Covid-19 Will Mean A Long-Term Drag On Business Travel, Even After A Widespread Vaccine

Early in the pandemic I wrote that business travel wouldn’t recover for a long time and would never totally return to normal.

Videoconferencing has become more accepted as a technology. More people know how to do it. And peopled being ‘zoomed into a meeting’ are no longer the outsiders, only half in the meeting with people in a room.

Some business trips just aren’t necessary, doing business virtually has worked out better than many people thought and feared.

In-office visits are hard to coordinate. They can’t return until people are back in the office, but all people aren’t going back to the office all the time. If there are a quarter fewer in-office days overall, that makes coordinating business meetings harder and there will be fewer business trips.

Bill Gates thinks that “over 50% of business travel and over 30% of days in the office will go away.”

In-person business meetings won’t be the “gold standard” anymore, Gates said, predicting that most companies will have a “very high threshold” for doing those types of business trips.

It will be awhile before large conferences return, because group indoor settings are ripe for superspreading Covid-19 and widespread vaccination remains a long way off. International business travel, too, will take awhile to recover because either borders won’t open until vaccines make the virus no longer a risk (not just for the U.S. and Europe but the rest of the world) or processes for entry will be cumbersome (proof of vaccination, testing).

Still I’m not an extreme pessimist on business travel people will go back on the road for business that matters. This 30 year old United Airlines commercial shows why a ‘phone call and a fax’ doesn’t replace face-to-face business meetings.

It will be harder to coordinate in-office meetings with fewer people in office less of the time, that won’t end business travel but it will represent a long-term marginal drag.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I can’t see my industries conferences returning before Q1 2022, even if just because reserving the hotels and conference areas needs 3-6 months of planning, and no one in their right mind is going to put the money into renting an entire hotel until they are 100% sure vaccinations are going on like we are told they will, and that would put us in Dec of 21, or 2022…I do see alot of smaller scale events occuring in 2021 though, so maybe regional business travel will increase, as areas start to open up, but international business travel probably isn’t going to return soon.

  2. I’ve always thought of most business travel as a waste of a company’s money and time. I was a corporate buyer for 20 years with a 100mm product line responsibility. I always preferred to have my National accounts managers and Sales managers available by phone in their offices so they could effectively communicate within their companies that same day if required.

    A once a year physical meeting to go over future business plans and programs and to thank each other for our mutual business was sufficient. Any more than that got a Friday afternoon appointment.

    Perhaps Covid will cause industry leading companies to question travel effectiveness and cost which to your point will greatly reduce the amount of business travel in the future.

  3. I am shocked it has taken this long to catch on. We have been doing webex calls (now MS Teams) since 2014. I guess it took entire economies to experience a shut down before this became a common / acceptable practice.

  4. I agree with Gates’ assessment. The major airlines are going to face a long, slow, painful recovery.

  5. While it’s certainly cheaper to do it remotely depending on your situation it’s certainly a giant pain not to meet in person. Recent meetings have involved folks in the US, 2 time zones in Europe, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Indonesia, Australia, NZ and Fiji. There is simply no good time of day to meet as someone will be up before the crack of dawn or in the middle of the night. Plus I really wanted to go (or go back) to those places! :o)

  6. That’s ridiculous. I’m starting a nonprofit to encourage businesses and employess to shun video conferencing and encourage travel. No aspect of getting to know the world can be replicated from home. It just sounds depressing to spend the rest of your life at home, not seeing a single other human except through a computer screen. Do we want to all become socially awkward?

  7. If Gates is right, what does that 50% represent in lost revenue to the Airline? Does it also wipe out any chance of producing a profit?

  8. Agree with the previous commenter. OPM flying is generally a waste of time and money. You can present a powerpoint online

  9. Working in technology consulting, here are my two observations:
    1. Compared to 1990, technology is ready. The collaboration platforms allows a team to do screen sharing, editing across the world in real time. This is even more efficient than in person.
    2. These platforms are much easier to implement and more secure than ever before.
    3. Pandemic forced organizations to speed up the timeline.

  10. Zoom is awful. Not because of why everyone thinks:

    Becuase you spend less time with the person you meet.

    When you fly to Europe for a meeting. You spend a day or two. You have dinners. You get to know the people you meet.

    This breeds compassion, empathy. Understanding.

    No one is scheduling zoom meetings to watch each other have dinner, get drinks together.

    You also don’t see people in their offices. The staff. If the place is clean and organized. You don’t meet people around them, the junior leaders, people on the line, front line workers.

    You miss ALL of that, when you do virtual meetings.

    It’s like playing basketball when you only look at the hoop.

    You won’t win championships that way.

    Do humans just turn into robots that do 40 minute calls the rest of their lives to form shallow relationships with others?

    Yikes. But I guess everyone loves lockdown and social distancing so much these days, maybe that’s what people really want out of life now.

    Me? I’m getting on that plane like normal to build real relationships.

  11. I was road warrior before I retired. Was all the travel really necessary? Not really. And it was expensive. I don’t think business travel will ever return to its pre-covid levels.

    You can complain about the difficulty of scheduling virtual meetings across multiple time zones, but it’s a whole lot easier to stay up late or awaken early for a virtual meeting than to waste more than a day traveling across the globe.

    You can extol the virtues of seeing people’s offices, meeting the workforce, and having dinners, but the true value added by such activities is probably not that much. And what value there is can be obtained from a once a year in-person meeting with the other meetings being virtual.

  12. I think that’s what the tech companies want you to believe, but already my wife’s company is traveling some because the client are demanding it and these client are medical professionals! Yes it will take a while to come back but it will comeback, ZOOM, Skype just doesn’t do it.

  13. It’s up to individual travelers to make sure that Zoom meetings are not as successful as in-person meetings. I have been doing that all year.

  14. Pure speculation here. And Gates contradicts what MSFT has been saying. Most sales directors want boots on the ground. That’s how you create action and show that your folks are BUSY. The executive team will need to change that philosophy to reduce travel 50%.

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