Will Business Travel Ever Return to Normal?

One of the most remarkable indicators of the pandemic’s impact on business came last spring when the Global Business Travel Association reported a nearly 90 percent drop in business travel. By comparison, the attacks of 9/11 resulted in only an 11 percent decline in business travel one month later. Airline travel has certainly rebounded this year, with data from the Transportation Security Administration showing about twice as many passengers traveling this year compared to the same time period last year. 

Yet many businesses remain reluctant to send their people packing as the Delta variant rages among the unvaccinated. Indeed, the TSA’s data shows that travel is far from rebounding to pre-pandemic levels. The GBTA’s most recent report attributes flat business travel to Delta concerns (the variant, not the airline) and the adoption of alternatives to travel. When, and most importantly how, should businesses return to travel? Here are my top takeaways for post-pandemic business travel.

It’s okay to second-guess your trip

Yes, the cliché for so much of how we make decisions now rings true for business travel as well: Things might never be the same. At the height of the pandemic, many analysts predicted the end of business travel as we know it. Their prognoses might have been a bit hysterical — explainable given the circumstances. After all, Covid-19 turned Wall Street into a ghost town. One can forgive the NYC-based business media for predicting the “end of business travel as we know it,” to borrow another tired cliché.

But they might have been onto something — just not for the reasons they thought. The end of business travel as we know it might have more to do with the innovations developed to replace it rather than any longstanding fears of contagion (the current Delta variant notwithstanding). Yes, we are talking about Zoom, but also the many other videoconferencing tools that business travelers have adopted in the past 18 months to replicate the interpersonal dynamic as much as possible.

Of course, there is no substitute for meeting people in person. Not only is a handshake better than a nod and a smile through the Internet ether, but the business trip also includes so many other tangibles that are simply irreplaceable — drinks and meals after the meeting, observing workplace dynamics, the list goes on. But in some cases, the techno-alternatives might be nearly as good as the real thing.

Indeed, this is what the travel industry fears the most. Just like we continue to discount the value of the office as remote work has proven immensely successful, we might continue to question whether we need to return to business travel — at least to the same degree as we did before. It’s okay to second-guess your business trip, particularly if there is any concern about your people’s wellbeing.

Once it’s safe, use your leverage

Once you decide business travel is the best option for you, don’t hesitate to take advantage of the deals many airlines and hotels are offering to lure business travelers back to the fold. In response to the sluggish recovery from business travelers, many airlines this summer began sweetening the deal. In June, American Airlines slashed rates for one of its most prized, and costly, business-class seats (the lie-flat seats, and they are sweet indeed) by 70 percent. Hotels and convention centers are also offering deals now that they realize that business travelers are failing to return in droves as predicted.

Nobody knows what the future holds for business travel, even if it is safe to say that new technologies, and our proficiency with them, discounts any return to normal. Bloomberg’s most recent estimation, based on a survey of major multinationals, is that business travel is almost certainly not going to reach pre-pandemic levels. Meanwhile, the business travel industry this week essentially begged a Congressional committee for another big handout in the proposed Travel and Tourism Act. This could be good news for the price-conscious. A new normal of flattened demand might lead to continued bargains even after the current variant wanes.

Business travel might be the last thing on your mind as you try to recoup your pandemic losses, but you might miss out on some travel savings if you continue to rely exclusively on Zoom or your other preferred tools. There is a reason why long-term relationships in romance are so often doomed to fail. They just cannot replicate the intimacy provided face-to-face. The key for bargain-hunting business travelers will be to find that sweet spot when it’s safe to travel but demand still lags. In fact, the evidence suggests that we might be around that point on the demand curve. For the vaccinated and healthy traveling outside the Delta hotspots, this might be an ideal time to get back on the road again.

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