The Case Against Post-Covid Business Travel. Will You Ever Fly Again The Way You Used To?

With more and more Americans testing positive for Covid-19, and with the first (Pfizer-BioNTech) vaccine already rolling out, we’re likely approaching the final stages of the pandemic. But are we all going to go right back to normal, how things were before?

I used to fly to DC once or twice a month for work, on top of numerous other business trips. Someone at American Airlines asked me last week about requalifying for Executive Platinum status in 2021. Even with reduced requirements, I don’t know if that’s in the cards. I’ve always earned elite status on domestic business trips, redeeming my miles for international premium cabin vacations.

With business travel not likely in the first half of the year, and probably not returning to the way it used to be afterward, reduced requirements probably aren’t enough for me to re-earn my status in 2021. But even after that, I wonder if my business travel will ever be the same. For all of the terrible things 2020 has wrought, I’ve appreciated being home for dinner with my daughter every night.

I’ve been on the side early saying that business travel will never fully return. The kind of trips you take will be different.

It will take time before large convention-style events come back. Those will be last to return. And you’ve not going to visit people in their offices when they’re working from home. And if they’re only returning to the office a couple of days per week, and you need to meet with more than one person, they need to be in the office the same day. That’s a coordination problem that depresses business travel. And if people aren’t working from the office, remote workers won’t travel there regularly to check in.

Now that everyone uses Zoom (and Microsoft Teams – ugh) remote work is better than it used to be. People coming into a meeting by video that’s happening in person used to be second class attendees They were an afterthought. Now meetings are optimized for remote participation. You’ll see even people working from an office doing meetings from their own offices rather than a conference room.

Mostly though for a large subset of white collar workers work from home simply works better. A correspondent at Marginal Revolution makes the case against business travel,

[T]he productivity gains for our highest value workers has been immense. The typical time-sucks and distractions of in-office work have been eliminated, as have their personal time investments like physically visiting the grocery store or running errands. Mental focus on productive efforts is near constant.

Perhaps most importantly, work *travel* is not happening. Valuable collaborations with colleagues, customers, regulators or other partner companies aren’t delayed by the vagaries of the various groups’ availability to meet in person, navigating being in different cities, flights, hotels, etc. Collaboration happens as soon as you have the idea to meet via Zoom. And a lot *more* collaboration happens as a result. It may be lower productivity collaboration than meeting in person around a whiteboard (maybe), but the sheer quantity of it means on net there’s perhaps been a boom in cross-pollination of ideas.

Not to mention all of the wasted productivity time that work travel eats up by putting high value workers in low productivity transit mode….Uber to airport, security lines, wait for flight in the terminal, maybe grab an hour of in-flight WiFi to catch up on email, land, taxi on the airstrip for 20 minutes, Uber to hotel…is completely gone from our lives.

In general, I think we drastically overrate the value of work travel.

There is value in in-person interaction but not all interaction needs to be in-person, and certainly not for everyone. This doesn’t mean all jobs can be done remotely, but the increase in remote work will be a drag on business travel and the people most likely to do business travel are the ones most likely to be able to work remotely.

Many companies need some in-person engagement to foster their culture and implicit norms. They may bring workers in from disparate places to visit their headquarters or for group events and team-building. Internal company conferences could become big, and drive some business travel, but maybe that’s once or twice a year not remote workers flying to headquarters every month.

There’s the possibility that remote workers travel more for leisure, but families will still be bounded by school schedules. Most families still send their kids to public schools, and Zoom School hasn’t worked well. Even so this is low yield leisure travel, not lucrative business travel for the airlines.

Will you go back to normal business travel once we’re through the pandemic?

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. My company was already stingy on business travel. After the pandemic, we expect to do very little business travel. And I’m the owner! 🙂

  2. “Will you go back to normal business travel once we’re through the pandemic?” – Highly unlikely. I don’t think my work travel will be the same at all. Agree with your analysis. Spot on.

  3. I think a few specific industries will be back to normal – hands on tech/engineering/repair/transportation/medicine and other fields where you have to be there.

    The rest of the business travel world will be slow to come back, and the hard-corps road warriors (sales/consultants) will not need to travel nearly as much as before.

  4. What makes you so glibly announce that we’re nearing the end of the pandemic. Public health and social protocols will be dictated by 2 key factors. Anti-vaxxers and Covid-19 new strains and mutations. Don’t be so sure we’re anywhere near, anywhere near the end of this pandemic.

  5. I don’t know about your conference prediction… I just signed up for a massive one being planned for September (conditional on it being safe/possible/legal) and demand seems at least as high as before the pandemic.

  6. Until this year, I was AA Executive Platinum, Hilton Diamond, and IHG Spire, mainly because of frequent business travel to Europe. All that travel was a grind, and I couldn’t be happier to be “grounded.” I have never been more efficient.

    Long before the pandemic, I wondered why the company was forking over at least $5k to $10k per person per business trip, with some people on my team making 10-20 such trips a year, when most of what we were discussing could have been done just as effectively in a teleconference. But the older executives stuck in their ways were committed to in-person meetings for no good reason, so we all were expected to comply. Now that it has been clearly proven all of this could have been done virtually all along, I don’t foresee business travel ever returning to the same level.

    If such business travel is suggested, I’ll counter-offer to save the company many thousands of dollars by just connecting via Skype or Teams, which has now manifestly been demonstrated to be vastly superior; I, for one, have never been so efficient. (Even if I have to wake up at 3am for a few days to accommodate the European business day, that’s still far more convenient and less time-consuming that having to travel in person.) I’m sure my team will still do a face-to-face meeting once or twice a year. I can deal with that, if done sparingly, and will just dovetail it with a vacation, but I will be the first to resist returning to the previous status quo.

  7. Humans have an incredibly short memory so anything is possible. Travel in China has mostly returned to pre-pandemic levels already.

  8. Same as you, I feel it’s been really nice being home and more present with my wife and kids. I have a new perspective after slowing things down these past months and won’t travel nearly as much as I was.

    Certain situations require in person meetings (due to different languages, etc.) and a white board, so my international travel will likely go back to historical levels. But, I had a lot of domestic travel that will mostly be replaced by Teams meetings.

    While not the key driver of my decision, American’s domestic Oasis reconfiguration also makes me want to travel less domestically as I recently experienced it and it’s brutal on the back and legs for flights over 2 hours. And that was in first, so I can only imagine how bad economy is.

  9. @Jimbo – there’s nothing yet in new strains that suggests they’ll lead to substantial re-infections or become problematic for vaccines.

    We’re pretty clearly in the back portion of this unless of course circumstances fundamentally change.

  10. Who the hell wants to sit in 10 across slimline Y seats for 8 hours or more, eating meals not worthy of a soup kitchen, being nickle and dimed for every little thing, all the while receiving reduced value in loyalty programs, if they don’t have to? Good riddance!

  11. The airlines want to get back to normal and profitability. All this BS with tests and masks will fade. Their lobbyists will make sure of that. The planes Im on with Allegiant are packed which flies in the face of NYC and they indoor and outdoor bans of dining.

  12. Companies that were never big on remote work have been forced to reconsider and most have found it isn’t as bad as they thought. Sure some jobs require in person interaction, and some product demos require an in person experience. However, much of the negative associations of online collaboration have been been debunked. As long as the technology is used effectively, there’s a lot more productivity gained. Plus, as a client, there may be little appetite in meeting someone who basically traveled and could have been exposed to COVID-19 at some point. I suspect it will also be industry and geography specific too. Not all businesses travel in every industry or place will be affected in the same way.

    So in a nutshell, yes business travel will change and whether the airline/travel industry will be able to compensate or adapt is a big question.

  13. @ Gary — That goodness for the anti-vaxxers. A cancer nurse friend in Little Rock reports that about one third of her colleagues are saying no to the vaccine. That means that those who are intelligent enough to accept the vaccine will move up in the line. Survival of the fittest… As far as conferences are concerned, I sure hope that the temporary suspension of the requirement that the majority of my annual continuing education credits be in-person is made permanent. Going to my annual conference is a huge drain on productivity, plus the remote version this year was vastly less expensive. I am guessing that big convention hotels are screwed permanently.

  14. The idea that people are as productive on Teams/Zoom is laughable. If you accept that people will work 10+ hour days forever instead of 8+, then maybe, but burnout is coming. On a long term client and even they say they can’t wait for us to come back into the office. Things that used to take an hour take two days due to the excessive “multitasking” everyone is doing on every call.

  15. Of course there will alywas be some OPM willing to please their corporate overlords by working 10-12 hour days on the road.
    The world needs those underpaid, overworked peons to fly around to sales meetings

  16. You’re making “sense” and then there’s reality. You’re company A, raised $XM and you need to show growth. Normally you need to show “activity” to justify a big sales unit and to show that you are investing in growth (to justify burning money). So the VP of sales will ask you to take X trips to show that you are meeting “potential” clients etc. I don’t see that philosophy going away until clients ask for Zoom meetings rather than in person meetings. I expect national conferences to take place in 2022. Perhaps Q4 2021 if the vaccine rollout does well. The Olympics will take place next summer!

  17. I disagree. I am probably missing something, but here are four notable reasons people travel:

    1 – conferences
    2 – sales
    3 – internal meetings
    4 – physical work

    4 is work that needs to be done in person and for which there is no IT substitute. That won’t go away.

    1 will take time to come back, but will come back in full, because ultimately conferences are an efficient way to learn or to grow relationships. And they’re often an employee perk that only goes away in a recession.

    2 is easy, in my mind. I don’t sell anything, but you’re putting yourself at a competitive disadvantage if you think you can acquire new clients as effectively from a distance when it’s not a zoomed level playing field.

    3 is less certain – yes, I do think internal travel will be down. But I am not sure how long it stays down — the dirty secret is that employees like to travel in this instragram forward world. They enjoy meeting friends and colleagues, seeing new places, etc. – it’s a perk. It will be enhanced in companies that go more remote-forward (employees who would have hardly traveled will now) and perhaps cut back in others. And the execs will continue to travel — face time is their job. I just don’t think it’s the pullback you’re imagining.

  18. Never stopped traveling for work other than 10+/- days in late March. Otherwise been in hotels and Airbnbs every day of 2020.

    Thanks to the different bonus nights, carry-overs, credit card bonus nights, etc it’s resulted in some fun numbers for the year so far.

    204 nights Hilton,. 155 nights Hyatt,. 111 nights Marriott plus 51 in Airbnbs. With more to come before the calendar flips.

    Zoom or team meetings in 2020? Zero. My work is in person or not at all. Still not sure if that’s a blessing or a curse. But it’s certainly been interesting.

    My point is that for some it never stopped. For others it may never return.

  19. @Ryan is correct. I have flown more than ever in 2020. It’s so strange that some people stopped. It’s just… so illogical.

    I own businesses on two side of the atlanic.
    Zoom and video conferencing is….awful. People distracted, half paying attention.
    Playing on their phones, typing on their laptops.

    It is the most distorted, inefficient way to communicate bad ideas.

    Is it acceptable for generic things? Sure. If you want low quality engagement and bad outcomes. Absolutely.

    People aren’t drones. They might like the change of pace now… but they will become lonely and isolated. No matter how much better it is to go to the grocery store in the middle of the work day.

    We’re looking for *more* office space, and expanding our travel for sure as soon as the hysteria has died down.

    I would do a cash bet that business travel is bigger in 5 years than it was in 2019.

  20. Already just about back to normal, visiting headquarters once a month since June. We’re ready to go back to conferences once those relaunch.

  21. It may not be until 2024. 2023 could be much better though.

    By 2022, I will be completely cattle status, no elite for anything. Airlines should start a new elite status, honorary silver. So it could be honorary silver, silver, gold, platinum, diamond. Honorary silver would be for those who had elite status 2017-2021. Benefits would be few, maybe towards the end of early boarding. AA is having group 6 be any AAdvantage member.

  22. @ Howard — Pre-pandemic, I would go the grocery store in the middle of the work day. Since March, I haven’t stepped foot in a grocery store! I can’t wait to shop for my own groceries again. I have really grown to hate the Instacart bs. I am fairly certain that a recent delivery was partially stolen by the driver, as they had added a random “Slim Jim” snack, which along with $20 of other food, was not delivered. I am overcharged almost every time nowadays, and that is on top of the high fees and sometimes absurd substitutions. I can’t be the only one who uses them despite hating them. They will be in deep trouble post-pandemic.

  23. As per usual – Gary takes a pretty narrow definition of business travel based mostly on what he does.

    Zoom/Teams/Meets might replace the one-on-one sales meeting. But they don’t replace anything that requires sustained interaction or collaboration. If participants don’t know each discussions/interactions are difficult without the not-verbal cues you in get in person meetings especially in group settings. And people’s Zoom attention span is no more than 2 hours. Then if you’re talking anything in a group and international time zone and cultural factors significantly limit the value and utility of virtual meeting. Ask some Australians or Japanese what they think of the prevalence of meetings being scheduled at the convivence of East Coast and European time alignment.

    Conferences and conventions will be back as soon as enough people are vaccinated – there’s a ton of pent of demand for conferences. And a ton of organizations that depend on their conferences for revenue…

    Technical meetings, workshops, government and multilateral organizations, etc, these will all return along with vaccinations and the opening of borders. I’ll be travelling internationally again just as soon as borders open. Probably 3rd Quarter.

  24. @Bob – my argument isn’t that all business travel goes away, just that some minority percentage goes away. So I don’t see where you’re even disagreeing with that.

  25. Anyone else here think the “video call solves everything” is a gross oversimplification? For one-on-one meetings, yes. For larger groups they are nonsense. The tiny video/audio delay makes it impossible to go 2 minutes without people interrupting each other, stopping, “no you go ahead”, “no YOU go ahead”, both people talk again…I’m going to lose my mind! As someone who is more quiet and timid, I generally take time to think about my responses. Well I also have a team member who is uncomfortable with half a second of silence, so by the time I think of what I’m going to say, they have to cut in with some stupid joke or throwaway comment, and they ruin whatever I had going. Also, trying to interject with a thought is impossible since it’s hard to pick up body language that we usually display when we’d like to present a question.

    No side conversations, no small groups discussing tangents on the side, one person talking only at a time. This is not a productive medium for brainstorming or problem solving. It is good for training (less so for Q&A though) and straight up sales presentations.

  26. Gary,

    Agree with you and anyone that says business travel will return to what it was in 2019 just isn’t being realistic. Sure there is value in meeting someone in person and for certain types of jobs travel may be the same as before. However, as someone who traveled extensively for 35 years before retiring and have worked as a corporate executive as well as a consultant, I can tell you:

    1. Businesses will be very focused on the bottom line especially since Teams, Zoom, etc have proven to be more viable alternatives and also for the reason you stated that with people more likely to work from home (even after the pandemic is over) business travel will be more targeted and restricted.
    2. Many reasons for trips in the past (like, for example, monthly status meetings with key clients or project team members) can be easily done via Zoom. Not to say the sales executive, delivery lead or partner won’t go on-site but I can see it maybe being quarterly instead of monthly and supplemented with video conferencing.
    3. As for conventions (and I go all the way back to the Comdex days) these will come back but I expect companies (both vendors and clients) to more strictly limit attendance to people that absolutely need to be there. I worked for companies that thought nothing of sending 20-30 people to a trade show when we could have likely had the same impact with half that number.

    Business travel as we knew it just isn’t coming back. Not to say the overall revenue volume of business travel won’t eventually get back to 2019 levels but that, IMHO, will be due to more companies and types of travel instead of simply going back to how things were done. Also, I wouldn’t count on that revenue base all returning until 2023 at the earliest

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