to self.

Rachel: Clear your schedule. Go to Margarita Mile in Dallas.

Now I know what I'm doing on Sunday before convention starts. Hey, thanks Rachel.

Rachel: Margarita's the size of your whole head.

Kevin: That's a big margarita

Rachel: Well, I think, you know, events are obviously pa playing a huge part in travel recovery, and we're seeing that, day in and day out. Do you think that, I mean, your events obviously are all over the world, which is really exciting.

But I mean, you've been in events before with CVE and other companies. How do you think events are playing like a bigger part in this travel recovery?

Kevin: You know, like I said at the, at the beginning, travel spend is split, you know, a third roughly from meetings and events, a third leisure and a third corporate or transient. In my perspective, meetings and events are ideally suited for that blended travel model. I touched on big events or often in destinations that have great appeal, like, Cvent CONNECT, which is in Las Vegas.

People can arrive early, they can stay late to take advantage of the attractions. And they're just like, a lot of benefits to the traveler, the environment, the company, and the destination. they get extra room nights and so, so forth. So I think it's, as you mentioned, like really thinking about your programming, as an event planner intentionally and knowing that people will be doing this.

I wanna say in our most recent poll, 40% of travel buyers are receiving inquiries from their business travelers about blended travel. So, you know, the traveler themselves is interested in this and trying to understand, how they travel manager and how their organization can best accommodate. I think from a meeting planning perspective, it's about putting those networking events, maybe bookending them at the beginning and the end of the event. So there's kind of a nice seamless transition, a slow warmup to the event and a nice cool down at the end as people ease into the relaxation phase that, should follow any good meeting and event.

Rachel: I love it. Spa day for everyone at every, at the end of every event, please. I think it needs to happen.

Kevin: Let's make it happen.

Cvent is really good about that too. Just giving us like time to reset our brains. I feel like there's just so much that goes on with events that they understand that meeting planners are basically, uh, basically not limping after their events from walking 50,000 steps a day and, mentally just drained

There's no doubt that the onsite experience is taxing, particularly for event professionals. Um, but it's also the build up to the event because I know that big events like GBTA convention and Cvent CONNECT, it's an annual affair. You're planning 2023 while you're already thinking about 20, 24 venues and themes and those kinds of things.

Kevin: So if anyone deserves a spot, it's the event planners themselves.

Rachel: Thank you. Yeah, appreciate that. And travel professionals, honestly, cuz they deal with a lot of  the legwork too, so. I wanna kind of pivot here for a second to a big travel trend that you mentioned in the beginning, which is huge in our industry now, but it's sustainability. I feel like this is a buzzword that shouldn't be just a buzzword.

It should be a corporate strategy. I think it would be interesting for our listeners to explain how you all work with government entities first, and then I want to touch on some of the other things that you all do within events.

But yeah, like with GBTA, how much are you meeting with government entities on sustainability?

How much of that is a huge priority for your company? And for the travel industry in general?

Kevin: Well, we have a government affairs team that is pretty active on Capitol Hill, but also with the European Parliament. And sustainability is a key area of focus for us in our overall advocacy efforts.

Our mission in government relations is to really advocate for safe, efficient, and sustainable business travel.

And because we are GBTA, we are the Global Business Travel Association, our agenda is global, and that really means looking at how the industry can prioritize climate action while at the same time having a robust infrastructure to support travel growth. and we advocate on a regional level, as well as engage our GBTA members, wherever they are, globally in their various chapters to help us advance solutions to causes like sustainability.

Ultimately our objective when it comes to sustainability is to champion climate action and business travel. so we're looking to support the development and deployment of solutions and policies that take carbon emissions out of travel. So we're doing a lot of original research. We're building frameworks that may be helpful for travel buyers and suppliers, and our government affairs team is listening to what our chapters, our constituents are saying and what they expect and what they want.

Kevin: Partnering with our elected officials on the ground to really again try to advance change that is going to help, champion climate action.

Rachel: Are there any sort of ongoing, you know, things that people are hearing from the ground, from the grassroots sort of efforts there? Is there anything that's sort of rising to the top in terms of how do I employ a more sustainable or strategic travel program?

What sort of lingering at the top? What are you hearing the most from?

Kevin: I think what we're hearing most on the ground is, a desire from our members. They wanna improve their sustainability performance. They're really looking for tools, that help them measure their own sort of carbon emissions and their path to sustainability. So we're developing tools and we're sharing knowledge.

They're also looking for ways that they can connect. So we're helping to promote the dialogue between suppliers, buyers, and key partners. And then finally, they wanna make sure that their perspective is being heard. And that's where our advocacy component comes in. So again, we're listening to what our buyers and supplier members are saying. And channeling that into an advocacy, approach that is really looking to help support the development and deployment of policies that take carbon emissions out of travel. and we do that through the GBTA Foundation, which is part of the association. actually it's a separate organization, but part of the Global Business Travel Association is the GBTA foundation, and it was reestablished last year.

Kevin: With a dual focus of supporting initiatives that that benefit both people and the planet. And so the planet piece is all around sustainability and the people piece is all around, around developing the next generation workforce,  supporting, diversity, equity, and inclusion in business travel. And so those are kind of the two big pillars of the foundation arm.

Rachel: I know we are looking forward at Cvent to be more involved with the US Travel Association and doing some great things there too, which I know is gonna definitely incorporate some of these carbon neutral type goals around the Paris Accords and things like that. It's definitely top of mind for our total events program.

Rachel: And I know talking to other, events professionals and travel professionals in the industry, it's literally all they're talking about right now. And everyone's looking for a blueprint, right? Where do we start? Paulina and I are just like, we have to start somewhere. So we have to start with data and we have to start by understanding where we currently are and then creating these 30 year goals like you were talking about.

It's gonna take time. It's not gonna be done by 2024. It needs to be goals. We, however, small or big every year, moving that needle, either through reduction or through offsetting somehow. And being a sustainable conscious human for the planet, but also working with your corporation to make sure that that's a goal.

And that's definitely a goal of, many organizations of our customers. And I'm sure your members too are very focused on that.

Kevin: Absolutely. I think I mentioned earlier on, but it's worth repeating that nine out of 10 of the, our constituents when we surveyed them last year on this topic said that sustainability was already a priority within their organization. So it's ubiquitous. It is definitely something, and it's great to see.

That there is this sort of global awareness around this topic, and we're in such a unique position, we, being the travel industry, whether we're buyers or suppliers, to just think about being more intentional. And exactly as you said, Rachel, it starts with having a baseline understanding of what your, current footprint is, and then developing a sustainability strategy on top of that.

Rachel: What is one thing people can do right now to be more sustainable in your opinion?

Kevin: Yeah. So I think it's a great question because in some ways, it is very much sort of a grassroots thing, and like each one of us as individuals can have a, a meaningful impact. So our CEO, Suzanne Nifong has said, think of every trip, leisure, or business as a precious asset and make the most of it.

I think that's a great way to think about it. And, you know, as individuals we can make, greener choices a habit, choosing them when and where possible. So for example, you might think about creating trips with multiple meetings and objectives. So combining travel, obviously flying direct, it's easier on the environment and a much more pleasant way to travel.

And when you land, I mean, most of the major rideshare services now offer an electric option at often the same price, as a petroleum based option. so there are a couple of things that we can kind of take and run with on our next trip.

Paulina: Great advice. Speaking of advice, with the last few minutes we have, what advice would you like to share with our, our listeners? We joke about, you know, what would you tell your younger self? Maybe someone who's starting off their career in the business travel sector or, you know, even someone new in the meetings and events industry as it relates to some of the topics we've covered today and perhaps some of your unique experiences.

Kevin: This is such a hard question. I'll give you a personal tip and a professional tip. The personal tip is the one I truly do believe in. I'm a proud member of the two stamp club. I try to get two stamps in my passport every year. So my first tip is to my younger self is take all your vacation.

Nobody's gonna get hero points for not taking their vacation. Time is precious and work-life balance is a term that's thrown around a lot. You really do need to enjoy the ride, so take all your vacation. Don't think twice.

And then I think professionally what I would say is, this is gonna sound like a pat answer cuz everybody says it, but really listen to the customer, like all the answers are there.

Kevin: So regardless of your role, whether it's in sales, marketing, or product, or even operations, you may think you have the right idea. But trust me when I tell you, your customer has the answer. So just listen to what they have to say.

Paulina: Wow. Love those answers.

Rachel: I think I could take the that advice myself, we really appreciate the time that you've taken today and shared some great tidbits we will share with our listeners. Some of those, metrics with the Q1 poll that, that Kevin shared and some of those other trends, keep listening on. I know we're all trying to digest as much information as possible to limit the uncertainty of what's happening and just embrace where we are along this, this ride.

We also at Cvent Shael plug, we do have our Cvent Travel Summit coming up in April. Be sure to be on the lookout for that. We'll have even more travel trends to share then, and it's just a really great virtual event to tune into, to catch up on all the latest and greatest, and like, like Kevin said, GBTA is a great organization.

Rachel: If you are interested in being a member, we'll also link to any of that information. I wanna thank you for joining us today, Kevin. It was great to see you again after so many years. And congrats on the new gig as CMO of GBT .

Kevin: It was a total pleasure. Great to see you both and hope our paths cross in-person this year. I have a feeling they will.

Rachel: Yeah, I agree. I'm sure we'll see each other at some industry events coming up. We hope you enjoyed our chat today. Found some inspiration or takeaways, that can inspire your own programs or your business travel programs. As always, if you have any topics or people that you liked, To our 2023 podcast season if you have any topics you'd like to see, next DM us or send us a greatevents@cvent.com.

This is Rachel and Paulina signing off. Stay tuned for the next Great Events podcast. We'll see you next time.