Zeno Labs Live

GBTA’s Suzanne Neufang Provides A Corporate Travel Pulse Check

9 August 2021

Zeno Live host and Serko SVP of North America Tony D’Astolfo sits down with GBTA’s CEO/Executive Director Suzanne Neufang, who covers the new direction of GBTA, the status of the corporate travel industry coming out of COVID, and much more. And to help viewers get to know the new CEO of GBTA, Tony put Suzanne on the spot in the Zeno Zone for a round of rapid-fire questions.  

Watch the recording or view the full transcript below.

Full Transcript:

Tony D'Astolfo: Hi and welcome to Zeno Labs Live, the new live video series from travel booking and expense management providers, Serko. Where we feature subject matter experts on various topics across the corporate travel industry. I'm Tony D'Astolfo and today, I'm joined by Suzanne Neufang, Executive Director of GBTA. Welcome, Suzanne. And thanks for joining us.

Suzanne Neufang: Thank you, Tony.

Tony D'Astolfo: Today, I'm going to turn the tables a little bit on you, Suzanne. GBTA, as we all know, anybody who's in the industry knows, does a great job of surveying their members, doing research and interviewing business travel executives from across the goal. But today we're going to ask the new executive director some questions about the association and how it's doing. So if you're up for that, let's get down to it.

Suzanne Neufang: Let's go.

Tony D'Astolfo: All right. So the new board was seated on July 20th, some new faces, some holdovers. How's the transition going?

Suzanne Neufang: Yeah, thanks for asking. Denise Truso, who's the newly elected board president, and I have been working pretty closely in the last couple of weeks on some matters at hand. Mark Cuschieri, who's the new VP elected from UBS, also has been engaged with us on some other work. And the board is getting lined up really what the fall and winter schedule of regular meetings. So I would say it's business as usual. I think that this will be a very engaging group and a good balance really, of returning and new members. And really, what I think has us all excited is that for the first time there's voting members from other countries, not just the United States. And so, the perspective of global travel, the insights, their inputs, will really help drive the mission of GBTA and our industry following.

Tony D'Astolfo: Excellent. Very good to hear. Some stability, but some new blood. Right. Always good to shake things up a little bit. Let's talk a little bit about GBTA, the association. We've talked and read and heard about getting back to the office. How about you guys? What's the plan? Are you guys back in the office?

Suzanne Neufang: Officially, not yet. Because like other companies we're really pulling our staff. And thanks to COVID cuts and some other departures we have even fewer people who are within commuting distance from the office. And so we're keeping close tabs on them. A couple of weeks ago, we did have an in-person meeting where I got to meet for the first time, several of my people that I've been working with for five months. We had the US team there. And it just reinforced again, how important face-to-face meetings are. We had a full day, Post-it notes, stand up, fill the whiteboards with all kinds of ideas and that kind of thing. It's just really hard to do during this kind of mediated Zoom calling and other kinds.

Tony D'Astolfo: I hear you. Coming on board five months in and not having met anyone in person, just a challenge. So, hats off to you for the first meeting. And hopefully, there's a lot more coming real quick.

Suzanne Neufang: Yes.

Tony D'Astolfo: All right. I read with some interests that CWT came back in as a member, which is obviously good news. But I've also heard from some individuals and companies that are still kind of staying on the side lines. Right. They're not ready to commit back to GBTA. Do you think they're waiting for more evidence of change? And if so, what kind of change? Do you think the elections will help? Or do you think this is a matter of simply needing more time and that time will heal the wounds?

Suzanne Neufang: Yeah. One of the first things I did when I arrived was to go on this listening tour, really across the world, not just across the country. And I'm taking that feedback forward with me to instill more positive change. And I think that along with the amendment changes that went to the bylaws in the spring, the election, which I don't think I've ever had 24 people running for board seats at the same time. That kind of, I would say enthusiasm is pushing us forward. I think with some great momentum and we are committed to transparency and a member-centric approach, in a way that maybe we haven't had recently. And this period of time has been a huge amount of change and flux for the industry, for the association. And we still have been able to achieve some good things.

Suzanne Neufang: I think our focus right now is getting the industry back up and running. And of course, time heals the others of that, as we work to get the industry back up and healthy again, which is really our first mission. To make sure members' careers are alive and well. And that our industry is thriving in the case of pandemics and economic woes that we just have to get over.

Tony D'Astolfo: Let's talk a little bit about the conference in November. Postponed a couple times. I read through the COVID-19 response and protocols and the steps you're taking, both you and convention center in Orlando are taking to create a safe environment. And they're literally extraordinary. I mean, the level of detail. So kudos to both GBTA and Orlando for doing that. But it sounds like this event, and through no fault of GBTA, will be like any other in terms of what I'll call the hassle factor. Right. Used to be going to convention, the biggest hassle was I didn't book my hotel soon enough. And I'm going to have to take a bus or I'm outside the close in perimeter. This year, there's a lot more required in terms of what we'll have to do onsite at the event. So, do you think the hassle factor, not only for a convention, but for just events in general, is going to have an impact on the return?

Suzanne Neufang: Yeah, I just came back from my first 1,000 person plus meeting last week. And while there was similar protocols, I would say, to what we're planning, already masked in the state and city where I was, that was required. And some digital tools required to get inside. I think that reassured most that it was worth the hassle to get into a face-to-face meeting. And everybody was informed and very much interactive and speaking to each other. And everybody was relieved to be back together, again, planning the future for various areas of their industry that they were attending for. I think also business travelers especially, are probably more aware than others, about mitigation of risk along the way for the kinds of work they have to do in getting from one place to another.

Suzanne Neufang: I think it's also really fortunate for us that airports and airlines have not really released the kind of mitigations that have been around. So masking is still in place across all airports. None of that really changes. And everybody is fairly used to that by now, with the tourism and other things that have been alive and well over the summer. I think that said, corporate meetings and travel policy trumps all. And so the signs that we have had earlier was that September was a loosening point for that. And that was September. Still many companies are returning to their office. Even as some tech companies are moving that into 2022. The travel is still picking up. Over 50% of companies have told us that domestically they're already allowing non-essential business travel. And that goes for Europe, UK, Canada, US, and some Latin America and Asia. I think we're certainly seeing that even meetings are allowable by almost 50% of companies, four or 500 and more. Hassle factor is what it is. I think we've been living with it for 18 months by now. And I think that that wouldn't be the reason why someone wouldn't attend.

Tony D'Astolfo: Good. Okay. Glad to hear that. I like the optimistic approach. I think, I've said this, I wrote a blog post a couple of weeks ago about the hassle factor is just going to go up. Right. It just, what happens. It happened post-9/11. But people are pretty resilient. They get used to it. And so, let's hope that's the case here. Now you mentioned business travelers. And so, I want to talk a little bit about, we've seen that the return to travel has been much quicker on the leisure side. Right. Pent up demand. People just wanted to get out of their houses. I think we can all appreciate that. But that business travel is lagging.

Tony D'Astolfo: Now, I'd love to know, because you guys survey quite a bit, and you said there's an optimistic view of things looking forward. But why do you think it hasn't happened faster? Is it the hassle factor, the fear factor, the liability factor? Or I don't know, has tech permanently changed the way people do business?

Suzanne Neufang: Yeah. I think, well, a few of those are certainly mitigating factors. I think one of the underlying practical factors is that without offices open, there's been no place to meet. And so, you can have a coffee or a lunch in an outdoor restaurant in any city in most countries now. However, showing a PowerPoint and doing those Post-it note wall walk exercises that gets you working together and building relationships are harder. I think part of it has certainly been that there's just been no place to meet. I think that we'll also see a change in the way travel happens. Maybe those quarterly in-person two hour meetings won't happen in a face-to-face setting or in real life, as I like to say. Those might be stay mitigated through these kinds of tools.

Suzanne Neufang: That said, that once a year or twice a year strategic meeting might take a whole day now because there's so many more things to go through and there's the relationships to build. The customer facing side of travel and the human side of it, I think is important. And I think the other thing that we'll see is new kinds of internal travel. With the digital nomads out there, they still need to have some kind of corporate culture. And I've heard senior leaders talking about the need to make sure that their culture is maintained and it doesn't just become easy come, easy go, in terms of staff. That if they find them easy, they work from home the entire time. And then they find it easy to leave because they don't have any kind of relationship within the company that keeps them sticky.

Tony D'Astolfo: Yeah. Some of this leisure travel might also be a hidden business travel. They're not getting reimbursed, but I want to go live somewhere else for six months. I can work remotely. My daughter's in that situation where she's going to live in Canada for a while. And you look at that and you say, "That's probably business... It's not pure business travel, but it is certainly business people traveling and then relocating. And then I'm going to work from a different place for some time."

Suzanne Neufang: Indeed. Indeed.

Tony D'Astolfo: All right. Last question...

Suzanne Neufang: The one thing I would add, Tony, to that is that thank goodness for tourism, because it also helps get the bugs, the anxiousness out of that business traveler. Because I think traveling alone, by yourself in these kinds of times, for some people, makes them more anxious. So, getting used to that through the tourism lens, I think has been a good thing for the summer for all of us.

Tony D'Astolfo: Yeah. I think we have this permanent shift towards more business and leisure blend. Especially the younger demographic. They like to combine a little bit of fun with their work trip. So hopefully, all of this will spur us to get back out there later this year. All right. Last question. So you've been in the job now for a little bit a while, but what's been the most rewarding part of it so far?

Suzanne Neufang: Yeah. Love that question because first of all, it's been great to meet my amazing staff and of course, the great volunteer leaders that are across this plethora of chapters and advisory boards and countries where GBT is active. But I would say that the biggest delight for me has been becoming part of this big picture policy advocacy that GBT has been doing for years in the US, in Europe. Now with UK separate. And newly for us, in Canada. And I didn't know, for example, that government policy makers love tourism and business travel really all under tourism, in as much as I know now.

Suzanne Neufang: And it's really, our opportunity to help policymakers see that business travel is different. It's more purposeful, it's more direct. Guardrails are pretty well-established by companies for their business travelers. And that it's important that we not all be lumped within that same bucket of rules. We know those rules have kept a lot of perfectly safe risk mitigated meetings from happening, even while vaccinations have been rising like crazy. And we need to keep evangelizing about that now and into the future with all of those policy makers.

Tony D'Astolfo: I'm glad you said that, because that has always been, I think, the most important part of the association. Right. Advocating on behalf of us, we think of it and it is a very big industry, but there's nuance to this industry that is completely overlooked. Especially by politicians and folks in commerce. Glad to hear that is the most rewarding part. I would say it's the most important part too. So good for you.

Tony D'Astolfo: All right. Let's move into something. We call the Zeno Zone. It's quick hits. I'm going to ask you some questions. I want to know a little bit more about Suzanne, the person, versus on the business side. Okay. Number one, you have a major business decision to make, and you can only reach out to one person. Okay. Who gets that call from Suzanne?

Suzanne Neufang: Of course, if it's about a business that I'm running, it's got to go to the chairman of the board or the president of the board. If it's however, something about my career in this business world, it goes to my husband because he's been an executive coach for years for a Fortune 50 company. No longer does that but I have an in-house executive coach.

Tony D'Astolfo: Look at you. All right. We didn't know that. Good for you. Well, that's good. And that's very smart. It makes a lot of sense. Wouldn't cost you any... Well, it might cost you something, but we'll talk about that later. All right. Next question. Three dinner guests, anybody, any period of time, anybody in the history of time. Three dinner guests, who's at Suzanne's table?

Suzanne Neufang: I'm going to go the intellectual route with you. So first will be Angela Merkel, the outgoing Chancellor of Germany. Second is Malala Yousafzai. I probably mispronounced your name, but we all know her as Malala. She was the Pakistani Nobel Peace Prize winner who advocates education for girls. And the third one, going into the theoretical realm of the intellectual party, is Yuval Noah Harari, who is an Israeli historian and the author of maybe some books you've read, "21 Lessons for the 21st Century." And the book, "Sapiens," which I found fascinating. And so getting us all together to talk about the past and the future of our great civilizations around the world would be something I would find really intellectually stimulating.

Tony D'Astolfo: Very good. I'm going to admit it right here. I think my audience probably knows this, right over my head. Most of them were over my head. I know Angela Merkel. The other two, I'm going to have to do some research, but I will absolutely do that research. But good for you. I think it's going to be stimulating conversation. I would love to be the waiter and just dip in on that one there. Okay now.

Suzanne Neufang: Absolutely.

Tony D'Astolfo: Sounds sophisticated. The next question is kind of an extension of that one. Are you guys in a dive bar or fine dining?

Suzanne Neufang: Sorry, fine dining for me, for sure.

Tony D'Astolfo: I'm kidding. I was going to say, there's no way you're taking these guests to a dive bar.

Suzanne Neufang: Yeah, exactly.

Tony D'Astolfo: Only fine dining style. All right, thanks for that. Last question. A little bit more serious, but give us something you see happening, a prediction, something's going to happen in our industry next 12 months.

Suzanne Neufang: All right. I've been thinking that with the latest class of startups being scooped up during the pandemic, that with all the capital, the intellectual energy and all of the great ideas out there, that there will be a new class of startups that are introducing themselves to our great business travel industry within the next 12 hours.

Tony D'Astolfo: Welcome. That would be great. I love to see startups because I think that there's a vibrancy that they bring. So good one. Good one on that and we'll be tracking them. Suzanne, it's been a real pleasure. I want to thank you so much for doing this. I know how busy you are and there's so much you have going on at GBTA.

Tony D'Astolfo: I wish you all the best with the conference. I will be there. I encourage everybody who is watching this to be there. Let's all get together and celebrate the return to business travel with this great association. I also want to thank all of you for joining us today, live. And we hope you join us again on our next installment of Zeno Labs Live. So this is Tony D'Astolfo signing off. Suzanne, a pleasure and I'll see you out there.

Suzanne Neufang: Bye-bye.


Have feedback for our team or ideas for other guests we should host on future episodes of Zeno Labs Live? Drop us a line.

About the Speakers

SN Bio2

Suzanne Neufang

CEO/Executive Director For GBTA

Suzanne joined GBTA in February 2021, where she oversees the association’s staff and services, providing value to members, sponsors and partners. Fun fact: Suzanne has visited nearly 40 countries and flown nearly 3 million air miles.


Tony D'Astolfo

SVP of North America for Serko

Tony joined the Serko team in 2018 to lead the launch into the North American market. Prior to Serko, Tony served in leadership roles at Deem, Phocuswright, and GroundLink. In his free time, you can find Tony in the New York area quoting "The Godfather" to all who will listen.