A Decline in Business Travel Leads to a Slow Comeback

By Alise Jarvis

When COVID-19 emerged at the start of 2020, it upset the travel plans of many. It impacted not only leisure trips, but also business travel. When COVID-19 caused a decline in business travel in 2020, people have found other ways to travel while working. However, in formal business travel, there has been a slow increase in the latter half of 2020. Officials project that this upward trend will to continue into 2021.

At the start of 2020, many found their usual trips were canceled when the mandate to stay home was put into place. After seeing their travels dissolve, employees found themselves learning to conduct meetings in front of a computer. To many, they found this to not be as easy as in-person meetings nor as enjoyable.

As someone who has traveled often, Hayley Buckles commented on Facebook, “I went from traveling across country every week for work to not traveling. Pre-COVID, many weeks I would [travel] from California to New York and then from New York to Baltimore Maryland. All of that came to a screeching halt. Now all of our meetings are done via video conferencing. I feel chained to my desk at home and find that I have little time to eat or to go to the bathroom because the meetings are constant.”

She’s not alone in experiencing this. COVID-19 began to fade over the late summer and early fall months, but business travel remained low. It is on the rise again as people are more willing to venture outside of their homes. But the rise is slow. It will take time for business travel to return to the scale it was at pre-COVID.

Looking at data from the 2008-2009 recession, business travel takes longer than leisure travel to make its comeback. And leisure travel still has not fully done so.

The decline in business trips due to COVID-19 is evident in numerous ways. We have been able to see this decline through the expenses placed on business cards. Credit card companies observed a decline in business travel in 2020 when they analyzed the payments made on consumer versus business cards. The rate of consumer cards used for travel is making a comeback at a greater rate than business cards.

Business trips have caused a great deal of spending all around the world. In 2017, the money spent annually on business travel worldwide was $1.33 trillion. In 2018, the business travel expenditures were over $1.4 trillion. It was projected that by 2022, $1.7 trillion will be spent globally on business travel. But due to COVID-19 in 2020 however, this spending won’t be continuing its upward trend. According to the Global Business Travel Association, the global spending on business will take a hit of $820 billion.

What aspects of business travel be the first to make its comeback?

According to McKinsey and Company, travel for cliental and sales meetings will be among the first to return as domestic travel continues to open up. These types of meetings find face-to-face contact to be urgent. However, both parties will have to be ready to accept any risks involved in engaging in the necessary travel.

With a decline in business trips, has there been any sort of work-related travel?

Well, yes. With business trips in the decline and many working from home, people have found other ways to keep themselves on the move. The number of people working online from places other than their home has been increasing since COVID-19 travel restrictions have lessened. These numbers demonstrate that despite concerns for the virus, many do wish to get out once again.

According to Booking.com, 37 percent of people have considered booking a place from which to work remotely. 52 percent have stated that they wish to take whatever opportunities they have to extend their trip to take some leisure time at that location. 

Airbnb has predicted that leading into 2021, travel will be less about tourism and more about working and living somewhere besides home. They have observed that with the increase of online work, people are taking longer vacations to allow themselves to get settled in to work in their new environment. This new type of work (or even remote schooling) travel may blend the line between working and vactioning, Airbnb believes.

Business travel is at a low right now, but will not remain that way. Companies must wait for it to be safe to once again send employees out to meetings, but once they feel they can, according to a survey, 92 percent have stated they are willing to resume business travels. We’ve remained safely tucked away at home, but we won’t remain this way forever.

As Jo Sully, the regional general manager for Asia-Pacific at American Express Global Business Travel stated, “nothing beats the face-to-face.”