Global business travel is clawing its way back to normal after being decimated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the rapid shift to videoconferencing and virtual events, according to data from the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA).
Hit hard by the pandemic, global business travel activity plummeted 53.8 per cent in 2020, generating just $661 billion in revenue — down from $1.43 trillion in 2019. That figure rose to $754 billion last year, is expected to top $1 trillion in 2022, and return to pre-pandemic levels in 2024, with revenues topping $1.48 trillion, according to the GBTA’s Business Travel Index (BTI) report released in November.
During the pandemic, companies turned to less time-consuming and more economical ways of connecting their workers through apps like Zoom and Microsoft Teams and virtual business conferences.
Now, as the Omicron variant wanes, most travel managers feel employees are willing to travel, according to the GBTA’s January poll. Two in three (64 per cent) feel their employees are “willing” or “very willing” to travel for business, and 72 per cent of GBTA members and stakeholders say they would definitely or probably travel for business.
Even as revenues rebound, however, business travel is expected to look very different in the years ahead. Organisations that have gotten used to saving money because few people were going anywhere are likely to place an emphasis on travel “sustainability" — where employees are encouraged to bundle visits to multiple clients or events into a single trip.
“There’s a real drive toward that by global corporations — so, trips may be fewer, but they may be longer,” said Suzanne Neufang, CEO of the GBTA, which claims more than 9000 members. “So, they’re able to get that quarter’s meetings with fewer trips overall.”
Another advantage to spending more time in one place: travel is less likely to be affected by frequent travel rules changes. “There’s a sense that if you’re crossing a border and you don’t know if the rules are going to change, it’s a lot easier to go there and get all your business done without having to worry about the rules changing,” Neufang said.
While some workers embrace travel, and enjoy being on the road, Neufang and industry analysts believe most will want a better work-life balance where business travel doesn’t interfere with home life. In fact, in light of the Great Resignation, many workers are likely to demand less time away from home.
“There’s a rebalancing going on in light of the Great Resignation,” Neufang said. “Certainly, an employee has a greater say on the subject of travel than before. Being on the road 20 days a month just isn’t what a lot of people want to do anymore. They’d like to be more purposeful, then spending the rest of their time being there for their family or their child’s soccer game on the weekend.”
Another emerging trend (with an unfortunate marketing name) is “bleisure” travel, where business travel is combined with leisure or tourism. The GBTA refers to it as “blended travel,” but the meaning is the same: business travelers add days onto the front-end or back-end of their business plans to relax.
In a survey conducted by the GBTA late last year, corporate travel managers were asked whether they think employees are more or less interested in extending work trips for leisure compared to before the pandemic. The survey found that 82 per cent believe their workers were equally or more interested in “blended travel” than they used to be.
"Airlines need to figure out how to fill intercontinental business class, likely with premium leisure promotions," management consulting firm McKinsey and Company said in a recent report. "For all travel companies, the boom may be higher in traveler numbers than in profits, as the most lucrative corporate business has been slow to return."
McKinsey and Company suggests corporate travelers, travel planners, intermediaries, suppliers and global-distribution-system providers prepare for a resurgence in corporate travel by developing these important skills:
- Use real-time data. Monitoring information such as local and regional vaccination rates, price fluctuations, and changing demand will help organisations make better travel decisions.
- Embed agility into planning. Creative solutions and multiple contingency plans will improve the ability of organisations to react quickly to market changes.
- Enhance travelers’ comfort and safety. It’s important for employers and suppliers to make sure individuals feel safe and secure traveling again.
- Communicate clearly. Information such as corporate travel policies, vendor preferences, and operational changes need to be conveyed clearly, often, and via multiple channels.
Teleconferencing is also expected to remain popular as a replacement for typical in-person meetings. In some cases, the metaverse (the use of augmented and virtual reality) will be made available at conference venues to enable business conference attendees to participate in speaking sessions and vendor displays remotely, according to Dorothy Creamer, an IDC research manager.
“Everyone has realised they don’t need to travel. We can still revert to hybrid meetings,” Creamer said.
Neufang also believes the global pandemic raised awareness about the value of bringing remote employees together at satellite offices and headquarters for brainstorming, general engagement, and to boost camaraderie.
“With digital nomads and remote workers leaving their commutable ranges over the last couple of years, the corporate culture still needs to be embraced — and that comes by bringing people together,” Neufang said. “This isn’t just to sit in your cube and not talk to anyone; it’s for a real purpose — the engagement, white boarding sessions and things where real, in-person collaboration is needed.
Though naysayers initially predicted internal corporate travel would go away all together, just the opposite is happening, Neufang said. “We’re seeing a pent-up demand for it,” she added.
Another way business travel is not likely to change in the coming months, and possibly years, involves vaccine or mask mandates. As coronavirus variants come and go, it’s likely restrictions will remain in place.
Once on the ground, travelers are likely to see new amenities offered in the hospitality space. For example, more conference venues and hotels are likely to offer outdoor amenities for meetings than they did in the past. And in many cases, hotels will need to find new purposes for meeting and conference spaces, which will be slower to fill, according to McKinsey and Company.
To promote business travel to their locations, hospitality managers are recognising the need to create meeting spaces that look and feel different post-pandemic, according to IDC’s Creamer.
“We’re looking at venues offering more space for the same number of people for better social distancing, as well as more capabilities to broadcast and stream keynotes and other sessions to remote attendees,” Creamer said. “You’ll see more wireless connectivity for outdoor spaces, as well.
“And, if it’s outdoors, you’ll see events held under tents, and just having that ability to spread out and use more of the property that they may not have used in the past,” she added.