Soaring into the [Uncertain] Future

Business travel is slowly heading toward pre-pandemic levels. But for some, the cost savings in video meetings may lead to a new normal.

By Sara J. Welch

Leslie Shannon, the Silicon Valley–based head of ecosystem and trend scouting for Nokia, has visited 70 countries for business. Until the COVID-19 pandemic shut the world down, she spent upward of 13 weeks a year on the road meeting with C-suite executives of telephone companies across the globe to discuss emerging mobile technologies and what those companies would need to do to support them.

Her on-the-road practice stopped completely in March 2020, as COVID- 19 expanded its reach. Then after a few months, Shannon began doing what would have been, as she says, unthinkable before the pandemic: delivering her presentations via Zoom or Microsoft Teams. Although she’d never dreamed she could do her job without seeing clients in person, she found the online solution worked well—up to a point.

“Because I’m discussing new technologies, it takes a while for the information to sink in,” Shannon explains. “Normally, at the end of a face-to-face meeting, my customers stay in the room while I’m shutting down my laptop and packing up to go, and that gives them time to think about what they just heard and maybe ask questions. But at the end of a Zoom call, everybody just hangs up!”

As a result, Shannon’s presentations “became super one-way,” she says. “I could give them the information they needed, but I couldn’t read their reaction—facial expressions, body language— so I had no idea what they were thinking.”

If Shannon is wondering if and when her travel schedule will return to pre-
pandemic levels, it depends on which experts she asks. “We don’t see business travel returning to 2019 levels until after 2023,” says Eileen Crowley, coleader of the US travel, hospitality, and services practice at Deloitte and one of the authors of Reshaping the Landscape, an April Deloitte report on the future of business travel, which was based on an in-depth survey
of 150 corporate travel managers.

As of the first quarter of 2022, business travel had returned to only 25 percent of 2019 levels, Crowley notes. “Based on our survey results and projections outward, we expect business travel to be back 55 percent by the end of the year,” she adds.

This slow, albeit steady rate of return is largely the result of two pressures, Crowley says: cost containment and new sustainability targets. “C-level executives saw they could operate successfully without traveling, which saved a lot of money. At the same time, a number of companies”—including more than 400 that signed a pledge at the 2021 Davos World Economic Forum to decarbonize by 2050—“want to mitigate their impact on the environment.”

But if you’re an erstwhile road warrior itching to get back out there, don’t despair: Other business travel experts have a different perspective from Crowley’s. Elizabeth West, editorial director of Business Travel News, observes that the Deloitte survey was conducted in February prior to Presidents’ Day weekend, when the omicron variant was in full force. “They jumped the gun on projecting for the entire year,” she says of the Deloitte report.

Jonathan Kletzel, airline and travel agency sector leader for Pricewaterhouse-Coopers, agrees. “Domestic corporate travel is already 80 to 90 percent back [to 2019 levels],” he says. “If you look at how many planes the major airlines—American, United, Southwest, Delta—have on order from Airbus and Boeing, they’re clearly very confident about a return to air travel. They’re adding planes, pilots, and crews as quickly as they can.”

Much of the domestic rebound is the result of meetings and conferences, Kletzel notes, pointing to the return of major conventions such as Amazon Web Services’ re:Invent convention, which drew over 20,000 attendees to Las Vegas last December. And an April survey by the US Travel Association of more than 2,500 business travelers reported that 84 percent planned to attend a convention, conference, or trade show in the subsequent six months. “Popular convention destinations like Orlando and Las Vegas are becoming compressed in capacity,” West says. “There’s incredibly high demand for groups and meetings.”

Of course, how quickly business travel will return depends on a number of factors, including the industry sector, company size, type of meeting, and destination (domestic or international). West says airline and hotel executives report that small and midsized companies have returned to business travel “en masse,” while larger companies like the ones Crowley cites are keeping a close eye on costs and sustainability and have therefore been more conservative about sending employees back on the road.

International business travel, unsurprisingly, is still well below 2019 levels; Kletzel estimates that US travel to Latin America is about half what it was pre-pandemic, while travel to Europe has returned only 40 percent and travel to Asia just 20 percent. But rates are expected to rise now that the US government, as of mid-June, no longer requires proof of a negative COVID test for all travelers arriving from overseas.

Some business executives report being perfectly happy with reduced travel. “Being in the same room is always preferred over digital communications, but we’ve all learned in the past two years that it is simply not necessary,” says Sammy Shayne, owner and CEO of Couch Fame, a Las Vegas–based talent agency representing people who livestream, adding that she recently turned down several requests for in-person meetings with representatives from streaming apps. “Getting into a flying metal tube with dozens of breathing petri dishes is never a good idea,” she comments. “I’m not going to take unnecessary risks.”

But how much longer can executives like Shayne continue avoiding travel? If she wants to stay in business, not much, West and Kletzel say. “All of this realization about how you could still do business without traveling and meeting face-to-face was happening in a totally artificial environment where no one could travel,” West points out. “None of your competitors was traveling either!”

Kletzel agrees: “If you work in sales, our CEO surveys are telling us that your boss wants you back on the road meeting with clients. If you’re not meeting with them, your competitors are.”

And it’s not just salespeople who should think about getting back out there. Julie Rasmussen, the Denver-based founder and CEO of She Banks, a women’s fintech start-up, argues that team-building and brainstorming also need to take place in person.

“I manage all my teams remotely, but I bring them in once a month and we meet for a couple of hours,” she says. “People drift in and out, have side conversations, and bring up random ideas. In a meeting like that, you get invaluable moments during downtime—ideas get sparked and you get synergies from those interactions. It’s like Brownian motion when gas molecules moving randomly in a chamber collide and cause something to happen.”

As for Nokia’s Shannon, she began venturing out on the road again in May, first to Croatia then to Finland and Norway, with trips to Colombia and Argentina scheduled for August and Germany for November. And the atmosphere has definitely changed.

“Everyone is so happy to be in the same room together now,” she reports. “There’s a kind of suppressed glee—executives who used to just shake my hand before will now hug me. It’s really nice. Everyone is appreciating how good it is to be together again.” DW

After traveling to 36 countries for her job as a travel-trade reporter, Sara J. Welch retired and went into the baby-making business.

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“In a meeting [in person], you get invaluable moments during downtime—­ideas get sparked and you get synergies from those interactions.”



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