The Return to Entertainment Travel: Take 3

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It’s official, “The Return to Travel” is green-lit.

Over the last 9 months, the Tripgrid team have kept an ear to the ground with our customers and colleagues in the entertainment travel industry - listening, learning, adapting. As we move into 2021, we have seen a mix of productions already back on the road and those planning their strategic return.

What we haven’t seen (yet) is a public forum for that return where best practice, learnings and advice are shared.

Behind closed doors? Of course. Shared as a resource for all? Not quite. Desired? DEFINITELY - at least that’s what our ears tell us.

With that, Tripgrid is pleased to share BTS: Entertainment’s Return to Travel - the series that takes an anonymous look behind those closed doors at how a variety of productions are making their way into 2021.

Thank you to our clients and colleagues for their participation - and the idea…! ;)

Produced with support from Solutions & Strategy Consulting.

Take 3

A view into the world of a Production Travel Manager at a major studio specializing in both scripted and unscripted film and television.

Type of company: Studio

# of active productions: approx. 15

Average traveling crew per production: 10-50

Filming locations in past two months: US: CA, NM, NY; Canada, UK, Europe, India, NZ

Average annual travel spend: $15M

Top Tips

  • Evaluate the benefit of creating a shared internal document for Covid-19 advice and news by country
  • Share your internal document with production executives weekly so that they can easily make hiring and travel decisions at a glance
  • Use this time to source a specialized TMC offline team that explicitly understands production travel needs and requirements
  • Educate your cast and crew on policy so that they understand the transition from previous guidance to the current mandates
  • Delegate the management of safety protocols on location to a Covid Compliance Officer who can coordinate PPE, contact tracing and safe practice
  • Utilize reputable hotels and ground transport that follow CDC guidelines
  • Employ other trusted resources for Covid-19 guidance and strategies, such as ISOS

Full Interview

Entertainment travel is on its way back across the world, largely before corporate travel for most companies. How has The Return to Travel looked inside your organization?

Well first, I think I would have liked to see less travel than we have been seeing. For a while now, it has been a case of, “Yea - it’s super risky, but we’re going to do it anyways!”

(As a production travel manager), it’s that constant balance between the physical production and the demands of creative. If we want to make content that is true to the creative vision, we have to do it in a certain way, and in many of those certain ways… it involves travel.

That said, we’ve put together a lengthier approval process around travel, around what it takes to greenlight and go to physical production today.

Specifically, since the holidays we have been more cautious with limiting certain locations. We have had a few projects move from multiple international shoots to a smaller location list or from an international location to a domestic location. There is a general push to go to more virtual filming in the future. But again, it’s a question of creative.

How has the balance between production travel and corporate travel looked for your company in 2020?

You know, with my situation, I had a real opportunity to strategize when no one was traveling. I always think it’s important to take a step back and look at your travel program, but Covid-19 offered an opportunity that wouldn’t normally be available. An opportunity and a moment to ask things like, “Do we really need massive discounts on economy seats?”

For us, it has been about looking at what our corporate deals are and what we can take advantage of for the production travel space. And for me, it has culminated in one thing. I need a service team that’s going to EXCLUSIVELY work for our production travel business. At the moment, we are finishing an RFP for Production Travel Management. We will have one TMC for production travel that will not have any corporate travel management at all. It will be completely separate.

And it needs to be separate!  We need an offline service team, available 24/7, who understands things like talent demands, group blocks, media baggage. Who understands that group blocks in our space are not the same as meeting and events group blocks, there are different check in and check out dates, the length of stay is constantly changing, it’s very specialized! To put it simply, we need one service team who understands our niche in the travel world.

The big corporate conglomerates, they have a different situation. They’re kind of in the same boat that was sold to me by corporate travel when I started, “We have all of these automated solutions”.

Automated solutions are basically the opposite of what production coordinators need. A lot of them aren’t experienced enough in travel to negotiate a deal, to understand what constitutes a discount or a void fare. They don’t have that insider travel agent knowledge, so they don’t have the skillset to understand how to be the most efficient… even if they think they do! Automation in that respect, is the opposite of what I want for my program.

When (or DO) you see entertainment travel returning to its “normal” volume for your organization?

That’s a really good question, I wish I had a better data set to answer. I think we’re probably around the 50% mark. There are a lot of shows that keep getting deferred or rewritten or changed.

I think it’s going to take another year. I don’t see us at being at full capacity until a year from now.

What are the factors internally that will affect a quicker return to travel?

A lot of it has to do with vaccinations… and a lot has to do with global travel restrictions. I think that the fear level among cast, crew, atl, btl, it’s fluctuating.

At the beginning of the summer, everyone was so gung-ho to get back to work and now we all got back to work, and cases are rising and there’s variants of the virus. I think that people are realizing its risky to be out there. I think the appetite level of the desire to “go out and do the thing” is changing.

Especially now that they’re realizing the level of restrictions on set. It’s not the same lifestyle, it’s not the same experience on set that they had before.

Personally, how have you had to shift your priorities as a production manager during this time?

When I started this process in May, my vision was that the TMC relationship needed to be built so that we would have those resources available. I saw travel policy as something a bit more fluid, a set of guidelines, some guard rails really.

Over the past 8 months, that’s changed. It has been a LOT of Covid tracking for me. A lot of reminding people that they cannot travel a photographer from Italy into the United states. A lot of keeping up with travel restrictions, keeping up with testing requirements… that’s been a crazy new challenge that I don’t think any travel manager thought we would have taken on.

Starting from a place of guardrails, policy in 2020 and beyond has become a mandate in my mind. It’s a strict set of rules. There are so many folks in the industry that are used to going out and doing what they want to do. When we told people, they couldn’t share apartments for example, they didn’t get it. They didn’t want to understand that if one person gets sick, then everyone is at risk and then that means the production may incur extra costs if they’re not able to leave the apartment. The way I view policy now is simple. It’s there for a reason and there should be no reason that people need an exception to the rule.

Like any change, there’s always the initial pushback to a policy, people will scream and cry and say, “Why?! I don’t like it!” But it is what it is. And honestly, once travelers understand the reasoning behind the policy, they get it, they’re compliant.

How are you communicating with and supporting travelers differently as they return to travel despite the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and future uncertainty?

We have an Intranet site that displays internal policy updates along with a grid of policy guidelines by country that I manually update every week. Because (the global guidelines) are changing so frequently and because questions around country guidelines is my most common ask at the moment, it’s easiest for me to manually create this grid and send out to all my stakeholders each week. One of the main areas it helps with is determining who can be hired based on who can travel where.

What specific measures is your organization taking to keep your travelers safe when returning to productions?  

Back in May we formed a production operations team. And on that team, we have a production operations manager who has been in the industry forever (and a day) in many roles. Her primary task for the last 8 months has been onset protocols and pre-hire protocols.

With regards to process, we require 2 negative Covid-19 tests BEFORE you get hired. If we’re hiring a talent from a distant location who cannot be replaced, they also have to be tested two weeks out before they even get on a plane.

We’re also sending out PPE from the production stock to each traveler so they can wear the same PPE that they will be wearing on set – which is both a face mask and a face shield. I’ve also provided travelers guidance on “How to be a Human in an Airport Now” which entails things like:

  • “Don’t eat while in public because your mask is off your face.”
  • “If you see people in your six-foot bubble, walk away, don’t let it happen.”

And once on set, we have our Covid Compliance officers who are managing contact tracing and onsite interactions. Their sole job is to walk around and look at people and say things like:

  • “Where’s your mask?”
  • “Where’s your face shield?”
  • “When was this cleaned last?”
  • “You can’t share equipment!”

Their job is to even get in the face of the director and say you can’t be within 6 feet of your cast, if necessary. I’m also having them check hotels and use a safety checklist directly from me to make sure that hotels are passing muster.

Do you have new resources in your toolkit that you would like to share with others who are starting to travel again?

The place where I start is the ISOS page. They’ve done a great job of keeping it up - country by country, paragraph form, what restrictions are by country. Their information is really comprehensive. Honestly, it’s so comprehensive that I need to sit down with a cup of coffee and comfy socks to get through it. I then condense it into a few bullet points for my grid.

It’s a lot of work, I won’t lie, I spend quite a bit of time updating it but it’s worth it because it’s the thing that I’m asked the most. My production executives can look at it at a glance and understand what’s needed.

What is the single biggest piece of advice you wish that you had been able to give yourself or other travel managers back in March?

To recognize from a philosophical level that the world has fundamentally changed. Our goal should not be to get back to normal but to adapt to the world that we are now in.

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