Will business travel return to what it once was?

The future is impossible to predict.

And never was this more evident than when the coronavirus pandemic took a grip of the world in the early months of 2020. 

The business world has ridden out major events before. 

For example, according to the Global Business Travel Association, the Great Recession of 2008 saw a decline in business travel of roughly 8%. The months that followed the tragic events of 9/11 saw businesses become more hesitant to send their employees on the road, which led to a slightly higher decrease of around 11%. 

The COVID-19 outbreak caused global business travel to drop by nearly 90%. 

Yet as the world opens back up, we can see business travel slowly start to show the green shoots of recovery and growth. 

But in the age of digital meetings and remote working, will these numbers approach pre-pandemic levels anytime soon – if at all?  

In this article, we’ll take a look at whether business travel will return to pre-pandemic levels, or if we are starting to see a shift in how organizations conduct their business.


Is this the beginning of the end?

Before the pandemic, the business travel industry was booming, with global spending sitting at around US$1.4 trillion in 2019

But in 2020, COVID-19 brought about a 53.8% drop to US$661 billion. 

In a time of uncertainty, there is one thing that is clear: Business travel will face a slower return to any level of normality when compared to leisure travel. 

With a successful vaccine rollout, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) decided that travel was safe for people who had received their vaccinations. But while the general public went back to sunning themselves abroad, businesses have been more hesitant. 

So why aren’t we seeing business travel numbers rise?

Trade shows and conferences account for a significant portion of business trips, yet these are now mostly done virtually. Most offices are still closed, with people either working remotely or from home. Many countries still have strict conditions on who can enter.

This has led to companies struggling to justify asking their employees to take a work trip. Especially as many of their clients and partners haven’t even opened their doors to their own employees – much less to any visitors. 

In fact, a Bloomberg survey of 45 large businesses across the world, including Pfizer Inc., HSBC Holdings Plc, and Deutsche Bank AG, has shown that 84% of them don’t plan on going back to the old way of doing things. 

But they want to make business travel purposeful and in-line with their corporate growth strategy.


Is it all doom and gloom?

On the face of things, this all seems quite terminal for business travel. Especially with the media throwing around the tired cliché of predicting “the end of business travel as we know it”. 

Yet while we may not return to the way things were done before the pandemic, we may end up with – to borrow another cliche – a “new normal” when it comes to business travel.

The pandemic has pushed businesses to think differently. 

We are seeing companies positioning work trips as perks and not obligations – with the introduction of “bleisure travel”.

Businesses are being encouraged to be more green, with many companies increasingly trying to find ways to cut their carbon footprint by making sure business trips are fully justified. 

And while virtual meetings have been effective in mitigating the impact of the pandemic, there is simply no substitute for meeting people in person. 

Business trips offer a number of tangible benefits that simply cannot be replaced. A virtual nod from opposite sides of the world pales in comparison to a firm handshake, or dinner and drinks with clients.

Put simply, business leaders still realize the value and importance of face-to-face interactions. 

It’s also important to note that airlines are confident that numbers will continue to rise. 

As mentioned in the same Bloomberg survey, Delta CEO Ed Bastian has said that a substantial proportion of the company’s large corporate clients have indicated that as much as 90% of their pre-pandemic business travel will eventually return.


What does the future hold for business travel?

It can be easy to see the pandemic as an extinction event for the business travel industry. It’s also not impossible for things to slowly slip back to the way they were – with businesses consistently sending their workers across the globe. 

Yet the truth most likely lies somewhere in the middle. 

We may not see a return to pre-pandemic levels, but as the world continues to open up and businesses feel safer sending their employees out, we will almost certainly see a rise in business travel. 


Did you know we're hosting an expert debate on the now & future of business travel? 

Sign up for our debate on June 22, 2022 from 12:00 PM - 01:00 PM CEST to glean valuable insights.
We’ll be joined by: 

  • Meghan Smith: Strategic Partnership Manager, AirPlus
  • Judith Huisman: Co-Founder, Meetingselect
  • Jochem Hemink: Head of Sales Shipping, ATPI

And, that’s not all, stay tuned for more interesting speakers!

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