As the world economy is slowly trying to get back on its feet and travel restrictions are slowly being lifted in some countries, we are seeing a new reality emerge when it comes to international mobility. With governments around the world dealing with backlogs on passport, visa and immigration requests, and putting into place various measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19, the reality of travelling and working abroad has changed drastically. To help you understand some of the changes that are happening and what you should be prepared for in the future, we had the pleasure of speaking with Robert Moorhouse, Senior Vice-President for the Americas at CIBT and Newland Chase, our chosen partner to facilitate passport and visa requests as well as other immigration services for expatriates and business travellers. We are very happy to share his insight on global mobility during the current pandemic and the potential impacts the pandemic will have going forward on travellers and expatriates travelling abroad or trying to secure a visa.
Encore: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your career at CIBT?
Robert Moorhouse (RM): My background is originally in Australian immigration. I have been in the VISA and immigration industry for almost 20 years now; since the ripe age of 17! As a second-generation immigration professional, I found as much as I tried to stay away from it, I keep getting drawn back into the industry. I joined CIBT through acquisition when they acquired the boutique firm Hamilton Watts in 2014 – which I was working with in Australia – and I have been with CIBT ever since.
I moved to Perth, from Melbourne, then to Sydney and now Houston. I am loving working here and on both sides of the business. I look after client services, account management, and business development for both CIBT and Newland Chase for the North America.
Prior to joining Hamilton Watts, I also worked for the Australian government in Canberra, so I have experienced both sides of the house, if you will, the government side and the corporate experience, both in large corporations and the smaller boutique firms. I have had the pleasure of really going through the whole spectrum of being a visa and immigration professional over the years and my passion for the industry has never waned.
Encore: That is a fantastic background and your passion certainly comes through. Since CIBT is the leading provider of passport, visa and emigration services to the travel and tourism industry, the current pandemic has directly affected your business; what are you doing differently or will be doing differently going forward?
RM: The global pandemic has certainly turned the whole industry on its head, and we’re not the only ones affected by this; the entire industry has been ground to a halt – which is unprecedented.
It had bigger impacts on the visa side – the travel side of our business – far more than the immigration side, because on the immigration side the people are often already in country. On the business travel side, the restrictions have forced us to rethink because in many cases processes – as countries start to reopen – are now much more complicated. There is COVID-19 testing and additional letters of invitation requirements for example and requirements are more robust.
Beyond that, there is what the client and the traveller come to expect from us. It is not enough to just say “here is your visa and off you go” and you are done. You need to make the trip or the assignment as comfortable as possible, by making the client and the traveller feel comfortable with what is going on. There is a lot more information that is expected from clients and that we are now including in our offering.
We also found we are doing more webinars, roundtables, web offerings, newsletters than ever before and the amount of engagement we are getting from Travel Managers and Mobility Managers around working with them on policies and procedures is really unprecedented. That is the silver lining to this whole situation; it has really allowed us to work even closer with our clients and I am really enjoying it.
What we had to do is recognize that the processes and procedures are different and adapt quickly, continue to enhance our services to allow for these additional services, provide greater handholding and ramp up communications with the client and their travellers, in order to meet their needs and expectations.
Encore: From your perspective, how do you think the pandemic will impact your business – what trends are you seeing?
RM: In terms of impacts, we basically must revisit everything we knew before. There is a lot of uncertainty, for example, around the lasting effects of a positive COVID test for our customers. We do not know the long-term ramifications of the disease, so we therefore do not know what the long-term ramifications will be from a visa and immigration perspective. Will it be something like tuberculosis, whereas if you have permanent scarring of the lungs you need to go through additional medical checks in order to immigrate to a country?
What we do know is that there will likely be additional health screening and medical checks for business visas in the foreseeable future. What we may also see are tighter screening of business travellers to ensure they are not coming in for short term work, because of the fact that there are large numbers of people unemployed in some of those countries and because of the additional screening and health checks involved with business visas. So protecting local jobs and ensuring that travellers aren’t circumventing work permit processes.
Trend-wise, health checks and more robust screening of business travellers are almost a certainty. Right now, all eyes are on those countries that are starting to open up to see just what those conditions are. We are seeing parts of Europe and China reopening right now, so we are all looking very closely to what those policies, procedures and regulatory settings are, what works and what does not.
Encore: The U.S. Department of State recently shared they currently have a backlog of 1.6M passport requests. How are government delays due to the pandemic affecting your business and clients?
RM: In terms of how it’s affecting our business, obviously not having passports processed means that we are doing much less of this work.
It is more worrying from the client’s perspective, from a traveller perspective. We hear every week about people who have kids who will miss a semester because they study overseas, or have other reasons for travel but cannot make their trip because their passport renewal has been in for a long time and it is now expired or do not have enough length of validity to qualify for a visa. That is the part that is harder for us, hearing about the pain and the heartbreaking stories from our clients, as it has a real impact on people’s lives. It has created a lot of anxiety amongst clients as to when things do open back up, how long it will take to clear that passport backlog. This is obviously not anyone’s fault, but is just another unfortunate fallout from the pandemic.
One thing I can say is that we are very fortunate to have quite a number of passport slots for our industry, to help our customers who need it going forward. We are watching it very closely along with the other factors.
Encore: In your opinion, will it be harder to get a business visa after the pandemic, depending on your country of origin?
RM: That is a very good and difficult question. I think it may vary over time. In the long run, there won’t a country that has not been affected by COVID. So, in the long term, it is very likely all countries will be treated similarly.
In the short term, some countries are suffering more than others, it may be that for the safety and well-being of the people in the destination or host country there will be further restrictions in place based on the country of origin. I think that will eventually even out in the long-run. For a period, it will definitely be harder to get a visa, regardless of where you are from. There are going to be additional screening and health checking requirements, there may also be reporting requirements. I think people do need to anticipate that regardless of where you are from you will have to plan more and be more prepared for a more robust visa process.
Encore: Could we relate the COVID situation to any prior catastrophic event (9/11, financial crisis, SARS, etc.) in terms of impact to your business?
RM: It truly is unprecedented. There is no other event that has had such an impact on our business and our industry, be it volcanic eruptions, terrorism or what have you. They were of course incredibly impactful on our industry, there just never has been an event which has affected every home or destination country the way this pandemic has. Nothing has ever ground things to a halt the way this has.
What we do find is that you are now, very slowly, seeing more intra-regional travel. When all those other prior events took place, a lot of that domestic travel remained. During this pandemic, people are not even travelling within their own regions.
In terms of the impact to our business again it is unprecedented and I very much hope that there is never ever anything coming even close to it ever again in the future. I look at it more from an industry perspective than just our business, because through all this we have all been affected, regardless of where we are located. We are exactly in the same boat; it is though and I feel for all of our colleagues in the industry.
Encore: Health experts warn of a possible COVID-19 second wave in the fall and the potential for other future global pandemics. What measures are you considering to lessen the impact of future events like this one on your business?
RM: From an internal perspective, we need to re-evaluate how we deliver our business on the back end. Of course, we have already had to re-imagine how we did business with our clients on the front end. We are a client-facing business; we do talk to clients directly. If it is convenient, some will come to our offices to drop their passports or their paperwork off. So we’ve had to re-imagine our delivery from a client-facing perspective early on, with plastic barriers, with personal protection equipment, including masks, hand sanitizer, disposable masks for our clients in case they don’t have one when they come in. We have had to consider all of that from an ongoing business operations perspective.
In terms of impact for the future, like many companies right now, we have offices that are sitting near empty. They still need to be operating during this time due to the type of clients that we have and that are still travelling, we are still going to consulates and what have you. Those offices currently are very lightly occupied. Just as every other business, we will need to have a look at which of our roles need to be in the office going forward and which can be remote and look at things we can do differently to lessen the future impact on the business. There are ways that we can deliver the services that are more streamlined, but that is a work in progress as I am sure it is for everyone else right now. We really need to see how things come back, how services will look like then, what service do we need to provide to our clients and then think critically about how to do that. Real estate is a big one; we are a big business with a lot of employees, when they are all office-based and then suddenly can’t be, it has a really big impact.
Encore: What impact did the pandemic have on your organization’s strategic initiatives and goals ?
RM: It is interesting because our strategic goals have remained unchanged to the degree that our goal has been to provide high-touch service to all of our client’s in all our interactions. That part does not change, but how it is delivered and what our clients come expect is the interesting thing that will change. We are listening to our clients as much as we can and as often as we can, through things like direct outreach, webinars, roundtables, so on and so forth. But what is interesting is that there were clients who previously were of the mentality that they wanted us to provide as much of a low cost service as we could, but now understand there is a need for a more high-touch service. Coming out of COVID, there is a greater emphasis on the high-touch elements of our business and our offering.
In terms of our goals, obviously during a period like this, your goals shift from hitting whatever your budget and other goals to simply getting through this, supporting your staff and so forth. It is a tough thing to get through, but we are focused on our overall mission – that stays the same. It is the way we deliver that and the type of services we deliver to our clients that may need to shift after this. I would also point out that information, as I mentioned before, is the key. There is a bigger focus for us to provide as much information as we possibly can to our clients.
Encore: Did the COVID-19 pandemic bring on new ideas or new needs you see as opportunities to enhance your offering?
RM: Yes. I think it is fair to say that the profile and importance of what we bring to the corporate travel businesses has increased over this period. Never has before travel and mobility been so intertwined – so in lockstep – as it is right now.
Previously travel and mobility might have been managed separately, but now they have to be much more intermingled. What I mean by that is if you think about what happened when COVID hit and countries had to close their borders, companies had employees on business travel who, all of a sudden, needed to know how am I going to get home? Which countries can I get to? Can I get out of this country? What are the quarantine requirements like when I return? Which countries can I transit through? And, for those who could not get home – can I work remotely from this country? If the company does not have a local entity, what are the tax requirements and immigration requirements if I stay there?
Suddenly, you had business travellers who became impromptu, open-ended assignee. That is a very different set of circumstances and it led to travel and mobility being more intertwined. At every event I have ever been to in the immigration space, business travel has been talked about as a major compliance risk. I think the silver lining out of all of this is that there will be less need to talk about that because of all the actions that have come out of these types of situations.
Now that travel and mobility now need to talk a lot more, many businesses have their arms around the business travelling population much better. I think the bridging between travel and mobility can only be a good thing.
I also see clients formalizing their travel and mobility policies a lot more; they are having to do more with a lot less staff, in some case they have lost internal expertise from their travel team and now need to make sure they have processes and policies formalized and documented more. I think that is a very good thing for us as an industry. I also see a lot more focus on the safety and comfort of their travellers, making sure they are travelling on the right visa, when and how they are getting there, what the requirements and steps are, and that they feel comfortable about it. As one of our clients said recently, their biggest focus is on making sure that their employees are comfortable, because if it is a negative experience, it makes asking employees to travel for business and finding the right people for these foreign assignments a lot more difficult at a time like this.
In closing, I would really encourage anyone who has questions or concerns to reach out. You can contact me at the email below and I encourage you to sign up for our newsletter, check our blog articles and participate in our webinars, because things change very quickly in our space at the moment and getting your hands on the right information is crucial. We are here to help!