Business travel

Omicron variant may limit return from business trips

(TNS) – The suitcases and passports of many road warriors have been gathering dust since the COVID-19 pandemic put an end to business travel.

This is not the case at Chicago-based Devbridge, which hosted an event for everyone in Lithuania earlier this year and brought teams from Toronto, London and Lithuania to its Chicago office last month to prepare new ones. products with customers.

The tech consulting firm’s 650 employees are spread across global offices and spent around 20% of their time on the road before travel restrictions were imposed in early 2020.

“By the time these were lifted, we had teams flying and visiting customers,” said co-founder and chairman Aurimas Adomavicius, who expects the company to eventually return to “business” as usual “with regard to employee travel.

“For us, in-person collaboration for high-performing teams is not optional. It is necessary, ”said Adomavicius.

Business travel has been hit particularly hard during the pandemic, as people plan vacations faster than business trips, especially as employers delay reopening offices amid a new wave of infections this autumn. The emergence of a new, highly transmissible variant, the omicron, has added to the uncertainty over the timing of a broader return to business travel. As recently as last week, the United States imposed new restrictions on travel from South Africa and seven other countries in the region.

Travel companies say they’re confident the road warriors will return eventually, but that doesn’t mean every company’s employees will hit the road as often as before. While companies like Devbridge say they can’t wait to get back to their globetrotting habits, others have found they don’t need to be on the move so much when stuck at home for pandemic blockages.

“It’s not just about automatically hopping on a plane for an hour-long meeting, it’s about working proactively with clients to say, ‘How can we best use our time together? ”Said Stephanie Nerlich, CEO of Havas Creative Network for North America.

In the first year or so of the pandemic, the advertising agency, which has around 350 employees in Chicago, hardly traveled because customers weren’t asking for it, Nerlich said. Some started asking for in-person introductions again over the summer, and she still thinks it’s the best way to build relationships. But she’s skeptical that employees will be on the road as often as before.

Havas and her clients try to be more thoughtful when a trip is needed – for example, replacing several short visits with a longer, more productive session, she said. Limiting travel cuts costs and will help the company meet its carbon neutral goal by 2025.

Bounteous, a Chicago-based consulting firm that helps brands create online experiences, also plans to be “more strategic” about travel in the future, said Leah Weyandt, chief people officer.

Before the pandemic, some of Bounteous’ customers only wanted to do business in person. Now everyone is used to Zoom and other virtual work tools.

“They no longer see face to face as the only way to get a job done,” Weyandt said.

Still, it’s best to do some deep work and build confidence in person, she said. When Bounteous acquired Atlanta-based commerce and customer experience agency FortyFour last December, time constraints made it “the most difficult acquisition for the company to date,” he said. she declared.

The approaches vary from company to company. About 38% of business travelers polled by Bank of America thought they would travel much less than before the pandemic, while 31% disagreed, according to a November report.

Even though some companies say they plan to pull back from business travel, airline executives were optimistic about a resumption in business travel next year on calls discussing their earnings in October.

“What we’ve been told… is that we should really expect business traffic to accelerate next year with strong pent-up demand. We have a lot of customers who need to get back on the road and they can’t wait to do so, ”said United Airlines Commercial Director Andrew Nocella at the time.

At American Airlines, nearly two-thirds of corporate clients take at least some essential international business travel, and the airline expects business travel revenue to return to 2019 levels by the end of this year. 2022, President Robert Isom said on an earnings conference call.

The Global Business Travel Association was slightly more cautious, forecasting a 38% increase in global business travel spending next year, with a full return to pre-pandemic spending by 2024, according to a press release November.

It is not yet clear how omicron will affect this forecast. In a statement on Tuesday, the Global Business Travel Association urged governments to avoid closing borders and instead focus on assessing the risks of individual travelers.

The previous variations resulted in a drop in bookings, followed by an increase “once the hike wears off,” said Helane Becker, airline analyst for Cowen, a financial services company.

“In our opinion, this pandemic will be with us for the foreseeable future, and in that vein, we believe people will start to overlook risks and travel anyway,” she wrote.

However, business travel was slower to pick up than leisure. If omicron causes a widespread delay in reopening offices, it could be a setback, but it remains to be seen how companies respond, said JP Gownder, vice president and senior analyst at research and consulting firm Forrester.

Some could postpone official openings pending further information on the risks posed by omicron, while others could remain open on a voluntary basis or take additional precautions like vaccination warrants, he said.

“Everyone is in COVID-19 risk management mode,” he said.

In the long term, even as the growing convenience with remote work tools encourages some companies to plan less business trips, other pandemic changes in the workplace could create new modes of travel, said Dave Harvey. , vice president of Southwest Business. A business more open to remote working might still want remote employees to visit the office periodically, he said.

Southwest Airlines estimates it only sees about half of the business travelers it saw in 2019, but the carrier has been working to gain more business travelers during the pandemic, Harvey said.

Southwest has long had a reputation for leisure travel, and its limited network of international destinations and planes without Business Class seats means it won’t be suitable for all road warriors.

But most business travelers don’t bask in upgraded seats or go to overseas business centers, Harvey said. They might like Southwest’s free checked baggage and free flight changes – a perk other major carriers have since matched. Those who prefer to avoid small regional jets might also be drawn to the Southwest, he said.

Business travelers also appreciate reliable flight schedules, a difficulty that airlines including Southwest have struggled at times as travel rebounded this fall. Harvey said Southwest is doing fewer flights during the holidays to limit the risk of disruption.

Hotels are also seeing the return of business travelers. Hyatt’s revenue from business and group travel in the last quarter was nearly 40% higher than in the previous quarter, said Asad Ahmed, Hyatt’s senior vice president of commercial services for the Americas.

Many Chicago-based corporate customers of Hyatt say they expect a stronger return to travel in early 2022, Ahmed said. Still, the company expects to run more hybrid events in the future, with a mix of in-person and remote attendees, as they are more inclusive.

“People can’t always travel for a variety of reasons, so hybrid formats are a great option for planners to dramatically increase the reach of their meetings and include more attendees than ever before,” he said.

Hyatt’s own employees are also on the move, as are employees of BMO Financial Group.

At the start of the pandemic, the bank’s customers understood its increased reliance on virtual tools, but as vaccination rates increased so did the number of in-person meetings and business trips, David said. Casper, US CEO of BMO Financial Group, in an email.

“Banking is about relationships and, frankly, nothing can replace the value of personal face-to-face interactions,” he said.

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