Is the future of international business travel in the balance?

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There are mixed views about the future of business travel in the aftermath of the coronavirus crisis. Adam McCulloch gauges opinion and explains why it should matter to HR.

With the nation at a standstill many HR managers are looking at what changes they can expect when things return to “normal”. But then what will normal mean? Will business practices return to where they were before Covid-19?

There’s no doubt in my mind that Covid-19 will have a long-term effect on attitudes towards business travel” – Tom Wilkinson, AXA Global Healthcare

One aspect of business that HR often finds itself involved in, if not always managing directly, is long-haul international travel. And it may be on the cusp of significant change.

Already under pressure over environmental concerns, the additional costs likely to be imposed by airlines once the immediate threat from coronavirus dissipates, may mean that jetting to Los Angeles to check on a client, or to recruit a sales manager, is somewhat more difficult to justify.

Airlines will be looking to recoup the millions of pounds lost and will also be practising social distancing on board aircraft; easyJet, for example, is looking at keeping centre seats empty.

Not only will cost be an obstacle but attitudes towards air travel and hygiene. As travel industry analyst Jay Sorensen, president of IdeaWorks, told Forbes recently “Ask any frequent flyer if they believe aircraft interior cleanliness is subject to the same oversight as aircraft engines and you will hear a resounding, ‘No’”.

Sorenson predicts some business travel that was taking place before Covid-19 simply will never happen again because the companies paying for that travel will disappear. And for those companies still in business, some portion of business travel will never come back.

Although some experts, including Professor John Oxford at a conference on coronavirus in early March, point out that aircraft air filtering is highly effective at taking out viruses, the fact that Covid-19 took such advantage of air travel to become a pandemic is likely to have an impact.

However, international sales consultant Michael Jones, who until recently plied his trade between the UK, China, Germany and the US, tells Personnel Today that whatever the mood music in the months to come, the need to cross continents will be unavoidable for some: “From a sales perspective you need to demonstrate products and meet people. There’s no substitute. Zoom etc is only the equivalent of a phone call. Yes, if air travel becomes much more expensive it will have a huge impact, but there is nothing as effective as a face-to-face meeting.”

However, he concedes, “There has been a trend for less international travel anyway and advances in communications technology will reduce some need.” Whether the lessons from Covid-19 are heeded into the future is a moot point, Jones says: “We have short memories. We’re in the here and now. As soon as we get out of this crisis we’ll forget about it.”

International business specialist Richard Kerr feels that the crisis will have more lasting effects than either Sorenson or Jones.

He writes on his Points Guy website: “With nearly zero travel expenses over the course of these months, the savings will likely not go unnoticed. In a time when many businesses will be looking for cost savings, they may consider the work that was accomplished remotely during quarantine and decide to cut back on travel expenses permanently. He adds: “Meetings that previously ‘required’ an in-person presence will continue to be remote.

Aircraft parked at Hong Kong airport during the coronavirus crisis. 

“There will be a stigma around large gatherings like conferences and all-employee meetings for an indeterminate amount of time.”

Kerr warns that some airlines, United for example, are already planning for a permanent fall in demand and looking at how they can downsize in the post-pandemic era. News that Virgin Australia has entered administration and huge financial problems threatening to end Virgin Atlantic’s joint venture with Delta, adds to the idea that airlines won’t be able to do “normal” again for some time.

Tom Wilkinson, CEO, AXA Global Healthcare, is also in the long-term impact camp. He tells Personnel Today: “There’s no doubt in my mind that Covid-19 will have a long-term effect on attitudes towards business travel. In addition to government restrictions that may remain in some territories for some time to come, I think there will also be a certain amount of hesitation to visit other countries, until people are confident they are able to freely travel without feeling vulnerable to this disease.

We have short memories. We’re in the here and now. As soon as we get out of this crisis we’ll forget about it” – international sales consultant Mike Jones

“Fortunately, the current pandemic has brought about huge advancements in the ‘virtual’ ways we work. The adoption of communication technologies, and willingness to adapt, has accelerated in a very short space of time – and so far, it’s proving to be a very good alternative to face-to-face meetings in many roles and will perhaps lead to fewer trips for business travel – which would also have a continued positive impact on the environment.”

Wilkinson’s comments have added resonance when placed in the context of senior business people becoming ever more concerned about the effects of international travel on air quality.

Will Richardson, founder of green business auditor Green Element, tells Personnel Today how one advertising boss asked for some very specific advice on travel: “He told me, ‘My company has made a lot of acquisitions globally and I get asked to go to short meetings all around the world – but I don’t want to go from an environmental point of view. I know their employees want to meet me but how do I make them understand that I don’t want to travel to meet them?’,” he asked Richardson.

Trade fairs have become a crucially important part of the sales effort for many companies, and will only continue if physical presence is maintained. Michael Skapinker, journalist and executive editor of the FT-IE Corporate Learning Alliance, writes that their role in the international business calendar will be a force mitigating any decline in business travel.

He writes in the Financial Times about how we’ve seen similar conversations about travel’s decline after both Gulf Wars and after 9/11. Echoing sales consultant Jones he says: “Every economic slowdown produces the same statements. They have partly proved true. While worldwide airline passenger numbers levelled out during these crises before taking off again, figures from the UK Office for National Statistics and Airlines of America show that business travel has been in decline for decades.”

My company has made a lot of acquisitions globally and I get asked to go to short meetings all around the world – but I don’t want to go from an environmental point of view” – unnamed advertising company owner

He tells the FT that unless you are physically in a room with someone “You can’t sense the change in breathing and eye contact when people are more or less interested. You aren’t sure where the laughs come from, or why. Second, while companies grumble about the expense of stands at trade shows, they are an effective way of meeting crowds of potential customers. For smaller companies especially, trade shows save having to make dozens of separate trips.”

HR’s involvement in business travel stems partly from the employer’s duty of care towards staff. Business travel can be psychologically and physically stressful, however many great movies you might watch on a transatlantic flight. The frequency and duration of travel and the way it encroaches on leisure time and time at home, each adds to stress. So HR needs to design travel policies that are about more than price.

On the other hand, business travel has kudos attached to it. Many office-based employees will have heard the refrain “it keeps me out of the office” and felt a judder of jealousy when hearing of a colleague’s glamorous-sounding trip to Hong Kong, Sydney or Seattle. But this outlet from the office or work-at-home routine seems set to be grounded for months to come.

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