Beyond the impact on business travel, implications of COVID-19 are fundamentally changing how we work. Companies have found new levels of productivity by leveraging collaborative technology, which is replacing the need for many would-be business trips. Of course, business travel will return, and in addition to the essential travel happening now, revenue-generating trips will be the next in line. Internal travel and meetings is still a discussion point for many organizations as they plan for the future and weigh the costs, impact on the environment and technological alternatives to true face-to-face. That said, team relationships are critical, and no amount of time spent on Zoom or Teams compares to the bond formed by truly being together. Internal travel will return as well, but it will be different. Let’s examine five ways that the current environment will shape the future of internal travel:
1. More travel to HQ
Work from Home (WFH) and Work from Anywhere (WFA) are growing trends that will forever change the office environment, in addition to corporate real-estate footprints. It will be less important to live in the immediate proximity to the office, but routine visits for larger gatherings and meetings will be a part of our professional lives. This is what Brian Chesky from Airbnb recently referred to as the hub and spoke model. The everyday commute will be replaced with quarterly, or biannual visits with larger groups, for longer amounts of time. Expect more hotels in the immediate vicinity of large campuses, such as what Citizen M is doing with Facebook. Also expect these trips to be a mix of work and play, to help develop strong peer relationships.
2. Safety remains a priority
The decision to travel is a personal one, and employees will not return to the road until they feel safe. Companies are obligated to do more for travelers, providing resources and technology to keep them more informed, and provide assistance when necessary. Travelers will require more information pre-trip, resources to support them during trip, and reminders about applicable post-trip procedures. Automated mechanisms need to be in place to monitor and mitigate potential trip disruptions, and organizations need to better use their technology, such as online booking tools, to enhance the communication with employees. Risk Management services that provide support for travelers who need assistance related to disruptions, health or safety emergencies are not just for large companies anymore. These services will also become the standard for smaller organizations, who place an equal priority on traveler safety. Even in the months and years after COVID, safety concerns will be heightened, and will prevent some employees from traveling. This means future events and meetings will almost always have a hybrid component.
3. Hybrid meetings are here to stay
While on the surface, a future decrease in travel may cause concern for corporate travel managers, since the very existence of their job seems to depend on people moving around. However, hybrid meetings create a new opportunity for the expansion of their role. Business Travel, which is inherently physical, will transition to being about methods of collaboration — of which travel is just one. Forward-thinking companies are challenging their travel managers to lead in these areas; to become the domain experts on new ways to collaborate, understanding the technology available for hybrid events and meetings, and how to drive the organizational transformation that is necessary for employees to be productive in this new environment. Many organizations are using this downtime as an opportunity to strengthen meetings management practices and technology.
4. Sustainability is a real corporate priority
With some of the largest companies in the world leading the way, it’s only a matter of time before the impact on the environment caused by employee travel is an important consideration for all businesses. The pause in travel has demonstrated that we can make a difference, inspiring many to maintain a direction that will keep their carbon footprint smaller, even with increased travel. As more companies become aware of the impact of their business travel, this will be a key factor in making supplier decisions. Companies will be more mindful of the air, lodging, and other travel and meetings suppliers they do business with — and want to understand more about their internal practices and commitment to similar initiatives. As an industry, this means travel and meetings professionals need to be well-versed on the basics of greenhouse gas emissions, and have more methods to access and report on supplier information related to their environmental impact.
5. The pendulum continues to swing on price vs. comfort
Organizations have long considered the balance of cost vs. comfort in business travel, like a pendulum swinging as factors change. Simply put, when times are tough, cost savings tends to become more important. But, when the business is doing well, we see a shift toward prioritizing comfort. Before the economic downturn in 2020, comfort and overall traveler experience took precedent at many organizations. While the belief may be that current economic challenges will cause the pendulum to shift toward cost, new priorities on safety, security and well-being are real, and will help offset that shift. Although CFOs have seen the benefits of decreased travel expenses and have an obligation to maintain that, that will primarily materialize from a reduction of total trips, and not a decrease in the average trip cost. Travel approval will be set at a higher threshold, which in itself will drive cost containment. This means the trips that do happen are important, and traveler safety, comfort, well-being, productivity and effectiveness will be prioritized above the cost.
As long as relationships are important, business travel will continue to be prevalent. Instead of the gradual changes we expect, COVID has rapidly accelerated the pace of change. Understanding the changing dynamics of how we work, safety, new technology, along with the increased focus on traveler experience, and the environment will help us all prepare for the return to travel.
How COVID-19 is Shaping the Future of Internal Business Travel
June 14, 2021 – The Meetings Magazine