Episode 2: Hans-Ingo Biehl, Executive Director of the “GeschäftsreiseVerband VDR”

Hans-Ingo Biehl discusses with us the most compelling issues concerning the business travel industry. The VDR is representing the interests of its member-companies in Berlin and Brussels. We will also be reviewing the national Business Travel industry's economic state, the association's core activities and learn how companies efficiently organize and manage their travel expenses

Hans-Ingo Biehl:  Executive Director and Athlete

Frimeso: Could you please introduce yourself?

Biehl: My name is Hans-Ingo Biehl. I am 62 years old, married, father of two children, and live in Darmstadt. I am working for the VDR, headquartered in Frankfurt/ Main, since 2002. I already worked in the Business Travel industry previously.

Frimeso: Do you often travel in your capacity as Managing Director of the VDR, outside the context of the current pandemic?

Biehl:  I do. We have seven regional branches. I try to be there as often as I can.  I am also regularly visiting political Berlin, and I travel to Brussels.

Frimeso: I have read with great interest that you support the one and only FC Bayern Munich? Can you explain why?

Biehl: I was born and raised in Darmstadt. Hence my heart belongs also to our local club SV 98 Darmstadt who I played for.  But I have always been a great admirer of FC Bayern. As an eight-year-old, my family and I were on holiday at a lake in Bavaria. I got the chance to watch a friendly that ended at 25:2. Gerd Müller came to us boys after the game and handed me his shirt. The shirt has worn off over the years, but I have kept the emblem up to this day.

Frimeso: You already mentioned your past as a footballer. What else do you practice?

Biehl: In the past, I was focusing on ballgames. After football, I played basketball in the second national league. Today you find me at times on a golf course. I play Tennis and try to stay as active as possible.  I also like running. Sport is part of my weekly routine.  Sport gehört zu meinem Wochen-Rhythmus dazu.


The Business Travel Organisation VDR

Frimeso:  The name VDR stands for the German term, “Association for German Travel Management” The name does not include the phrase “Business Travels.” How did this name come about?

Biehl: The VDR evolved from the Idea of establishing an interest group to organize the corporate travel departments. In 1974, eight travel department managers joined forces and formed a club of travel managers who then evolved into the VDR.

Many people are still not familiar with the term “travel management.” We have nothing to do with private travels.  We are not a travel agency. We do not offer any services for travelers. However, we are an interest group for those commercial enterprises who are sending their employees on business trips.  We help to establish the right frameworks and also guide our members to efficiently organizing such travels.

We successfully positioned the VDR within our industry as a brand.  But we also positioned ourselves as Germany’s “Business Travel Organisation.

Frimeso:  With what kinds of companies do you typically work? Are these larger enterprises or SMEs?

Biehl: Generally speaking, any company can become a member with a particular entity dedicated to the organization of business travels.

We work with a wide range of companies. We work with large DAX corporations as well as with SMEs. SMEs often employ one assistant who is organizing business travels. In these cases, we work with the assistant as our principal point of contact. In DAX companies, Business Trips are organized by entire departments of 10 to 15 people. These departments are not comparable to travel agencies, though. They rather function as strategic travel planners who design travel guidelines. Furthermore, they establish the criteria under which travel can occur, and they relentlessly optimize the internal travel processes.  These core responsibilities are what we refer to as Travel Management.


A network that is helping everyone

Frimeso: One of the many benefits of becoming a member may be your vast network. What makes your network so unique?

Biehl:  We offer a platform where travel managers from different companies can exchange information regarding their business. A travel manager from Siemens can talk to the travel manager from Mercedes. A travel manager from an SME can have useful exchanges with travel managers from other medium-sized enterprises.

These exchanges are precious for our members. They discuss issues like: “Who has already implemented a worldwide credit card as the payment method? What are your experiences, and what do you have to consider?”


Communication as one of the VDR’s key responsibilities

Frimeso: Your website is well structured. Your association is also active on Social Media. You have a fantastic Podcast. It seems that the VDR has a strong emphasis on communication and on the creation of quality content?

Biehl:  We need to provide information in a contemporary manner. In terms of PR and communication, we have always been recognized.  Over the past 10 years, Social Media has become a precious channel. Insofar, we are doing much more than what we did only 10 years ago.

A good communication strategy is crucial for our members. They regularly feedback to us that they depend on receiving high-quality information for them to be able to do a great job.


VDR Business Travel Report: The Standard Text of a whole industry

Frimeso: The VDR annually issues a comprehensive report of the German Business Travel industry’s current state. Why do you spend so many resources on gathering and analyzing all these various figures and statistics?

Biehl: The VDR Business Travel Report has genuinely evolved into the standard reference oeuvre for the industry, acknowledged by our politicians as well as by our economy.

We conduct representative interviews with 800 organizations all over Germany. These organizations base their replies on their internal travel expense systems. Only companies with at least 10 employees can participate. Hence the report does not cover the independent architect traveling to a larger construction site in Germany.  The information is also covering relevant hot topics and trends.

Key data for 2019: In 2019, 13 Million people traveled for German companies 200 Million times and expensed € 55,3 Billion.


The pandemic will have severe consequences in the fiscal year 2020 (and also in FY 2021).

Frimeso:  These figures will show a different picture for 2020.  Can you already be more precise about the pandemic’s expected impact on the German Business Travel industry?

Biehl:  We have developed a barometer by which we survey every two to three weeks the industry’s general sentiment.

Last month, business traveling was at 10 % by comparison to the same month of the preceding year.  We also expect restrained activities for 2021. We assume that 20% will return. At the end of the day, everything will depend on developments around COVID. There are also regional differences that we will have to consider.

The situation is generally obscure. Some weeks ago, for example, some German regions temporarily prohibited lodging people coming from areas with high infection rates. Companies refrain from traveling rather than having to worry about their employee not being allowed to stay overnight or having to isolate himself for a week upon his return.


Digital Transformation will change the world of business travels for good. However, it will not entirely replace the need for human interaction.

Frimeso:  Do you expect a full recovery of the business travel segment? If so, when do you think this will happen?

Biehl: am afraid that, at this stage, we are not able to predict what exactly is going to happen. However, we do expect to see a timely recovery. Will it be as it was before the pandemic? I honestly doubt that.  Many companies learn to use digital tools to their full potential and understand that many things can be done onsite. Companies will scrutinize the necessity of flights to Berlin to join a business lunch more than they perhaps did before the pandemic. A certain percentage of business trips will not take place any more.

Frimeso:  However, onsite meetings, combined with the opportunity to interact face-to-face, will always be necessary. Direct sessions instill closeness, whereas the possibilities of building solid customer relationships with video conferencing seem to be limited. Do you agree?

Biehl: This is true. Collaborating via Zoom is possible. Even Staff appraisals are now done via Zoom. But the outcome of these meetings is more successful. If you already personally know the other person. I agree that when you have not developed a feel for the customer yet, an onsite meeting will be more fruitful. Hence, onsite sessions and personal interactions will always be necessary. However, we will have to wait and see whether these meetings’ frequency will remain the same.

In any case, the business travel sector will reposition itself. Many companies will examine whether their employees will have to travel as often as before the pandemic.


Business Travelers willing to spend more than vacationers

Frimeso:  Your analysis also concludes that business travelers spend €169 / day on average, whereas a vacationer spends barely half. Do you know why?

Biehl: Companies reimburse all expenses of a business traveler. He may be inclined to choose a restaurant he would not go to if he were on holiday.  One of the main reasons may be, though, that often vacationers benefit from all-inclusive holiday packages.


The critical political concerns of the VDR: Achieve optimal conditions by reducing administrative constraints, simplify travel management and travel sustainably

Frimeso: You do have a Political Agenda. How does it look like? Which issues are most critical for the VDR’s?

Biehl: We discuss with the political representatives all administrative and legal conditions that impact our industry. Mind you that this segment is generating a lot of money. Furthermore, we create awareness for any Travel Management related issues.  We analyze and discuss tax regulations. We develop strategies for climate-neutral traveling. In short, we try to be involved in any political decision-making process.  We are also positioning specific issues in Berlin and Brussels and emphasize our willingness to help.


Better travel conditions for SMEs thanks to V-Kon

Frimeso: What are the core services that you offer your members?

Biehl:   Just to point out a view, with V-Kon, we do offer better travel conditions for SMEs. SMEs benefit from bulk purchase savings negotiated by us with airlines and rental car companies. Most of the larger companies have arranged their own skeleton agreements. Smaller companies, however, can benefit from similar reductions by joining the VDR.

We also answer any sorts of legal and tax-related queries. We submit these kinds of questions to our legal advisor. We do offer a whole range of additional services.


The challenging role of a travel manager: Working where leadership and employee interests converge

Frimeso:  You also organize a job fair for travel managers. What kind of skills are required for the Travel Manager to be successful?

Biehl: The job profile has changed considerably over recent years. Back then, travel managers were focusing on operational tasks like the booking of employees’ travels.  Today, travel managers are strategists who draft general travel frameworks and guidelines. He or she also has to communicate all changes in travel policies internally.

The Travel Manager manages the company’s expenses for travels. He will often have to answer queries like why travel expenses are still higher than they have been in previous fiscal years. At the same time, he will have to explain to his staff members why they suddenly cannot travel first class anymore.  A travel manager’s position is undoubtedly demanding, let alone because you always try to reduce costs.

The travel manager must be a good communicator with a strategic mindset.

Frimeso: Companies also can work with a third-party provider as their travel manager. What is your thought on that?

Biehl: This is possible too. Some external TMCs (Travel Management companies) assume also travel management responsibilities. The challenge remains, however, that such processes are best controlled from within the company.  Outsourcing your entire travel management function is risky.

We instead suggest that at least one employee should be in charge of travel strategies. Third-party providers can then help to implement those strategies.  Decisions related to travel criteria and guidelines should be made in-house.

Frimeso: Who can become a member of the VDR?

Biehl:  Any company with an organizational entity dedicated to the organization of business travels can become a member.

You can reach us via https://www.vdr-service.de. There you will also find all information that you may be looking for.
We also regularly organize events concerning business travels. Also, non-members can register. We are currently running these events virtually.


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