Fueled by vaccinations and a population looking to break away from government-imposed restrictions, corporate travel is on the upswing. Thanks to what American Express Global Business Travel EVP David Reimer termed the “omicron hangover,” travel demand revved up again around President’s Day weekend in February. According to Business Travel News; “As the omicron variant wanes in North America, companies get back to their offices and mask mandates and other restrictions are lifted—Hawaii was the final state in the U.S. to lift its indoor mask mandate, which expired on March 25—business travel is poised for a comeback.” And according to Reuters, business travel spending is expected to rise to $842 billion.
But anyone who thinks corporate travel will mimic what we saw pre-pandemic is sadly mistaken. Even so, quite a bit will still look familiar. Here’s what I see going forward.
1. A return to face-to-face meetings. After two years of Zoom calls with 25, 50, 100 faces on a screen that looks like “Where’s Waldo?” companies have realized the need to do business in person. A strong handshake, body language and an after-hours drink will once again be the mainstay in doing business. “Business travel is about relationships; and you can’t build relationships through video-conferencing applications,” said Unites Airlines’ CEO Scott Kirby. And although it’s obvious that UA has a serious dog in the business travel fight, there’s a lot of truth in those words.
2. A meeting and a massage. The need to combine a business trip with some type of leisure activity (known as bleisure) will increase. As the workforce becomes younger and vaccinated, a recent survey by National Geographic indicated that 90% of millennial travelers “just wanna have fun.”
3. Lodging alternatives. The hotel, once a mainstay of corporate travel, is now sharing the attention of travelers who are opting for Airbnb’s and apartments as an alternative in order to create a mote “at-home” feeling, especially where many hotels are opting out of daily housekeeping. A recent survey by American Express indicated that over 70% of millennial corporate travelers stayed in a vacation rental during business trips.
4. Self-booking. Speaking of millennial travelers; with their Smartphone as a fifth limb, these travelers are more inclined to self-book with the many online tools a fingertip away. However, as problems arise, and they will, companies will continue to rely on corporate travel management companies to provide you with access to their online booking tools, with the comfort of your travel policy and controls built in, in order to prevent problems as emergencies arise (i.e. cancelled flights, etc.).
5. Speaking of technology. Mobile technology accounts for 39% of hotel bookings and 22% of airfare bookings, and as phone technology refines, those numbers will likely rise. What international travelers will see going forward is less time in airport lines thanks to facial recognition technology, as well as fingerprint and retinal scanning. When it comes to the inevitable travel delays, the ability to keep travelers updated in real time via their phone is a godsend. And we haven’t touched upon business travelers enjoying online check-ins and the ability to access their hotel room via their phone.
6. Business Travel as a perk. Bottom line; most people love to travel. And if the ability exists to combine the enrichment that comes with travel with the professional advancement that comes with business travel, then you have the best of all worlds. According to the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA), employees who travel often feel more empowered and engaged. Travel can help improve confidence and interpersonal relationship skills.
Many uncertainties still loom for the travel industry, from the war in Ukraine to the emergence of more COVID-19 variants du jour; all of which could impede corporate travel’s full return to pre-pandemic heights. Still lurking in the background is the reluctance of many Americans to travel abroad due to the risk of being stranded overseas as the United States still requires testing upon reentry via air.
For over a year the world has been grounded. But the world is an ever-changing place, and businesses need to be able to jump back on as the business-travel carousel starts to rev up. Be smart and use the time to think about your travel policy, habits, and what has been annoying you, now that you have time to change. Nobody knows what the future will bring, but one constant is that corporate travel, that bedrock of deal-making, still has its place when it comes to resuscitating many businesses as we start to emerge from this COVID malaise.