“Everything’s Changed Forever” How Business Travel Adapted To A New World After Covid

Four years ago, early in the pandemic, I wrote that business travel would never return to the way that it was in the Before Times. There would still be business trips, but the managed travel consultant class wouldn’t travel like they used to.

Some people thought this was true because of some sort of persistent concern about health. That was the Bill Gates take. But as I wrote across a series of posts, it seemed to me that something fundamental was going on that would last past lockdowns.

  • We had the technology to work remotely, but we weren’t doing it. Something like 3% of people spent part of their week working from home.

  • Covid lockdowns forced us to quickly adapt, and get up to speed. There was a learning curve associated with using the technology and coordinating with each other. Many companies thought it would be horrible, and while it may not be as good as in-person it mostly works.

  • Having incurred the one-time transition costs that people and companies were avoiding, some form of hybrid work became normal. Now, around a quarter of workers spend part of their week working from home. That’s persistent.

There’s been a move back to office but it’s a move to hybrid work.

Just 6 out of 158 U.S. CEOs said they’ll prioritize bringing workers back to the office full-time in 2024, according to a new survey released by the Conference Board. “Maintain hybrid work,” was cited as a priority by 27% of the U.S. CEOs who responded to the survey, conducted in October and November.

A separate survey of chief financial officers by Deloitte, conducted in November, found that 65% of CFOs expect their company to offer a hybrid arrangement this year. “Remote work appears likely to be the most persistent economic legacy of the pandemic,” write Goldman Sachs economists in a recent note.

There are still business trips! And that’s why traditional managed travel has come back to 70% – 75% of pre-pandemic levels (but not to 75% of where it was on a trajectory to be in 2024). It’s stagnated.

There are simply trips that do not make sense anymore.

  • Consultants used to fly out Monday and fly back Thursday, working at client sites for much of the week. There’s no reason to do that when the client doesn’t have their full team in office all of that time.

  • It’s harder to coordinate customer visits when the customer doesn’t have everyone in the office all of the time.

  • With everyone more comfortable on Zoom, it’s easier to do some of those meetings virtually that used to happen in person. And there’s been a culture shift around showing up in person, where the third, fourth or fifth member of the team no longer seems necessary to bring.

Delta CEO Ed Bastian has been a champion of business travel’s return, but even he acknowledges that it’s a bit more than 20% below 2019 and that “people aren’t traveling for managed business.”

Much of his positivity stems from different travel that work from home enables.

  • Bleisure is the worst term ever, that people tried to make happen for years. But it describes doing business and leisure at the same time, right? And if you’re working from home you can take more vacations, and go with your whole family rather than just traveling yourself. That’s more tickets sold! You check into the resort, and you spend part of the business day working during the week.

  • That’s also good for airlines because it de-peaks their trips. They’re no longer just full on Thursday afternoon, Friday, Sunday and Monday morning. Spreading out when people travel, taking longer trips, means filling planes across more days and times.

  • Plus people need to travel to the office to get together with co-workers, maybe quarterly, twice a year or just annually. These team and culture-building sessions include bringing people in who did not even used to travel before. It’s everyone traveling a few times for work replacing a few people traveling all the time for work.

Small businesses are grinding as ever before. People in sales pound the pavement though they also pound the screen. There’s still business travel going on, but how business travel has changed is perhaps the most enduring change coming out of the pandemic (a lot of people thought it would be masks, or the end of the hand shake).

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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 agree, while writing this my wife is doing a Zoom call going over the billing books for an attorney while working with his accountant. That person is in Minnesota, we are in the Dominican Republic. The data is emailed back and forth and there is no need to meet. Our son is managing a team of business communications sales and support people across the U.S. while working from his home. Meanwhile our excellent laundry in Minnesota had to close because the demand for dry cleaning business suits vanished. Small examples but you can magnify them by a million times.

  2. Excellent, last thing we need is more OPM flyers on planes and at the airports.
    You know those sad looking middle aged men who call themselves “road warriors” to glorify their miserable lifestyle of working for the man on call at any time of the day and week, who think the the “spend” for their airline status is actually theirs….

  3. Great points and anecdotes. Even working in healthcare when remote wasn’t an option during the pandemic, we’ve since found a lot of ways to manage and stagger schedules so that admin stuff and paperwork etc can be on completed on a hybrid schedule.

    One of my best friends used to do the M-R consulting gig and I was so envious because I love traveling (and racking up points on someone else’s tab) I did think about it for a long time just to try it out for a bit but looks like that ship has sailed for good.

    Also agreed on the word “bleisure”. Just no…

  4. I work for a top 15 CPG company. My travel in the last full year before the pandemic (2019) was (16) trips of various lengths. My travel in 2023? (4) trips. Four.

  5. A lot of business travel trips were just boondoggles. Sure there is some necessary trips but many are people travel to places to have a good time and trying to justify it by saying they are making connections or promoting stuff. That is mostly false.

    Similar to how many meetings companies have that are totally unnecessary and involve a ton of wasted time having people getting to the meeting office, chatting about non-work stuff, etc. Often meetings are held simply because some manager wants to feel important or needed.

    Just my experience in over 30 years of working at a variety of contracting, government and other technical companies.

  6. I’m a retired Texas state employee. During my 30 years of service, I learned how many state senior employees, would waste tax dollars for “official”, but totally unnecessary, trips just for a state-paid mini vacation. It’s gotten far worse under greg abbott.

  7. The difference may also be how Millennials and Gen Z view the workplace vs how Baby Boomers and Gen X do. The idea of working remotely was tested on a large scale. Older workers were let go or forced to retire and they were the ones most invested in the old style of doing business.

  8. Well if Bill Gates said it, it must be true . . . just look how accurately he predicted Covid plandemic.

  9. I’m honestly surprised this trend didn’t happen before COVID. We’ve had the technology for awhile now to do more and more remote. There are several functions at my job that could have been done remotely for years but weren’t allowed to…just cuz. Now that’s all changed with COVID used as a the reason. A silver lining at least.

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