COVID-19 may have put travel on halt for quite some time, but travel is making a comeback (and it's about time!). In fact, as the vaccine rolls out to more and more Americans (and people all over the world!), countries across the globe are starting to open their borders. Likewise, cities everywhere are lifting travel bans, and people are hitting the road more often.
So what about business travel? According to an article from the New York Times, business travelers account for more than half of all major airlines' revenue and about 70% of major hotel chains revenue (think: Marriott and Hilton). Like everyone else, business travelers are itching to get back out there in the world — especially because "Zoom fatigue" is real. But, on Forbes, Kris Fitzgerald writes that business travel is dead.
"It's unclear whether business travel will make a full comeback to pre-pandemic levels, but two things have happened," she writes. "First, the past year has permanently changed the way companies think about business travel and how they'll approach it in the future. Second, technology has a huge role to play not only as a substitute for travel, but as a catalyst for regrowth in the travel industry itself."
When the pandemic hit, international travel spending fell 76% (compared to 34% for domestic travel) and business travel spending fell 70% (compared to 27% for leisure travel) — these two sub-categories of travel were hit the hardest, according to an Analysis by Tourism Economics. Plus, according to another early-pandemic December 2020 Upwork survey of over 1,000 hiring managers, "by 2025, 36.2 million Americans will be working remotely, an 87% increase from pre-pandemic levels." This means that there's less of a need for business travel.
While Fitzgerald explains that companies probably won't do away with business altogether, it is likely to look a lot different.
Here are seven ways that business travel is going to look a lot different post-pandemic.
As employers recognize that their employees can work remotely — and are performing well while doing it — they may not require their employees to come into the office as much. In the same vein, in-person meetings altogether might not be necessary, which would certainly cut down business travel.
"Employees might have gotten used to conference calls and realized that some meetings aren’t necessary in person," according to Rydoo. "Some businesses might have adapted much better than they expected and decide to keep some of the changes they’ve put in place."
Additionally, employees may start to have more of a choice as to whether or not they go on business trips — whereas many business trips used to be mandatory.
“While wellbeing will receive more attention than before, I believe the ultimate driver for the majority of companies will be revenue generation and recovering economically from the crisis," Ryan Ghee, head of strategy and development at FTE Innovation & Startup Hub, told TNMT ".That said, employees may have more choice as to whether or not they participate in an international business trip.”
Countries around the world are all opening at their own pace. Some countries, for example, are only opening to travelers who can prove that they have been vaccinated — and some are suggesting that it will be easier for people to get in if they have been vaccinated. Because employers may not be able to require that their employees get the COVID-19 vaccine, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, this can complicate business travel. Employers and employees alike may have to jump through more hoops to make business travel a possibility.
Thanks to platforms like Google Meet and Zoom, people will probably spend a lot more time talking over video calls than spending the time and money on traveling to meet each other in person. But businesses may even soon adopt more technology that makes these meetings seem even more personal.
"Virtual meetings may be getting the job done for now, but not being there in person still leaves something to be desired," Fitzgerald writes. "People are weary of their home offices and crave human interaction in three dimensions. In lieu of reverting to business travel, companies are more likely to adopt even more advanced collaboration technologies that increasingly mimic in-person meetings.
Think: augmented reality, virtual reality, and holographic technologies.
"Think of hosting your next meeting virtually at a beach resort, interacting one-to-one, feeling the sensation of a handshake through VR gloves (and both parties get fish tacos delivered to their doorstep)," she continues.
Think this sounds crazy? Many companies are already talking about the ways in which they can extend virtual possibilities.
"As COVID-19 spread globally, companies started to embrace remote work and video conferencing tools, which were traditionally a privilege more than a necessity," according to TNMT. "The world’s largest work-from-home experiment has had varying degrees of success, with 35% of companies planning to offer remote work options post-pandemic and another 35% of companies considering flexible work according to Nemertes Research."
Sure, some people will still have to travel for important meetings — but not everyone will have to go.
“While companies and employees see the limitations of current virtual events, the models and execution are getting better and open up attendance from people that wouldn’t have been able to travel (due to cost, time, etc.). Meeting in person with key partners is still important for specific use cases. As long as the right network effect can be achieved, at least key personnel will still attend those events in person.” — Torsten Kriedt, senior vice president of Solutions & Products Europe at BCD Travel, told TNMT.
As we all know all too well, the COVID-19 crisis can change at the drop of a hat. None of us expected it to go on as long as it has — nor as intensely as it has. At times, it seemed to have gotten better... only to have gotten much, much worse. So companies need to stay prepared in case they need to send repatriation flights to pick up employees stuck overseas. Whether it's because of COVID-19 or another pandemic in the future, businesses are likely going to be more proactive now that many have been through this struggle before.
"Having to repatriate an employee is something that can happen at any time, outside of the COVID-19 crisis," according to Rydoo. "Thousands of organizations supported their employees in getting back home from a business trip when countries implemented lockdown procedures. They will now be more aware of the logistics involved."
Business travel may become simplified now that travel has become more complicated.
"Contactless solutions such as airport and rental car check-ins through a kiosk had already begun, but situations like more flexible work and meeting spaces close to or in airport hubs for business travelers will likely increase," Fitzgerald explains.
In addition, companies will probably try to determine the best and easiest way to achieve the same goals — and that may mean flying out fewer people.
“Instead of flying everyone to global HQ for a special event (i.e. training), it is more likely for HQ to send some specialist to regional offices to deliver training. In other words, corporates will focus on making the least number of people travel to achieve the same objectives. That 1-2 people who end up taking the trip define a new category of travel that did not exist pre-COVID.” — Lio Chen, managing director of the Travel and Hospitality Center of Innovation at Plug & Play, told TNMT.
Undoubtedly, companies will have to take a look at their current travel insurance plans for business travelers and make sure that they cover COVID-19-related emergencies and expenses. They may also be proactive in choosing plans that cover a lot more, since we now know never to say never. Anything can happen, and companies need to have policies in place to handle both the expected and the unexpected.
Many travel insurance providers do not cover COVID-19 situations. That is why it is especially important for employers to take a deep dive into their existing plans and make sure that they are covered.
While international travel is slowly but surely opening, domestic travel is certainly going to be easier. Where possible, companies may choose to send their employees somewhere domestically rather than internationally. This cuts back on risk, costs, and more. For one, if an employee cannot get a flight home, land travel is still a possible last resort. For two, domestic travel is typically cheaper than international travel. And, on top of that, it is much easier for companies to stay on top of domestic travel bans, restrictions, and health concerns than it is for them to keep tabs on what is happening overseas.
“As long as there will be quarantines and other restrictions, this will significantly impact the 'desire' for travel," Iztok Franko, funder at DigginTravel, told TNMT. "Restrictions are by far the most 'influential' when it comes to making decisions to travel.”
Others agree, noting that international policies can change at any time.
“Travel policies will likely be linked much closer to the country’s foreign office travel advice; things can change last minute," Dr. Wouter Geerts, senior research Analyst at Skift Research, told TNMT.
“There has been very little international coordination throughout the crisis and this is likely to continue, at least in the short-term,” Ghee also told TNMT.
Others adds that fear will be a factor in limiting international travel.
“Some potential travelers will be put off because of fear, but companies will aim to instill confidence through communication and policies," Kriedt told TNMT. "Others will be very keen to travel again as they long for the experience and collaboration, provided it is proven to be as safe as going to the office.”
AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist for a gamut of both online and print publications, as well as an adventure aficionado and travel blogger at HerReport.org. She covers all things women's empowerment — from navigating the workplace to navigating the world. She writes about everything from gender issues in the workforce to gender issues all across the globe.
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