When Will Business Travel Resume?

by Robert McGarvey

The Global Business Travel Association had to know so it popped the question we have all been pondering: when will we be back in full business travel mode?

The organization conducted a poll and it found – no surprise – that coronavirus had wiped out lots of business travel. One metric makes the impact clear: asked what percentage of trips that had been slated for March were cancelled, the answer was 89%.

41% said all business trips had been canceled. 53% said “essential” travel was still allowed.

Exactly 0 percent said their organization had not canceled or suspended business trips.

We are in a no travel mode and the question becomes, when will something approaching ordinary business travel levels resume?

GBTA asked exactly that question: “When do you expect your business travelers to resume regular travel to the countries or regions that have been canceled or suspended due to the Coronavirus? Do you expect travel to resume within the next. . . “

Understand, 40% said they were unsure.

0% said more than 12 monhs.

1% said 12 months.

The eye popper of a number is that 40% said within three months.

17% said within six months.

That makes 57%, a solid majority, who believe something approaching normalcy in business travel will resume by September.

What do you think?

Color me skeptical.

Here’s a metric on the impact of 9-11: “In August 2001, the month just prior to the attacks, U.S. airlines boarded 56.3 million passengers for domestic service, a number that plummeted to just 30 million in September. And for two anxious days after the attacks, the passenger count was zero. It would take three years for carriers to once again reach the 56 million mark.”

Many factors came into play in the aftermath of 9-11: real fear of flying coupled with an economic downturn but, in many respects, we have the same issues at work now. Some people are afraid to fly because of fear of catching coronavirus and then there is the near economic malaise that the nation is slumping into.

Airlines again are taking it on the chin in the coronavirus age. Best guesses are that they have years of pain in front of them.

Then there is the hotel question. How many will be closed? How many will be enlisted into service as homeless shelters? Perhaps as makeshift hospitals?

Some guesses are that half of all hotels in the US will close for some period due to coronavirus.

It will take some time to re-open as a hotel. Staff needs to be recruited. Trained. The big brands probably will navigate these issues with some skill. Many independents won’t. Many independents – which comprise 40% of the US hotel stock – probably will not reopen soon.

Meantime, other, transformational changes that are reshaping business travel are afoot. For instance: many of us – perforce – are discovering the ease and effectiveness of meetings via Zoom and similar tools.

Do a few Zoom meetings and you may not see the need for oldfashioned face to face. Will Zoom replace the traditional face to face sales call? Probably not. But similar tools will eliminate the need for many face to face meetings.

And the hustle and bustle of traditional events seems ever more dated to me. I do not expect a quick rebound in events business, mainly because so much of how we come together just is oldfashioned and no longer appropriate.

One GBTA question hints at the possibility of broad impacts: Do you think the coronavirus will change the way your company conducts business
once there is no more threat from the disease?

54% said yes. That’s the number to watch. There are many reasons for business travel to undergo a transformation and one factor is the generational shift of the travel burden from Baby Boomers to Millennials and it just is not clear that Millennials want to travel the way Boomers have.

Add it up and I am profoundly skeptical that business travel will rebound in three months. My guess is that we will see an uptick in the fall and probably spring 2021 is when we can begin to think something akin to “normalcy” has returned. That’s about a year from now.

And as for event design, watch for huge changes. It’s overdue. And now it will flourish. Be very skeptical about signing up for distant events – many just won’t be happening.

The era of business travel change is upon us. And that’s a good thing imo.

What do you think?

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