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In the thick of the pandemic, it seemed hard to imagine that we would ever travel for business again. Health and hygiene concerns coupled with global lockdowns, conspired to take all our meetings online. However, now the future is looking brighter, will businesses stay loyal to Zoom, or will we return to the old ways of travel and doing business face-to-face?
Business travel pre-pandemic
Pre-COVID-19, business travel was booming. Between 2018 and 2019, US travellers alone took 462 million domestic business trips, with predictions putting this figure at nearly 500 million by 2022. In Europe, business travel accounted for 22.2% of travel and tourism’s GDP contribution.
And business travel was increasing disproportionately. When surveyed in 2018, 77% of travel managers in India expected their company to spend more on business travel in 2019, while in Spain, 25% of travel managers shared the same view. At a global level, business travel was expected to grow to $1.6 trillion in annual spend by 2020.
Now boarding: COVID-19
This all stopped abruptly when the pandemic started. By April 2020, 99% of business trips by European companies had been cancelled or suspended, according to the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA), and it wasn’t much different across the world. In Europe, the global business travel sector is expected to take a £655bn revenue hit by the end of 2020.
And it wasn’t just international business travel. Travel at a national level, between cities – especially for consultants and agencies who would usually travel to see their clients – all stopped, too. The majority of organisations implemented work-from-home policies, and nearly half restricted office access completely.
Suddenly it was the age of the Zoom call and virtual meetings. Videoconferencing, messaging, collaboration tools and document sharing all became common for facilitating remote working. At the end of March 2020, Slack had added 9,000 new customers in Q1 – up from about 5,000 in each of the previous quarters. Zoom saw its shares go up 112% on the year. Meanwhile, in China, there was a surge in demand for video-conferencing apps such as Tencent’s WeChat Work and Alibaba-owned DingTalk, reported the BBC.
Technology enabled people to stay connected, keep working, and ensure business continuity. In China, an IDC survey of CXOs in March found the top three positive impacts of the pandemic were ‘improved corporate ability of long-distance collaborative work’, ‘gaining ability of online marketing and business development’, and ‘wide recognition of the value of digital transformation and information technology among all employees’.
Now, with the world beginning to reopen, things are starting to look more positive for business travel – though experts are keen to state that won’t look quite the same as before. “[In terms of carbon emissions from aviation] people were already thinking about traveling smarter,” says Suzanne Sangiovese, commercial and communications director, Riskline. “[Post-pandemic] not only will employers be looking for a way to limit their carbon footprint, but they will now also be operating on slimmer budgets and with a more comprehensive mindset regarding the effectiveness of virtual interaction.”
Yet, while Sangiovese suggests that business travel will shrink, not everyone agrees. “People have ‘had it up to here with Zooming,’” says Scott Solombrino, executive director and COO of the GBTA, speaking to Wired in May 2020. “It’s going to have to end sooner or later. I’ve seen this picture in the financial crisis, I saw the same picture after 9/11, and in 1987 when the stock market crashed.”
In fact, a recent survey by consulting firm Oliver Wyman found that around three-quarters of business travellers expect to travel the same amount or even more after the pandemic. Mark Manduca, aviation analyst at CITI suggests that business trips will still happen – they’ll just be less frequent and structured differently. “Eight individual trips to New York, for example, could be swapped for one three-month-long, meetings-filled stint,” he says.
One thing that business trips still have in their favour is the human connection, which is good not just for employees’ mental health, but also for business profits, too. According to Harvard Business Review, a face-to-face request is 34 times more successful than an email. A video call comes closer, but it’s still not as effective. “The travel people will win in the end because people still want human interaction, it’s a business style that’s not just going to change,” explains Solombrino. “You might not shake hands, but you’re still going to do the meeting.”
Conde Nast Traveller recently reported on several frequent corporate travellers from various industries including retail, finance, and entertainment who say virtual options such as Zoom and teleconferencing won’t meet their needs in the long term. They point to the million-dollar deals that require in-person conversations, to the logistics of coordinating a global conference and accommodating many different time zones.
We’ll meet again
If business travel looks like it could be revived, and people are still keen to meet – at least sometimes – what does this mean for the future of meetings and where they take place?
Some experts are proposing the concept of ‘meetings on a mission’ – focusing on streamlining the meetings process to get the most value from a shortened timeframe. Invitation lists are also likely to become shorter, with only the necessary people at future meetings to help minimise costs and allow people to stay closer to home whenever possible.
Knowing how to hold an effective meeting will be a valuable skill – being able to manage the many variables and provide advice on the best locations and partners. CEOs may want to consider appointing a ‘meeting tsar’ from within the business to advise on best practice as the landscape continues to shift. Some companies will rely on full-service meeting companies for ongoing professional assistance.
Overall, it’s likely the definition of ‘basic requirements’ for meetings will evolve. These requirements will include not only access to technology, such as video conferencing, but also keeping attendees safe, improving communication and retention of information, minimising costs and managing potential health risks.
Regus has established a meeting room safety protocol to ensure you can continue to use our meeting rooms in accordance with health and safety guidelines. This includes spaced seating arrangements to allow for physical distancing, moving around clockwise, and maintaining a safe distance for catering – all indicated with signage. Find out more and book your next meeting.