Business travel is slowly but surely resuming — but, like many aspects of professional life post-pandemic, it might not look exactly the way it did back in 2019. For America’s road warriors, every newly scheduled sales call or convention registration holds out the promise of a reversion to familiarity after a chaotic year.
“For road warriors, if you traveled a lot in 2018 and 2019 — if that was your job — there’s a high likelihood that you were missing it,” said Jan Freitag, national director of hospitality with commercial real estate analytics firm CoStar Group. “I think there’s the sense that Zoom and all these applications worked, but there’s just a lot of personal interaction that’s missing in those virtual meetings,” he said.
“I went from flying probably 175 to 200 flights in a normal year to two flights last year after the pandemic hit,” said Stewart Mann, CEO of Wild Rooster Events, a corporate event and team building company. “I’m a people person and I was depressed.”
After a brutal year eking out a fraction of his usual business holding virtual events and team building sessions, Mann said he was relieved that demand was picking back up along with his travel schedule, but he acknowledged that the mental shift wasn’t seamless.
“The events that I ran in person over the past year, I was definitely not myself,” Mann said. “I wasn’t firing on all cylinders. I was worried. I carried around hand sanitizer and I had multiple masks and washed my hands all the time.”
After getting vaccinated, Mann said much of that worry had lifted, but he acknowledged that fear-driven habits can be tough to shake. “We spent the better part of a year being told to basically be afraid of people, stay away from people — I’m learning to acknowledge and embrace the awkwardness that’s there,” he said. “The first couple of flights, it was awkward, but fast-forward to now — I feel like I’m starting to get into that groove again.”
Hotels, along with venues like restaurants that are go-to business lunch spots and convention centers, have been bending over backwards to try and reassure patrons that they can stay safe and healthy while on the road, emphasizing enhanced cleaning protocols and new sanitization standards in promotional materials and marketing campaigns.
Hotels are still are struggling with anemic business demand, even as leisure bookings pick up. Freitag said, though, there are indications that the tide is beginning to turn.
“A resurgence for the U.S. hotel sector, which we’d already seen on the leisure side in weekend occupancies, is slowly coming into focus on weekdays, which are normally business travel-heavy days,” he said. “Our understanding is this is just a trickle, and it may actually slow a little bit in the summer, but then it’s going to pick up really in earnest after Labor Day.”
Suzanne Neufang, CEO of the Global Business Travel Association, said the summer vacations that are being booked and trips being taken now are opening the door for the resumption of business trips. “Leisure travel is impacting the comfort level of business travelers. Many are starting to open up now,” she said.
“Leisure travel is impacting the comfort level of business travelers, with many starting to open up now.”
According to a May poll conducted by the association, 92 percent of companies have paused most or all of their international business travel, and 66 percent have stopped domestic business travel. “I think there was some anticipation back in March and April that borders would open more quickly,” Neufang said, adding that domestic business travel is gaining momentum. In February, only 26 percent of respondents said they planned to resume domestic business travel within three months. In May, 42 percent of respondents said the same.
“It’s coming out of its coma,” Neufang said. She added that revised mask guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also helps. “That will have a profound effect on business travelers feeling comfortable to meet indoors,” she said.
When her members were polled about their employees’ willingness to travel, the percentage who said workers were “not willing at all” has bounced between 2 and 5 percent over the past six months. The percentage who travel managers estimate would be “somewhat willing” has jumped from 41 percent to 58 percent since November, and the number who are “very willing” to resume travel has risen from 9 percent to 17 percent.
Employers are still treading lightly around the willingness of workers to hit the road, according to data from job site ZipRecruiter: In 2019, the number of job ads stipulating “travel required” hovered between 53 and 57 per 10,000 — in 2020, that plunged to 28. This year, it fell further, all the way down to 20.
Freitag said much of the resumption of business travel depends on the broader trend of employees coming back to work. “I would say, if you have more people in the office, you also have more ability to have somebody come to the office, and also if you have more people in the office, there’s a chance that your CEO and CFO are comfortable with you being on the road,” he said.
“Even if offices have opened to their own employees, they’re not allowing outside employees to come in,” said Andrew Challenger, vice president at executive outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “I think once there are locations to travel to, it’ll start to pick up. I think there’s pent-up demand for it from employers and among some employees,” he said.
Challenger said Covid-19 also spawned what he predicts will be an entirely new category of business travel, as companies recall remote workers and demand face time from some of the “digital nomads” who may have temporarily — or permanently — changed locations during the pandemic lockdowns. “That’s something we’re going to see a lot more of, and we’re starting to hear that from companies,” he said.
“I’m hearing some smaller ‘return to base’ meetings are happening with these digital nomads — that’s a new kind of travel in business,” Neufang said.
Still, some in the travel industry remain skeptical that the rebound is truly coming. Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky is one of the naysayers, telling CNN that in spite of the summer return of leisure travel, he doesn’t anticipate corporate travel to follow suit. “Business travel as we knew it isn’t coming back the way it was,” he said. “The bar is higher to get on a plane to do a meeting.”
For many, though, digital workarounds just aren’t the same as being there. Fred Grubbe, president of the National Precast Concrete Association, said his members greatly prefer being able to see the industrial mixers, construction cranes and other heavy equipment they need to buy in person.
The number of job ads stipulating “travel required” was around 57 per 10,000 in 2019. This year, it is just 20.
Grubbe said the resumption of in-person sales activity on which his industry relies was a crucial marker of post-pandemic progress. “With the restrictions of Zoom, you can’t see, touch or test the merchandise. This was huge,” he said. “It’s very important because a lot of these relationships are personal. These are vendors our members have been working with for years,” he said.
Grubbe said his organization’s annual trade show — held earlier this month in New Orleans — drew about two-thirds of its typical pre-pandemic attendance of 4,500 people.
The association had to make some significant logistical concessions to the virus: Sanitizing stations, temperature checks and other mitigation features were implemented. Taking place shortly after the CDC’s revised guidance on indoor masking, attendees had the option of wearing a mask or not if they were vaccinated, and a color-coded wristband system gave them an easy way to display their preferences for how closely they wanted to physically interact with others.
The show’s typical 200,000-square-foot layout was more than doubled, to 450,000 square feet, to accommodate social distancing provisions and strict capacity limits on rooms, corridors and even the number of people allowed to sit at the same table.
“It was a bigger footprint than what we’re used to, but you still had the energy and the buzz and the excitement of actual face-to-face interaction. We were [champing] at the bit to have that human contact,” Grubbe said. “We all just wanted to get back to some semblance of normalcy.”