Covid-19 has all but stopped business travel in its tracks as lockdowns and movement restrictions across the globe has forced businesses to turn to virtual alternatives. While no one is currently traveling, all the indications suggest that most businesses intent to restart business trips as soon as they are able, as virtual meetings simply cannot fully replace in-person discussions 100% of the time. But how will that happen, and will the coronavirus outbreak change business travel for good? We take a look at some of the possibilities.
Back to the future?
Just a few months ago, the future of business travel looked bright. Airport expansion demonstrated the steady rise in flight numbers, airlines were unveiling a steady stream of new routes, and hotel groups were pouring huge sums of money into the construction of additional rooms for both leisure and business travelers. GDP in countries across the world continued to rise.
However, though graphs tracking business travel spend over the past years continue in an upward trajectory, the gradient of this line wasn’t as steep as it once was. The reason for this is at least in part from the millennial cohort of workers. Concerned about environmental changes, they tend to put a greater emphasis on video conferencing’s abilities compared to older cohorts who prefer face to face meetings. Another reason is larger parts of the world coming online with reliable connections.
As more and more employees are forced by Covid-19 to confront video conferencing and similar technologies head on during the pandemic, and realize that virtual meetings do have their advantages, the steady growth in business travel is likely to reduce further.
The hare or the tortoise?
With Covid-19 affecting different countries to varying degrees and at different times, the safe money is on domestic business trips restarting ahead of international ones. Even so, the uptake and desire to travel for work among employees is likely to be limited at first, especially while mask requirements exist on public transport and it remains unclear exactly how safe traveling by bus, train or plane is. What’s more, businesses aren’t going to want to risk having a key worker put in quarantine for a week or more if they travel internationally as is the rule for much of the globe at present.
Business travel is therefore more likely to follow the trajectory of the tortoise, with a ‘slow and steady wins the race’ mentality, rather than an immediate sprint, as these issues are sorted out and nation states begin to reopen closed borders to business travelers. Even the best-case scenarios put business travel at 70% of pre-Covid-19 levels by the end of the year.
But the biggest decision on how quickly business travel picks up beyond safety concerns with employees is likely to be the economic outlook. Covid-19 has thrown the markets and government plans into chaos, and if the economy struggles to rebound from continued waves of Covid-19 striking, companies are likely to be extra careful about their cash flow and limit their discretionary spend on business travel.
A future for networking?
As a greater number of routine appointments with existing clients are likely to turn towards the digital route, and an increasing amount of work takes place remotely rather than in an office setting, in-person networking will become even more important than ever, and can be used as a way of rewarding employees too.
A huge source of new contracts, Jack and Ferdi don’t see industry conventions falling away any time soon. Arguably, in a digital world, the chance to speak to others in the industry directly will become rarer and therefore more important too.
Trust needs to be restored
Above all else, trust needs to be restored and that will take time. In the absence of a functional and available vaccine, businesses need to trust that local and national governments won’t throw areas into lockdown, while they also need to trust that other companies will keep to prior agreements whatever may happen in the next few months regarding Covid-19 and its potential aftermath.
Further, businesses need to trust that travel will be safe, which puts a huge pressure on those in the business travel sphere – from airlines to hotels – to openly demonstrate their commitment to preventing any possible transmission of Covid-19. Already major booking sites are showing the physical actions hotels are taking to prevent it, which include methods of social distancing and routine disinfection of communal areas. Both the public and corporate worlds are likely to gravitate towards companies that appear to have a handle on the issue. In this brave new world of post-Covid-19 business travel, trust will be the refrain on which loyalty hangs.
It’s clear that business travel with change as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Exactly how it changes remains to be seen, however most agree that business travel will be slow to get off the ground at first, with trust limited, steadily returning to pre-Covid-19 levels over the next few years.