3 Ways Business Travel Will Change Due To COVID-19

For most of us, the COVID-19 pandemic has altered day to day routines. One of the most significant areas of change has been in workplaces, with many shifting to remote arrangements for the foreseeable future. Gone are in-person chats, afternoon coffee breaks and boardroom meetings. What about the employees who you seldom saw in the office, who were traveling to meet clients in different provinces, states, and countries around the world?

The typical business traveler may be facing one of the biggest culture shocks of all during these challenging times. The magnitude of this change is seen in statistics from the World Travel & Tourism Council, which notes that in 2018, business-travel spending exceeded $1.4 trillion, accounting for 21.4 percent of the global travel and hospitality sector. Programs like Zoom and Microsoft Teams aim to close the gap by replicating in-person meetings via video chat. Many businesspeople would argue nothing replicates a physical presence, an important factor in relationship building and working out the fine details of that next big deal. While business travel may eventually return to more traditional levels, it might be a different experience than you remember

1. A Renewed Focus on Cleanliness

Cleaner airports and planes are great for business travellers, but what about the corporations footing the bill? There are several areas where the cost of business travel will directly or indirectly increase. To ensure people feel safe, travel companies such as airlines have already implemented new cleanlieness programs. Jennie Blumenthal, the travel, transportation, and hospitality leader for consulting company PricewaterhouseCoopers states, “Safety is the new loyalty, and consumers will choose brands that prioritize their well being.” Like other hotel brands, Choice Hotels Canada has comprehensive cleaning protocols in place, with its Commitment to Clean program.

So, where will increased costs for business travel come from?

Government regulations: Countries and their specific regions may enforce a 14-day quarantine upon arrival or return. These measures can change quickly as cases of COVID-19 rise and fall. If an employee doesn’t have an adequate place to conduct a 14-day quarantine, especially when away from home, corporations may be on the hook to cover a lengthy hotel stay.

Employee concerns: When on a plane, train, or other form of transportation, your employees might feel unsafe sitting shoulder to shoulder with other passengers in economy class. They may request a premium economy or business class seat to take advantage of additional distance between passengers. These more expensive arrangements may have previously been reserved for executives. Before writing the idea off, consider that travel comfort also results in better productivity, so it may be a win-win solution for corporations and employees alike.

Travel company protocols: Travel companies, such as airlines, have been hit hard during the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only has demand diminished, but they’ve had to take on costs associated with deep cleaning planes and providing personal protective equipment to employees and passengers.

2. Domestic Travel Will be First to Take Off

Across the board, the travel industry saw some of the worst months in its history play out in March and April of 2020. Since that time, airline, rail, accommodation providers and other travel-related companies have been in recovery mode. Though nowhere near previous levels, people are beginning to travel again, including for business. That being said, the leisure travel market will return quicker than business.

When business travel does begin returning to normal levels, expect shorter distances within domestic regions. Ground travel will be first to return, followed by domestic air travel. International travel will likely be the last. Corporations will want to test the waters on shorter, lower-risk trips before sending employees on more frequent, long-distance business.

3. Be Prepared for More Frequent Flight Schedule Alterations

Business travelers are often working on tight meeting schedules. A Western Canada Account Manager for a large retailer might fly from Toronto to Vancouver in the morning, travel to Calgary in the afternoon and back to Toronto in the evening. Mechanical issues, inclement weather and busy airports are always factors effecting on-time departures and arrivals, but COVID-19 has presented some new challenges when it comes to schedule changes.

Since many flights are not operating at full-capacity, airlines are enacting cost-saving measures by canceling routes or modifying departure times for those with fewer passengers. Though cancellations and changes are on the decline, compared to earlier in the pandemic, halfway through September, 2020, Air Canada and WestJet reported 439 cancelled flights, an unusually high number. Unfortunately for passengers on a time crunch, these changes are often not communicated until closer to the departure date, when airlines and other travel companies have a better idea of passenger loads. Despite added patience and understanding, there is little travelers can do about these cancellations and changes, except for preparing for them in advance. Corporations are encouraged to familiarize themselves with updated cancellation and change policies, which have recently allowed for added flexibility and travel credits.

The bottom line

A recent survey by consulting firm Oliver Wyman found approximately three-quarters of business travelers expect to travel the same amount or even more after the pandemic, due to the return of business activity, lower travel costs, and pent-up demand.

There is little doubt that business travel will return to traditional levels in the future, though that date is a moving target. When it does return, the experience of business travel won’t be the same as once was– and we aren’t just talking about face covering mandates. Whether it is predictability, scheduling, distance or on-site experience, much of what the typical business traveler may have been used to in the past is destined to change in the future.