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The importance of cultural intelligence for business travel


Organisations are embarking on international travel, seeking to reconnect with employees, customers and the supply chain. In fact, Corporate Travel Management’s (CTM’s) 2023 Global Customer Survey revealed that 41.55% of customers expect to travel internationally more over the next 12 months than they did last year. With more business travellers crossing the globe and meeting face to face, never has it been more important to ensure travellers are freshly educated on international business etiquette.

Whilst hybrid work models and collaborative applications have allowed people to remain virtually connected, it has also highlighted the importance of in-person connections and the undisputed benefits that face-to-face contact brings to achieving business growth and success.

Opportunity for connection is crucial for hybrid employees. Connecting with colleagues and reconnecting with the organisation and its purpose are the top reasons employees are eager to resume those in-person interactions according to a 2022 Global Culture Study conducted by Rethink and The O.C Tanner Institute. Remote employees are becoming more common, and businesses are ramping up investment in remote offices around the country and the world. With any events planned, it will be important to consider how it bridges the gap between employees in different offices, cities, and continents.

When organisations provide opportunities for employees to get to know each other, there’s a significant impact:

2022 Global Culture Report Infographic

With such a high value on face-to-face business interactions for cross-cultural business performance, preparing your workforce to be culturally intelligent will be more important than ever in a newly reconnected world.

As Travel Managers and key stakeholders review and refine their travel programmes, it will be important to consider what cultural sensitivities employees may need refresher training on, and what new considerations may exist in a new era of travel.

Laura Ruffles – CTM’s Global Chief Operating Officer shares her thoughts on the value of culturally diverse teams and their importance to supporting customers and businesses globally. “It is pleasing to see a strong return to international business travel for our customers. Equally, it has been with much delight that CTM saw the return of our global CTM All Stars conference and Global Synergy Session management meeting this year, recognising and rewarding our All Stars award winners and providing employees the opportunity for global connectivity – learning from colleagues across our 4 regions and building long-lasting connections. Across our CTM offices worldwide, we have such a diverse group of employees, and their local knowledge is vital to our business and to support our customers’ travel programmes as they connect globally. The sharing of knowledge, opinions and ideas across borders and cultures brings different perspectives, skills and resources which drive innovation and deliver on our customer value proposition.”

Laura Ruffles quote

Cultural considerations

For business travellers embarking on international travel, it is important to understand how to effectively collaborate, show compassion and curiosity, understand and demonstrate what is acceptable and valued in a culture, apply relational skills, resolve conflict and demonstrate tolerance.

For Travel Managers communicating information to regional and local offices and providing business travellers with the tools they need to understand key cultural differences and sensitivities will be important to achieving maximum outcomes from their travel investment.

Having a culturally intelligent workforce is particularly important for organisations with a geographically diverse customer base and office locations because it maximises our ability to relate and work effectively.

Raf Gonzalez, CTM’s Vice President, Agency Partnerships Programme explains “Cultural intelligence is paramount in managing and maintaining a global network of business travel agencies, particularly in relationship-building among diverse international partners. The richness of information shared virtually as well as in person, which transcends continents and cultures, is invaluable. The exchange of knowledge and experiences not only enhances collaboration and innovation but also generates trust and integrity which presents a tangible return on investment in both budget and time. The deep connections fostered through cultural intelligence contribute to the success and sustainability of the network, driving growth and competitive advantage in the ever-evolving global business landscape.”

Raf Gonzalez quote

Business communication, language and etiquette

Bridging cultural differences through effective communication – whether verbal or visual – can be critical to business negotiations and relationships with international customers. Something as simple as shaking a customer’s hand could be riddled with faux pas, making the intended purpose of the business travel ineffective.

Understanding the language your professional network speaks and how to use it to convey messages effectively can make or break the success of business and events travel. Some cultures are more direct in their communication while others are more conservative, so doing your research first is important.

Larry Lo, CTM’s CEO – Asia, reflects on the time CTM’s Managing Director Jamie Pherous addressed staff and business partners at an official engagement in Hong Kong. “Jamie demonstrated respect for local culture when addressing the audience in Cantonese during the acquisition ceremony for Westminster Travel back in 2014. It was a welcomed display of respect and his efforts to learn the language were well received.”

Negotiation plays an important role in international business. However, when engaging with diverse markets, workplace etiquette can vary significantly. Culture influences an individual’s behaviour, communication style, and thought processes, all of which play a part in the negotiation dynamics. It is paramount for organisations and individuals to comprehend and respect cultural differences during business transactions and proactively address the challenges they present.

Effective communication entails not only verbal exchanges but also an understanding of non-verbal cues, interactions, and gestures such as eye contact and handshakes. Nonetheless, it is important to recognise that these practices may not be universal and could have evolved in recent years.

Eve White, CTM’s Vice President, Global Customer Solutions explains “I have had the pleasure of working in global travel management for 25 years travelling to and working with at least 50+ countries.  During this time I have certainly learned the intricacies of conducting business on a global scale. As part of the Global Customer Solutions team, our work revolves around delivering travel solutions whilst understanding the diverse service and content requirements of our customers globally. We navigate languages, currency, regulations, taxation, culture, technology norms, service expectations and content access to serve customers globally. Every country has its unique way of doing business, and it is crucial to understand these differences to excel in the art of bridging cultures and achieving business success.”

Eve White quote

Business meetings & events are back

The 2023 CTM Global Customer Survey found that customers expect to be travelling more for customer meetings (44.59%) and for tradeshows and conferences (34.59%) than they did in 2022.

Tracey Edwards, ETM’s Global Strategic Lead and General Manager explains “Events are back on the business agenda with organisations wanting to bring employees and partners together. Networking, sharing knowledge, learning about new industry products and education are key drivers for these events. We work closely with our customers to understand the demographic of their attendees to enable appropriate recommendations for their event programme. No matter the destination, it’s critical to ensure dietary, religious, and cultural sensitivities are accommodated and we work with our customers to meet and exceed their objectives.”

There are many moving parts to consider when arranging international meetings and events. An important part of the planning process is to ensure your event is culturally inclusive for all attendees, so they feel comfortable and willing to participate. Collaboration with a range of event stakeholders is key to understanding local customs, restrictions, and requirements to ensure all venues, activities, catering, and content are acceptable to a broad range of cultural audiences.

Some questions to consider when planning an international event:

  • Are there any cultural or religious conflicts with the location, time and date of the event?
  • Is there disability access to the space?
  • Are there catering options that consider religious and dietary restrictions?
  • Is there a culturally appropriate dress code that should be communicated to guests?
  • Is there any point where guests will need to disclose information about their gender and/or sexuality?

Providing cultural intelligence training for business travellers, events staff and event attendees can offer additional knowledge and skills necessary to maximise the outcomes of international face-to-face travel, and events, and support the opportunity to build prosperous relationships in a culturally diverse environment.

Businesses looking to understand and maximise the cultural intelligence of their workforce in preparation for international travel and events can:

  • Conduct cultural intelligence testing to understand potential areas of risk and improvement.
  • Implement targeted training courses, and accreditations, and engage with regional colleagues to share knowledge and insights into local cultural business expectations.

Additionally, work with a travel management provider who understands the local cultural needs and nuances of the markets you intend to visit. CTM’s regional business structure provides local, in-house travel consulting, account management, and product development teams to support business travel programmes across North America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Asia, coupled with an extensive global partner network. This local market knowledge ensures our customers have access to local travel expertise wherever their travels take them.

Enjoyed learning about the importance of cultural intelligence in business travel?

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