That concern is partly why companies such as Zillow, Twitter, and Square extended their remote work policies indefinitely. In fact, Mastercard chose not to implement a formal return-to-work policy, instead allowing employees to return whenever they feel safe. Even industry giants such as Google, Ford, and Target moved their anticipated in-person return dates for corporate employees to July 2021 at the earliest. With nearly 42% of the US workforce operating remotely, the modern workplace has been remarkably redefined.
Nowhere is this shift more evident than in the rapid decline and slow recovery of business travel.
The US Travel Association found that from March through the end of 2020, travel spending declined by $492 billion over the previous year—shedding approximately $1.6 billion per day. Business leaders don’t see that reversing anytime soon. A CNBC survey found that about 49% of executives across industries believe it will take two to three years for their company’s travel spending to return to pre-pandemic levels. Twenty percent of respondents say it never will. Among them is Bill Gates, who believes half of all business travel is permanently gone. The Wall Street Journal estimates that number to be between 19% and 36%.
“Most companies will be extremely wary of opening the floodgates on business travel,” says Charuta Fadnis, Senior Vice President, Research and Product Strategy, of Phocuswright, a travel industry research company. She thinks business travel will return more slowly than leisure travel. “In the near term, there will be more emphasis on managing risk and ensuring traveler safety.”
For those reworking their company’s plans, that risk might be too great to resume travel anytime soon. But that may not be a bad thing.
Why Companies Are Saying No to COVID-19 Business Travel
Airlines scheduled almost half as many domestic flights in November 2020 compared to November 2019—a clear signal that American attitudes toward pandemic travel remain tepid. This is despite a Harvard School of Public Health report showing that the odds of contracting the virus on an airplane are “below that of other routine activities during the pandemic, such as grocery shopping or eating out.”
Planes aren’t the only touch point during travel, though. Fadnis says that’s why business travel in particular is perceived as less safe—there are too many places to go and people to meet, which increases exposure.
As a result, any business travel will require employees to opt in for the foreseeable future, says Cara Cartee, Owner of CMC Events and Travel, a luxury and corporate planning company. “If somebody feels unsafe, companies shouldn’t put them in a position that requires a business trip.”
On the flip side, Cartee says that while companies care about employees’ safety, they are most concerned with avoiding liability.
“Nobody wants to host a large gathering when it’s potentially unsafe.” Not only could a COVID-19 outbreak tied to a company event or trip create a public relations nightmare, but it could also lead to illness or death—or litigation. There have been more than 1,900 coronavirus-related lawsuits filed against employers since March 12, 2020.
Compounding the issue, COVID-19 regulations vary from state to state and country to country. Cartee says navigating those regulations is simply too challenging for most companies.
“Putting together an in-person event, logistically, becomes much harder and riskier,” she says. This extends to all-hands meetings and off-site planning sessions, as well as larger productions, such as trade shows and conventions.
Fadnis believes the lack of standardized documentation and certification of COVID-19 test results and vaccination records, which could allow for more carefree travel and a potentially less-risky in-person event, will also continue to limit gatherings. She says the travel managers her company has surveyed believe the key to travel resumption is vaccines being widely accessible. The CDC’s updated guidelines allow fully vaccinated people, about 10% of the total US population as of March, to gather in small groups indoors without masks, but they continue to recommend avoiding travel.
Money is another major factor. Cartee says many companies’ reduced travel has significantly lowered costs—with no measurable ill effects on the bottom line. That further decreases the urgency to reintroduce business trips.
Arran Stewart, Chief Visionary Officer of Job.com, believes those savings will diminish business travel’s existence in the future of work.
“Why would I need to fly somewhere for a meeting that will only be an hour long when I could easily conduct it virtually like we’re doing now?” he asks. “When you add up hotels, flights, and food costs versus something a person could comfortably do on a Zoom meeting, why would you go to that expense?”
For Stewart, the existential cost to our environment is also at play.
“We are carbon conscious here,” he says. “Why create that carbon footprint for something that can easily be done on a video call?”
How Companies Are Redefining Essential Travel
The sustained and often increased productivity during the pandemic has shined a light on decentralized workplaces’ efficacy. Businesses have learned they can maintain operations without a workforce that congregates in one space. Add in the aforementioned savings, says Cartee, and many of those companies are now reevaluating what travel is actually essential.
“All major change requires some catalyst, and COVID-19 was the sink or swim moment for pretty much every business in 2020,” says Mike Swigunski, bestselling author of Global Career: How to Work Anywhere and Travel Forever. “There will be some companies that attempt to revert back to old ways, but the ones that adapt will maintain longevity and success in the new remote way of working.”
So, which old ways might return? Fadnis believes that trips will be deemed necessary based on the same driver of most business decisions—return on investment.
“Travel that is more likely to generate some return has a higher likelihood of coming back sooner,” she says. What makes travel a valuable investment, however, will vary from company to company. “Some companies might be fine with sales meetings but not conferences. Others might go to a conference and meet with multiple partners and prospects, which may be more efficient than going on multiple separate trips.”
Cartee says the erosion of effective networking, the hallmark of conferences, has dire implications for many sales-based companies. “I work with several businesses where the face-to-face meetings that we’re planning make up 80% to 90% of their income for the year,” Cartee says. “For them, those meetings are the definition of essential.”
But effective networking can happen at virtual conferences—when the hosts have innovated their way out of Zoom’s limitations. For instance, PROMAX, a global entertainment marketing association, revamped their annual conference to include:
- Master classes with celebrities and high-profile CEOs
- Private networking events moderated by notable business leaders, which allowed small, targeted groups to connect
- Virtual versions of their keynote and state-of-the-industry addresses, available live or on-demand
IBM, too, rethought its Think 2020 event—and more than tripled their turnout. Their virtual conference swapped streaming speakers for digital chat sessions and moderated, expert-led Reddit Ask Me Anythings and discussions.
Technology tools, themselves, can replicate the most critical business components of the in-person experience. Remo, which has hosted events for Zapier, GitLab, and HubSpot, allows users to “sit” at digital tables for small-group networking interactions. Gatherly, which has hosted virtual events for GE, the Metropolitan Opera, and Yale University, similarly solves for remote conferences’ lack of networking by offering users a “minimap” of a virtual conference floor; attendees can mingle and have one-on-one and small-group conversations.
The Future of Business Travel
Cartee believes that company trips and events are forever changed. Hybrid and virtual workplaces are here to stay, and as a result, in-person events’ formats must change too.
“Companies won’t just be reinventing the type of meeting, but also the setup and how many people are traveling. They’ll have to ask themselves, ‘Do we need 1,000 people at the event?’ Probably not. Key players will attend in person and all others will attend virtually.”
Both Cartee and Fadnis agree that virtual events will dominate over the next several years, and even if regulations ease, in-person events will continue to require masks and social distancing. Companies will need to secure meeting spaces that accommodate two to three times the number of people in attendance to allow for distancing, which drives up the price of both hosting and attending events. For many companies, this increased cost will be difficult to justify.
In the meantime, new types of travel will be prioritized, says Fadnis, as more companies lean into a dispersed workforce.
“If the pandemic has given rise to a remote working policy and employees have relocated, then there may be in-person team meetings requiring travel that didn’t exist before,” she says.
Stewart believes all business travel is going to be much slower to return to the levels it was before. He agrees with Fadnis, however, that bringing people together in some form will be a priority for most companies.
“I think the human beings that power every business need to be together at some point,” Stewart says. “I do believe that will happen.”
Swigunski feels the same.
“Remote working can replicate almost every scenario, but even the earliest adopters of remote work hold monthly, quarterly, or yearly in-person events or retreats”—when it’s safe.
No matter the future of business travel, Cartee says we all need to extend each other grace to navigate these unparalleled times in our own way, face-to-face or virtually.
“The decision is really personal,” she says. “If you’re following the protocols, and you’re feeling that whatever situation you’re putting yourself in is safe, then that’s OK. Similarly, if you’re not ready to travel, by all means, please be safe and stay home, and just know that the world will reopen, eventually.”
Until then, businesses and employees will continue to rewrite the rules together.