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The importance of cultural intelligence for business travel

With more business travellers crossing the globe and meeting face to face, it has never been more important to ensure travellers are freshly educated on international business etiquette. In fact, GBTA’s 2024 Business Travel Outlook Poll found almost three in five travel buyers (59%) expect their company will take more business trips this year than they did in 2023.

While hybrid work models and collaborative applications enable virtual connections, they have also underscored the significance of in-person interactions and the undeniable advantages that face-to-face contact brings to fostering business growth and success.

Businesses are strategically investing in remote offices across various locations globally. As organisations adapt to evolving work structures and navigate ongoing changes in the workplace, cultivating a sense of community is now more crucial. When planning events, it becomes imperative to consider how they can effectively bridge the gap among employees situated in different offices, cities, and even continents.

Recognising the high value placed on face-to-face business interactions for cross-cultural performance, preparing the workforce to be culturally intelligent is paramount in this globally connected world.

As Travel Managers and key stakeholders continually assess and refine their travel programmes, they must consider providing refresher training on cultural sensitivities for employees and account for new considerations in this new era of travel.

Laura Ruffles – CTM’s Executive Director & CEO ANZ, Asia & Europe shares her thoughts on the value of culturally diverse teams and their importance to supporting customers and businesses globally. “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.”

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 Program 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.

Business meetings & events are on the rise

According to a GBTA 2024 Business Travel Outlook Poll, 74% of travel spend will be for meetings or event-related travel. Further, according to a Knowland 2024 State of the Meeting Industry Planner Survey, 42% of meeting planners expect bookings to increase in 2024.

Tracey Edwards, ETM’s Global Strategic Lead and General Manager AU/NZ explains “Events are 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.


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