The Need for Cultural Intelligence in Global Travel Management

October 16, 2019

Learning more about the countries employees visit for business travel seems like an obvious priority for companies engaged in international or global operations, however, many companies aren’t doing as much as they could be to help travelers be culturally intelligent.

It’s important for travel managers not to lose sight of the truth that all travel is personal.

Cultural faux pas could have an effect on business relationships, but there’s personal and reputational damage as well in not fully preparing travelers with trip information. Therefore, it’s critical for travel managers to develop the skill of cultural intelligence and implement protocols to encourage the adoption of this skill across the organization.

As travelers become culturally aware and sensitive to the particular customs of the places they visit, positive outcomes and business relationships are more likely to follow.

What is Cultural Intelligence?

Every day, companies spend thousands of dollars sending employees around the world to meet face to face. Yet many travelers are culturally underprepared for their trips and are not thinking enough about the dangers of acting inappropriately or being considerate of local customs and values.

“Often, there isn’t just a language barrier,” says Nicole Wilcock, executive director, global network for Radius Travel. “Do they know how to greet who they are meeting, how much to tip in the restaurant or how not to stand out while walking around the city?”

Cultural intelligence, as it’s often referred to, will become even more important as companies expand globally and enter new markets. For travel managers, it means effective communication to regional and local offices and giving travelers the tools they need to feel confident, understand key differences between cultures and put their best foot forward.

Reduce Cultural Risk by Using Local Expertise

While hard to quantify, when something goes wrong the costs can be dramatic, from serious injuries to a deal falling through. Even preventing one incident greatly outweighs the cost.

Wilcock says that technology can play a part in helping travel managers and the employees they help manage travel for be more risk-averse and culturally aware, such as on-the-go culture notes and translation services through mobile apps.

“Even if the pronunciation is wrong the effort has still been made,” says Wilcock. “One traveler trying to greet a client in Japanese made them laugh and it broke the ice for the rest of the trip’s meetings. Education is also key and organizations such as Maiden Voyage, with which Radius Travel partners, are increasingly reminding the industry and travelers of the human side of travel such as gender differences, LGBTQ+ challenges and wellbeing. Travelers crave local expertise and authenticity when traveling for business or pleasure, and that’s something Travel and Transport emulates with its global network of travel agencies reaching 80 countries across six continents.”

Focus on Decency and Respect

Cultural intelligence comes down to human decency and respect. Universally, everyone likes to know why they’re being asked to do something, what the implications are and how it might potentially affect their customers.

Wilcock says small gestures that show you have an understanding that not everyone has the same norms go a long way.

“When it comes to language you have to consider tone and style; even between the UK and U.S. there is sometimes friction between colleagues as the dialects and colloquialisms differ,” Wilcock says. “Those in families with several nationalities know how it feels to switch between style depending on the people they are with; whether it’s softening phrases or recognizing that people might not say what they mean. British people, for example, will often say one thing but deep down mean another.”

For global communications keep the English simple and avoid using analogies or sayings that could confuse others. Remember that what you do is only normal where you are.

Another consideration worth factoring into cultural intelligence protocols is that industries differ in maturity. Corporate travel is managed in an American construct in North America, Western Europe and some parts of Asia Pacific, where standards and service are expected globally. Whereas in other local agencies sometimes there is more honesty and little to distinguish between leisure and business travel, so the experience of working with those agencies is different and communication has to be adapted.

Wilcock says face-to-face meetings are very important to build personal relationships across the corporate world but especially in Latin America, Middle East, Southern Europe and parts of Asia.

“A senior stakeholder who can advise on the nuts and bolts and influence local travelers should be engaged as early as possible to work with the local agency who is ‘of the place’ and knows the market intimately,” she says. “Most travel buyers make lots of assumptions when they are rolling out a global program but there are so many nuances that could put a roll out at risk, such as workers’ councils in Germany or considering timings around religious holidays like Ramadan.”

Learning about those little gestures can be one of the more compelling aspects of traveling to a new country. Understanding differences is very interesting.

When dealing with global employees travel managers should always aim to be clear communicators with accurate, relevant information. Some get frustrated by differences or constraints but if they are clear, patient and have empathy they can ensure a travel program roll-out is successful and help travelers have productive, and hopefully more enjoyable, business trips.

Explore more tips about how travel managers can encourage cultural intelligence everywhere their employees travel, including specific information on travel to Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America from international travel experts by checking out our eBook now.

How do you encourage cultural intelligence through your travel program and policy? What are some of the best pointers you’ve received on expressing empathy and cultural intelligence? Talk to one of our corporate travel experts today.



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