By Lindsey Galloway
As the travel industry was all but obliterated during the pandemic, business travel plummeted to historic lows as companies quickly adapted to a work-from-home reality. Now as vaccination rates across the U.S. rise and the world reopens, business travel is climbing back, already at 60% of pre-pandemic numbers, according to a recent study by TripActions.
But business travel may never quite look the same. Zoom and other video conferencing tools have completely reshaped the meaning of "face-to-face" communication. These changes, along with a higher percentage of hybrid and remote workforces, have executives rethinking how and where they a lot their travel budgets to get the most ROI.
The Remote Reallocation
While some organizations have slashed travel budgets, others are making a conscious reinvestment in travel, particularly when it comes to managing the needs of a larger-than-ever remote workforce.
GitHub, a software development hosting platform, had 70% of their employees working remote even before the pandemic, and they expect that number to be even higher now. But instead of reducing budgets, Chief Operations Officer Erica Brescia sees travel as a key investment for the company in coming years.
"It’s critical that folks have the opportunity to connect in person, no matter how often they go into the office to get work done — there’s no substitute for that," she said. For GitHub, offices aren’t just a place to get work done ("that can be done anywhere!" said Brescia), but a place to collaborate, socialize, and create a sense of belonging.
In remote work situations especially, companies need to consciously create an equal playing field no matter where or when employees work. "Because of that, we see an increased need to drive moments in time where the company can come together for collaborative work and to build a sense of camaraderie, which will require travel to our offices around the globe,” said Brescia.
Should Sales Teams Travel?
That doesn’t mean budgets are rising across the board — in fact, Brescia sees sales employees traveling less for work, as she’s seen the team getting used to the virtual sales processes and benefiting from it.
"Remote work has been a boon to our sales team’s productivity and health, so sales teams in particular will likely travel less than pre-pandemic," said Brescia. Sales has traditionally been the role that has travelled the most for business, but some companies are seeing efficiencies in cutting back those budgets.
This isn’t true across industries however. Some saw sales suffer during when their employees couldn’t get on a plane to close a deal.
"Pitching a physical product with samples and a business card is much more likely to convert than cold email outreach to retailers — and we have the numbers to prove it," said Calloway Cook, President of Illuminate Labs. "Those who want to close B2B sales quickly have to travel for business. With pandemic restrictions loosening, it's a great time to hit the road and pitch a live demo if you have a physical products business."
Companies heavily invested in international business should also expect to maintain their pre-pandemic travel budgets. "In certain markets, it’s almost impossible to build new relationships purely via Zoom," said Kathryn Read, an international sales and marketing consultant. "The majority of the SMEs who export are working with distributors and companies need to understand the situation on the ground in Malaysia, Peru, or Serbia in order for both sides to truly work effectively together."
During the pandemic, she has relied on her established networks to leverage intros and referrals to keep business moving, but she views it as a stop-gap measure versus a long-term solution.
"How do we gain a deep understanding of the markets without visiting personally? And how long will it take until everyone worldwide is so well-versed in Zoom that REALLY sensitive topics can be handled without a loss of quality?" asked Read. "Until these questions are answered satisfactorily, then business travel will be necessary. The ability to take a break from sensitive negotiations and go eat together is a success factor that shouldn’t be underestimated. Business still needs to be done between people."
Extending the Stay
It’s not just the "if" and "when" of business travel, but how executives and workers travel that’s shifting too. With the rise of WFA (work from anywhere) policies, those who do have to travel for business are lengthening their stays. The TripActions study showed that 35% of business travelers are booking stays of four to seven days in 2021, versus the typical one to three day trip that dominated 2019’s numbers.
As leaders, we should take into account how many nights an employee may want to stay in a business destination, and whether or not that cost should be covered by the company or employee for the extra nights. While no position is right or wrong, it’s important to have clear and well-communicated policies in a world of shifting expectations.
The Road Ahead
The future of business travel will look unique for each company, based on its industry and the makeup of its workforce. But as business travel begins its bounce-back, leaders have the unique opportunity to rethink and reshape the travel policies and budgets that will make employers and executives effective in the post-pandemic world.