How the future of work changes the future of business travel

As the pandemic winds down and businesses start making plans for a post-pandemic world, the one big question is: How has business travel changed?

Airports and airplanes are starting to fill up, but mostly with leisure travelers. Business travel is recovering far slower than tourism.

A poll from SAP Concur found that business travel is likely to start booming by the end of this year. But that sounds unlikely to me. I believe we’ll see a mini-boom starting in March and April, then a slowdown in late 2022 as COVID-19 spikes again in the winter, followed by a real boom in the spring of 2023. (I’m not an expert in epidemiology, but my understanding from reading real experts says that the road to endemic status for COVID-19 involves one more winter spike—something that probably didn’t factor into the thinking of those polled by SAP.)

What we do know is this: When it does come back, business travel will look very different.

Recent trends that combine work with travel that are not necessarily business travel—workcations, “bleisure” travel—are changing business travel while also helping to keep the travel industry afloat as it awaits the return of full-scale business travel. And the bleisure trend is real. The American Hotel & Lodging Association’s 2022 State of the Hotel Industry Report found that 89% of global business travelers wanted to add a private holiday to their business trips over the next 12 months.

The “Great Untethering” trend means business-traveling employees are more likely to blend work, fun, and travel. And so business trips will more often be combined with workcation days, where employees have more fun on business trips and extend those trips for days combining work and tourism.

Home rentals (Airbnb and its competitors) will be favored over hotels more than before the pandemic. (Hotels will fight the trend by functioning as live-in coworking spaces with spacious rooms and super-fast internet connectivity.)

It’s likely that traveling for business to meet with clients won’t recover for a while but traveling for staff retreats may surge to higher levels than ever. After employees have been sheltering in place, working from home, and interacting with colleagues over Zoom, many business leaders are calling for in-person staff retreats in what some are calling the “Great Reconnection.” This trend should continue with larger percentages of people working from home. Anticipating the trend, there’s been a recent boom in retreat-planning startups like Troop and NextRetreat.

Countries are increasingly opening up to travel while easing travel restrictions and testing requirements—especially for those who are vaccinated. But this opening is uneven, and Asia—especially China—is the slowest region to open.

Business travel used to be absurdly wasteful. Companies will be spending more on perks for business travelers that support the objectives of morale, business development, and productivity, and less on extravagant lodgings and first-class seating.

Not surprisingly, business travel security will challenge IT departments in the near future just as remote-work security does now. In the pre-pandemic days, it was common for any business traveler to just load up their normal work laptop and phone and head off to their destination.

That’s not how it works anymore. With legal changes to downloading data at airport security lines—and increasingly aggressive industrial espionage efforts globally—the use of wiped laptops and burner phones will be more common. We even saw this at the Olympics, where athletes and Olympic staff were urged to bring only burner phones. The so-called “burner phone Olympics” has nothing to do with the Olympics and, in fact, is just a new norm that international business travelers should, and will, adopt.

One of the biggest unknowns in the world of business travel is whether in-person events, trade shows, and conferences will recover. On the one hand, a norm and expectation have been established by the pandemic for video-based remote conferences. On the other hand, remote workers may feel a greater need for in-person meetings to interact with colleagues and customers.

The future of work is changing the future of business travel. We know it will take off again, but where it lands, nobody fully knows.

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