Is this the End of Business Travel?

 

by Robert McGarvey

 

The question gets louder in my head: Are we finally at the end of the era of mass business travel?

Of course you are skeptical.  Who isn’t? We have heard that business travel was nearing its demise for years, certainly since September 11, 2001 and, really, it started earlier, probably around the birth of the commercialized web in 1996.

It did not happen. Not in 1996. Not in 2001.  Not in the Great Recession of 2008.

And, yes, I know industry execs are forecasting a 2017 uptick in business travel.  What else did you expect?

What I see however is that, little by little, business travel has lost favor – with corporate budget mavens, with business travelers themselves, with their families.

This is a multi-pronged attack.  That’s why I am beginning to think that in fact we may be in the last years of business travel as something we all do often because that’s the way of the work world.

Certainly that’s what I believed when I was sent off on my first business trips decades ago.  I did not question that it had to be done.  I did not know anyone who did.

We packed our bags – for some years I kept a permanent packed and ready to go carryon – and when the boss or a client yelled, off we went.

That obedience is weakening.

Partly it’s because, technologies have emerged that have made some kinds of business travel pointless. If you are of a certain age you probably recall spending two or three days in a meeting room where you – along with maybe 50 or 100 others – learned how to use Microsoft Excel, or maybe Word.  Possibly if you are even older it was WordPerfect or Lotus 123.

Two problems with those classes: they were fantastically expensive in terms of travel costs (hotel, air, meals) and just about everybody who ever took one wondered why he/she could not have done this at home, with video via the Web or maybe even a videotape.  Even in 1990 you had to think that.

Scratch that kind of travel entirely in 2017.

But watch as more kinds of travel also vanish.  That’s the thing: whole classes of travel are getting crossed off the to-do lists.

For instance: staff meetings nowadays too are usually done via videoconference with perhaps a once yearly in-person get together.

Expect still others to vanish.

John Custer, a vice president at ComplianceBridge.com, sighed: “I don’t think we have hit the end of business travel yet but new technologies coupled with tech-savvy younger buyers (consumers) are driving a lot of travel out of the equation.”

Custer’s right about technology. Technologies that connect us – often via smartphones – have multiplied. From Skype to Facetime to Whatsapp, there has been an avalanche of tools that let people connect, in real time and, if they wish, with audio and video.

Are they the same as being there? Obviously not.  But they just may be good enough.

Time for a loud, protesting interruption. Sales reps will insist there’s no closing new business without a face to face.

Do you believe that? In 2017?

Let me ask you this: would you believe an Internet company in Seattle would trample over countless retailers, established department store titans included, and would even triumph in the holiday gifting season?

Many used to say Amazon could sell books, music, but clothing, forget about it. Never shoes.  Not gifts, either.

And now Macy’s is closing more and more stores, as Amazon devours ever more retail categories.

The point: we are in an age where massive, wrenching paradigm changes are altering the realities we have known.  From broadcast networks to wireline phone companies, established ways of  doing things are turning to dust.

Is business travel on the endangered list?

Many experts will say that maybe domestic business travel will vanish – but trips overseas will still be needed to conclude deals in Munich or Beijing or Mumbai or Santiago.

But for how much longer?

Right now concluding a significant deal with an Indian company probably does require a trip to the subcontinent.  Will it in 2027?

I just don’t think so and, again, it will be time and money both that lead to a sharp reduction in business travel.

But the elephant in this room is the travel generational shift. More than technology, more than money, it is what I think is now rewriting the old rules about business travel and its necessity.  

The travel burden is moving from Boomers primarily to Millennials and everything I am hearing is that the Millennial generation is exceptionally unenthusiastic about business travel.  Many say it has a negative impact on their family life. Add in the reality that they grew up with technology – and deeply understand how it allows connections — and you have to begin to wonder how long the world of business travel will remain unchallenged.

My prediction is that everytime a Boomer retires (10,000 turn 65 daily) and a Millennial is given the job, there will be less business travel.

Nope, it won’t go away.  But Millennials – unlike Boomers – are and will challenge the belief that business without travel can’t happen.

Because they are right.  It can. It will.

And we have nothing to lose but our carryon bags!

 

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