Learning & Development

Will Business Travel Ever Become the Norm Again?

The business trip was once such a fundamental aspect of corporate life that it was a staple of popular culture, including launching points for storylines in the film industry. Today, of course, things are much different. Restrictions on in-person gatherings and corporate-level and individual-level fears of COVID-19 transmission and air travel mean that traveling for work is extremely difficult today and often reserved for only high-priority situations.

Companies have, by and large, been getting along just fine without the hassle and expense of corporate travel, which begs the question of whether it’s worthwhile for businesses to resume corporate travel if and when the pandemic subsides. We reached out to business leaders and industry experts to get their input on and predictions about the future of work travel in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Was It Ever Worth It?

A silver lining of foregoing any staple of corporate life is the ability to reevaluate its utility. Pre-COVID, many may have wondered whether the cost and time spent on corporate travel were worth it, but the limitations on such travel imposed by COVID have made that speculation more concrete and well informed.

While it’s likely that some work travel will always still be worthwhile, many have wondered whether it’s truly worth it to send staff across the country or around the world for meet-and-greets or elbow-rubbing. The current pandemic may prove to business leaders that a great deal of business travel is obsolete in the face of new technology.

“Less travel means more business, and yes, I have found that the positives outweigh the potential negatives of business travel,” says Nikita Chen, founder of LegitGrails. “With flights still restricted to some extent, businesses cannot board a plane for any reason, whether it’s an important meeting or sightseeing. Now everything is done virtually. This not only saves a lot of money, but also reduces the environmental footprint.”

Saving on business travel has many benefits, Chen says, “such as reducing corporate carbon footprint, a new culture of working and collaborating that challenges the need for travel, huge reserves in travel spending plans, the ability for workers to continue working when train or airline service is disrupted, and greater adaptability for representatives and a better balance between fun and serious activities.”

The widespread availability of virtual technology, Chen adds, means fewer challenges associated with limited travel, “as people now happily participate in virtual meetings for almost all business operations, including customer engagement, hiring, collaboration, sales, etc.”

The Case for Business Travel

Of course, there are plenty of business leaders who wholeheartedly espouse the benefits of corporate travel. Such travel, they would argue, allows companies to build personal connections with colleagues and customers that simply aren’t facilitated as readily through virtual communication.

“At ARC, we see business travel as an investment, not a cost,” says Steve Solomon, Vice President of Global Sales, Marketing, Operations, and Customer Experience at ARC. “We actively weigh the benefits of business travel while ensuring the health and safety of our employees and stakeholders as well as meeting our sustainability objectives.”

Solomon says that business travel helps his company “bring value to customers, build trust with partners, allows us to collaborate more effectively and enhances our company culture.” During the pandemic, he adds, employees have continued to travel to engage with customers and partners, support new hire onboarding, and ensure the company remains connected with key stakeholders.

Riding the Storm Out

Still, despite the experiences and preferences of companies like Solomon’s, overall, the sentiment among business leaders is that work travel can and should wait until the pandemic settles down.

“Until the pandemic ends, companies should still be working to minimize work travel,” says Tim White, CEO and founder of MilePro. “Despite vaccinations, boosters, and COVID treatments, variants are still occurring. There are also multiple incidents reported of individuals catching COVID more than once,” White notes. “Having continued business travel increases the chance your employees will catch COVID and have to isolate, which slows down your company’s ability to do business. Digital meetings and reduced travel are the best way forward for businesses at this juncture.”

The Role of Uncertainty

Perhaps the most salient factor among business leaders when it comes to planning work travel is the uncertainty. With new variants emerging and frequently shifting, as well as myriad local and national-level testing, quarantining, and entry requirements, it’s difficult for companies to gauge the likelihood of a planned business trip to materialize at all.

“I doubt that business travel will return to pre-pandemic levels of travel until at the very least the pandemic is truly over—if that ever happens,” says Paul Sherman, Chief Marketing Officer of Olive.

First, he points to the level of uncertainty around pandemic restrictions and regulations from country to country as a barrier. “Some require a vaccination, some require only a PCR test, some don’t require anything; it’s just too much to juggle,” he says.

Sherman references the recent ordeal experienced by Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic when he tried to enter Australia for the Australian Open tennis tournament. For businesses, he says, that’s the last thing they want employees to have to deal with.

In addition, Sherman says, there’s simply too much risk and liability involved with business travel during the pandemic. “What if your employee contracts COVID during or as a result of his travels? Unless the travel is absolutely necessary, therefore, I doubt that businesses will send their staff on work trips. It’s not worth the hassle, risk, and liability.” This doesn’t mean, though, that companies won’t have employees travel at all—it just means they will need to be judicious in deciding when travel is absolutely necessary, he adds.   

It will likely be many more months, at a minimum, before companies are able to engage in the level and intensity of business travel that were once the norm. Even when such a return is possible, it’s unclear whether it will be desirable. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, companies have had to scrap much of what was once considered business as usual, a consequence of which has been a reevaluation of those old practices. As with in-office work, corporate travel may not be as essential as once thought now that organizations have been forced to experience life without it.

Lin Grensing-Pophal is a Contributing Editor at HR Daily Advisor.