Will More Videoconferencing Mean More Travel?

One of the trends that’s really accelerated during the current crisis is the use of online videoconferencing – whether Zoom, Webex, Google, Skype or any number of other solutions.

A lot of meetings used to take place in-person, which is high cost, everyone had to coordinate being in the same place.

One of the reasons for that, certainly, is that in-person communication is more focal. People pay greater attention, instead of tuning out during a multi-person meeting and checking their email or refreshing updates to find out when the new Microsoft Flight Simulator will be coming out.

Another reason in-person meetings have greater value is they’re better for building social bonds, in part because we can read non-verbal cues. Seeing someone physically close to you, seeing more than their face, being ‘present’ and in 3D is more ‘real’ and more emotional rather than merely transactional.

Nonetheless not every meeting that was held in person needs to be. We were anchored to it because of switching costs. Everyone has to adopt new technology to meet virtually. That was happening slowly, but the current crisis accelerated it. Since there’s no in-person option now, even the holdouts had to become willing to use Zoom.

And that’s one reason why people may be expected to have fewer in-person meetings going forward – the technology has been adopted. That cost has already been paid. We’ve overcome resistance. It’ll be easier to do virtual meetings in the future.

But could the ability to do meetings virtually mean more travel, rather than less travel?

Some trips don’t happen because of important meetings in the office. You don’t go on the road because you need to be on site. And you don’t take personal trips because you need to be present at work, too. But if we’re now more accepting of virtual meetings, you do not need to be home, or in the office, to attend meetings.

You can take a trip abroad and still connect in to the meetings, freeing us from being anchored locally.

It’s unclear of course which of these effects will be greater, so whether travel overall will grow or contract as a result of changes in technological adoption. My guess is:

  • Adoption of conferencing technology means more location independence
  • That means more travel
  • However there’s less travel that will be truly mission-critical
  • So fewer high fare business tickets, where a business will pay whatever the airline asks

In other words we’ll see more travel, but it will be cheaper travel. And in the longer run the coming (return) of supersonic will mean lower costs in terms of time to get somewhere and that will serve travel well in the long run.

Most discussions about lower airfare prices center around supply issues – airlines trying to fill empty seats. I’m positive that lower airfares may also result from changes in price elasticity of demand, something that Scott Kirby didn’t used to think existed.

How do you expect greater adoption of videoconferencing will affect your travel in the future?

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. A case could also be made that “fewer high fare business tickets, where a business will pay whatever the airline asks” may result in higher prices overall eventually for leisure travelers since airlines may eventually need to increase prices and/or reduce capacity in order to maintain yield levels similar to today. Probably less of an issue for say JetBlue flights from NY to FL, but more of an issue for NY to SFO by way of example. That probably wouldn’t happen for the foreseeable future given the demand side, but longer-term, the airlines that cater to business travelers may seek to amortize the cost of a flight based on fewer high-priced seats being sold.

  2. I have always enjoyed your concise, well researched and inciteful observations and this column is no different!
    I would, however, add to comments into the mix when analyzing any post pandemic scheme;
    1) companies may want/need to slash expenses, and those associated with travel ( transportation, lodging, meals etc.) are significant and easier to implement in our new Zoomworld; and
    2) Both companies and employees may become significantly more risk averse regarding infection transmission ( coronavirus or simply and perhaps justifiably viraphobia) and may show a reluctance to travel when videoconferencing has become ubiquitous. Such a short term phenomena may, become the new norm.

  3. I know within my company as well as talking with other CEO’s around the country this very issue is being widely discussed. The way many companies “go to market” will change how much is a wait and see., but I do know that the days of jumping on a plane to go see a customer or site will be tempered and video conferencing will continue to develop.

    For many how will the airlines get us back in the air? What are they going to do to assure the vernal public that their air handling units on the planes are properly exchanging air, spacing what about those packed main cabins of Parker ? It appears that the ME3 are moving away from the 380’s faster than anticipated or planned.

  4. Great article Gary! I think more videoconferencing will mean more leisure travel. A combination of Zoom, T-Mobile’s free international roaming and in-flight wifi have helped me work remotely (even internationally) for years. My job leading a company requires me to be responsive to customers, vendors, employees and partners 24×7. I have to keep an eye on the pulse of the company. That means I can never log off completely regardless of weekends and vacation. Instead of being upset about that, I turned it into lemonade years ago. I will typically put in a half day’s work while on vacation and a full-day’s work while visiting family. This has allowed me to spend way more time with my parents than I otherwise could. E.g. I spent half of the first 2.5 months this year flying 65,000 miles visiting friends and loved ones all over the world before COVID-19 grounded us all (also included a few visits to other offices).

  5. @ Gary — Hard to call this one, too. I will guess less travel overall, business and leisure. An effect you do not explicitly mention is the budget savings (business and personal) that people are currently experiencing from just staying home. I am loving the savings and being home again. We will absolutely spend less on travel PERMANENTLY. We will only spend cash to maintain status in one airline and one hotel company going forward.

  6. I’d think that be bigger impact, the one that could truly change the distribution of capital in our society, would be on real estate and urban economies. If telework sticks and people can be truly un-anchored to localities where the “good jobs are”, then who will continue to pay $2k/month and up for a small apartment in SF / NY / DC when they can have a cabin in the mountains or a big house with a yard in a nice mid-size city? There’s so much money tied up in real estate because of the captive market, and if that unlocks it would be real interesting to see where the money and the people flow to.

  7. I absolutely agree with the comments about saving on travel spend, but I’m talking more about long run trends than those driven by recession in the near- to medium-term which is why my focus wasn’t on these issues.

  8. Maybe so, but selling may still have to be done in person. It’s the psychology of the selling process. My father was a traveling salesman, and spent about 1/3 of his work time on the road. As he said to me, I need to be on the road, because it’s much harder for my customers to say “No.” to my face than it is to say “No.” over the phone.

  9. It’s an interesting thought but here is why I disagree, with my response mainly on this point: “ Adoption of conferencing technology means more location independence”.

    I agree it means more location independence but companies still need to have location restrictions of where people are working, even if work can be done remotely, because it creates either state nexus issues (if you work at a small company and only do business in a few states, the company has to now track and file tax returns and other compliance matters in states where employees are working remotely from which are obviously additional expenses) or even for a bigger multinational company/firm with offices in every state in the US and operations internationally, there are local country exposures (permanent establishment rules) to people working internationally for a US based company. Many companies will still need to maintain policies on where employees can work from, even if meetings can be done virtually.

    I bring this up because I was traveling overseas for leisure right before the outbreak, then things exploded and I was potentially facing and readying to shelter in place in a foreign country for an extended period of time thinking it’s not an issue from a work perspective when most of my work can be done remotely and I had great connectivity, work laptop, etc. with me. My well known large service firm shut that option down instantly pointing to the above reasons and that if I can’t get back to the US, I can’t turn on my work laptop. Large companies will well established policies that have been vetted by legal, HR, and CPAs will still limit your ability to work as remotely as you want even if you could just hop on a video conference after a morning a safari drive in South Africa and take care of things in a lodge.

  10. I have noticed that the quality of our customer meetings has improved as everyone is wfh and their are no distractions of the normal office setting. But I don’t think that this will carry over when people get back in their offices. Plus working the auto industry there are many times we need to hold, touch and feel the objects under discussion. There will be an impact in travel in some industries, but for some of us we are just counting down the days until we can Board a flight and get out to be with the customers.

    There are also follow on issues for hotels and restaurants, they will see even higher loss of business with the reduction of business account travelers.

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