The coronavirus crisis will have long-lasting effects on travel. I don’t think travel companies have internalized this reality yet, with many still projecting a bounce back in the summer and fall and a return to 2019 levels of travel next year or at least by the year after. That’s unlikely.
We can expect fewer ‘must do’ business trips in the future, since videoconferencing is becoming more of an accepted alternative to many meetings that would have been done in person. While the normalization of videoconferencing makes us more location-independent, it also means fewer ‘pay any price’ last minute trips. And don’t expect international travel to open back up to previous levels any time soon.
Bill Gates, who has spent as much time and money studying and preparing for pandemics as anyone, says that business travel will never be the same. Social distancing is going to persist, and that means fewer big conferences and trade shows. It means fewer big restaurant events. It means fewer open bar receptions.
“There are a few things, like business trips, that I doubt will ever go back,” he said. It’s simply a measure of necessity and risk, Gates said.
“In the case of high school, I think the social activity — you know, making friends, hanging out — that you get by being there physically, that’s totally irreplaceable,” he said.
But business trips? Not so much. “There will still be business trips,” he said, “but, you know, less.”
Without a vaccine we’ll travel again, but big group events are going to continue to suffer. And talk of a vaccine in 12-18 months, even though Gates himself is spending billions to help expedite production, is likely fanciful. Even if we settle on a vaccine or two, the process to certify safety and efficacy will take that long at least. And then there’s manufacture and distribution. Initially a vaccine will probably only be available to health care workers (and politicians, who are more important than we are).
I do think that Gates is right though that we’ll see a new equilibrium where business trips – even one on one – won’t be as necessary. There will still be trips, but not all the trips we used to make will be considered necessary in the future.
Coronavirus will mean lasting changes in our lives and our politics. I favor more immigration, but for the same reasons that international travel will face barriers we’ll get less immigration ‘for safety and screening’. We’ll accept greater state surveillance, for tracing infections – tracking movements and whom is meeting with whom, to know who might have been exposed to a disease. Arguments over ‘medicare for all’ as a solution to unnecessary high costs for too many doctors and a wasteful oversupply of ICU beds won’t resonate for some time. Breaking up big tech companies providing us online staples, and pharmaceutical companies working on vaccines, will seem anachronistic. (Democrats are lucky then that neither Bernie Sanders nor Elizabeth Warren became their candidate.)
The idea that we’re just going to go back to the way things were seems unlikely at best. Even as people go back to work they won’t do so in close proximity, and that means lasting limitations on entire industries – not just sporting events but also travel. How does continued densification of aircraft, squeezing more passengers in closer together, look in the current environment? And with a return to normal unlikely any time soon, and facing 20% unemployment in the short term, how are financial markets off ‘only’ 17% at present?