Business Travel After Covid-19
The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent worldwide lockdowns brought countless industries to a halt — including, of course, the travel industry. Practically overnight, millions of people found themselves grounded with their bookings cancelled and little idea of when their trips, whether for business or pleasure, could be rescheduled.
Although the worldwide campaign against Covid-19 is still underway, the United States has thankfully entered its recovery mode. The results can be seen simply walking outdoors, where cities that were once virtual ghost towns are now filling up again with residents and tourists eager to revel in the summer weather.
But what about business travelers? Are they hitting the road or taking to the skies any time soon?
Business travel during the pandemic
For most of us, our entire approach to work shifted dramatically last spring. In a report released in December 2020, the Pew Research Center looked at American workers who said their job responsibilities could be done from home and found that only 1 in 5 had routinely worked from home prior to Covid-19. That number skyrocketed to 71% during the pandemic, with more than half of respondents reporting that they’d prefer to continue working remotely even after the coronavirus outbreak ends.
Furthermore, Pew reports that about three-quarters of respondents noted the transition to remote work was fairly seamless thanks to the technology that made telework possible. Indeed, whatever our teleconference platform of choice, we now live in a society where “to Zoom” has become a common verb.
Many workplaces have adapted so well to virtual and remote work environments that employees have found their daily schedules even more packed with meetings than before. Video conferencing has eliminated the need to travel across town, much less across the country, to meet with colleagues, clients, and customers. What was once commute-and-travel time is now time that’s available for online collaboration.
But is that the whole truth?
Not quite. One recent survey found that nearly 3 out of 4 business travelers report feeling less effective in their jobs due to the lack of travel opportunities that lessened in-person interactions during the pandemic. 80% of respondents said they felt they were missing out on things like body language and physical cues that they couldn’t get through video calls.
Anecdotally, we frequently hear these sentiments echoed among our own network of business travelers. And, so, it seems that while the remote-work revolution of the past 16 months has undoubtedly changed the business landscape moving forward, that doesn’t mean business travel is over.
Far more likely is that we’re entering a hybrid era that makes use of the convenient telework technology we’ve become accustomed to and also embraces a return to travel and in-person meetings now that we deeply understand just how precious those in-person interactions are.
Travel is rebounding rapidly
Last month, we released some key findings from Deem’s own data that showed some promising trends in business travel. Across our own platforms, we could clearly see that metrics such as advance bookings, trip duration, and ticket prices were all trending upward and headed back towards historic averages. A bright picture has begun to emerge of renewed traveler confidence.
As more data continues to be released from other sources, we can now see that our insights are indeed in line with what is happening around the United States.
According to the Washington Post, more than 2 million people passed through security checkpoints at U.S. airports on Friday, June 11, marking a significant milestone; it was the first time that number had been reached since prior to the widespread pandemic lockdowns in March 2020. That’s some 1.5 million more people compared to the same day last year, according to the TSA, which also makes note of several other days since June 11 that have surpassed 2 million travelers.
To be sure, that number doesn’t indicate a complete bounce back. Two million people on June 11 is only 74% of the volume compared to the same day in 2019. But consider this: There were days in 2020 when fewer than 100,000 people boarded planes across the entirety of the United States. (The low came on April 13, 2020, when only 87,534 people were screened at TSA checkpoints across the country.)
Even though travel volume hasn’t returned all the way to pre-pandemic levels, the rate of recovery is nonetheless exciting and the sharp upward trend undeniable.
And it’s not just flights. Hilton reported that its hotels were 93% full over Memorial Day weekend this year, with Hilton Senior Vice President Mike Gathright telling the Washington Post, “The vaccine distribution, the relaxed travel restrictions, consumer confidence — all of that is driving occupancy and improvement in our business.”
Indeed, travel is rebounding so quickly that The New York Times recently reported that “summer getaways are testing the limits of the country’s air travel system” as airlines and airports work quickly to restore their capacity to pre-pandemic levels and meet demand.
Restarting business travel programs
Much of the data previously mentioned is skewed towards leisure travelers, or at least doesn't specifically segment out trends in business travel. Thankfully, the Global Business Travel Association has been carefully monitoring the industry’s attitudes and behaviors toward business travel.
The GBTA has a wealth of data spanning back to last year, including a set of 20 surveys they’ve administered to their worldwide membership, specifically intended to track trends during the COVID-19 pandemic. The most recent of these, which was both administered and published in June, shows a growing confidence within the business community and a corresponding reemergence of travel.
Business travelers are already hitting the road
Worldwide, 40% of business travelers say their company has already resumed non-essential, domestic travel (i.e., within the country in which the company is based.) This is up from 34% in May. An additional 33% of respondents say their company is actively working on finalizing a date or has already finalized a date to resume. In contrast, less than a quarter of companies (24%) say they are still unsure of the future or are taking a wait-and-see approach towards returning to business travel.
Although there is a clear confidence in domestic business travel, companies are less sure about international trips. The numbers drop considerably, with only 12% of companies reporting that they’ve resumed their international business travel, and a majority — 62% — saying they are either unsure or waiting to make a decision.
Whether or not companies are comfortable resuming travel just yet, the appetite to do so is clearly present. A whopping 77% of GBTA members report that their employees are very willing or somewhat willing to return to travel in the current environment. Even more promising is that this number is 12% higher than in GBTA’s prior data set, compiled one month earlier in May.
It seems a safe bet, then, that businesses won’t turn en masse to Zoom or Google Meet for all its future, post-pandemic needs, as some may fear. Rather, companies appear to be taking a “when” not “if” approach to returning to the skies and are ramping up as quickly as they feel it’s appropriate to do so. This is particularly true in the United States, where 68% of GBTA members report that their company has increased its travel spend over the past month.
Travel will happen, but trip types may change
One important caveat to this data is that the type of trips leading the recovery of business travel may change. This change could portend some permanent shifts as companies adopt hybrid work models that make greater use of teleconference options for specific situations. GBTA’s data show that businesses largely believe their sales or account management trips, as well as blue-collar service trips, will rebound most quickly and return to pre-pandemic levels within a year.
However, they’re less confident about the fate of trips intended for education or personal development, or for internal collaboration. Nearly 1 in 5 (19%) of GBTA’s respondents believe the volume of these types of trips may permanently settle at lower levels than pre-pandemic, though it’s worth underscoring that it is a relatively small group of people who feel this way and so much remains to be seen.
Remote workers still expect business travel
Earlier, we mentioned the Pew Research Center’s data regarding the heightened employee appetite for flexible work policies that allow for remote and at-home work, beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. The GBTA data indicate that leadership teams are listening: 79% of members report that they expect their company will be more flexible in allowing employees to work from home as compared to pre-pandemic attitudes and policies.
Even so, the hypothesis that a hybrid remote/in-person model will emerge gets another boost from this metric: Of those who say their companies will be more flexible with remote work, 65% say they don’t expect that will affect business travel, specifically. It seems many people agree that some work just can’t be done justice exclusively on screens.
The upward trend for business travel may take some time to fully meet its pre-pandemic levels. The U.S. Travel Association, for instance, believes it could take three more years for business travel to fully bounce back, according to a recently published report.
However long it takes to rebound, it is clear the rebound is currently in process. The main factor that affects how long that takes, though, might just be a question of confidence.
The future of business travel
Everything we’ve outlined above makes a strong case for a post-pandemic world where business travel is thriving. So what will be different in our industry as compared to the days before March 2020?
Essentially, this: Travelers and their employers will need more service, support, and assurance than ever before.
International insurance provider Chubb, in a study it commissioned, found that 81% of business travelers will now be paying more attention to their travel insurance policies and what is or isn’t covered than they had prior to COVID-19. This is somewhat due to their pragmatism: 80% of business travelers also believe they’re likely to witness another pandemic at some point in the future and they want to be prepared if they do.
To be sure, we’ve all learned so much over the past 16 months and have some hard-earned lessons to take forward with us. Ultimately, what business travelers need is peace of mind and for as many of their anxieties as possible to be eased as they resume their trips.
One silver lining of this moment, when travel is on the upswing but not yet at full force, is the rare opportunity to rethink the way forward for business travel programs and the tools they rely upon.
Yes, travel will rebound — of that we can be fairly certain. But what can we do to ensure that travelers feel safe and taken care of as they embark on their next trip? This is an ideal time to examine travel technology and other strategies that can be implemented to streamline the traveler experience and make employees feel comfortable in an ever-changing world.
Find out about our award-winning Travel SafetyCheck solution that offers health and safety information in the booking flow of our corporate travel technology platform, Etta.