Business travel in 2023 looks a lot different than it did in 2022. A little more than 12 months ago, Dr. Sheree N. Bryant Sekou, a Houston-based leadership consultant, international speaker, and coach, was getting in-person invites from clients again after a long stretch of virtual-only meetings, but she was still skittish.
“I had to think – am I putting myself in harm’s way?” she says. “It was scary to make the decision because we had all had been grounded for so long.”
About 1,200 miles north in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, George Kalka, vice president of business travel for travel management company Fox World Travel, was hearing similar sentiments from his clients. “The environment in early 2022 was that business travel still posed a health risk,” he says. “And then there was the cost aspect. A lot of people wondered if business travel was financially responsible and/or safe.”
What a difference a year makes. After some early jitters, Bryant Sekou ended up diving into business travel in 2022 – to the tune of more than 80,000 miles in the air – and says she is projecting traveling that much or more this year. The mentality from her clients, though, is split. “I see people acting like COVID never happened and then, on the flip side, I see people asking why – if virtual meetings are an option – does it make sense to do in-person events,” she says.
Kalka says these days he rarely hears clients mentioning health-related concerns. Instead, companies are telling him that they view travel as an investment in their success – that they want to go out, retain customers, and grow their brands. Interestingly, he’s hearing this more from small-to-mid-size businesses than from enterprise-level companies.
If you are on the fence on whether traveling is worth it, try to link the trip to a strategically important company goal such as growing new revenue or improving your workforce.
—George Kalka, vice president of business travel, Fox World Travel
“There is a lot of pent-up demand for trips and sales that didn’t happen during the pandemic,” he says. “Fortune 100 companies haven’t returned to 2019 travel levels where SMBs have surpassed or returned to those numbers. I think this comes down to travel being necessary to small-business success in many cases – where showing up is a differentiator, and for Fortune 100 companies, there aren’t as many technological hurdles.”
It looks like business travel is expected to see a significant boost this year. According to a 2023 poll from the Global Business Travel Association of 637 business travel professionals, companies are hovering around 68 percent of their pre-pandemic (2019) spend on domestic travel. Those numbers are a little lower, at 54 percent, for international travel. Interestingly, though, 55 percent of companies expect to do up to 20 percent more business travel in 2023 than they did in 2022.
What about small-business owners? How can they decide whether or not to book business travel?
Making the Call
While worry about COVID-19 has decreased over the past year, it remains important to acknowledge that risk is still a factor and to ask employees of their comfort levels. Pamela Eyring, owner and president of The Protocol School of Washington, which offers etiquette training programs all over the world, recommends small-business owners inquiring if employees are “mentally available to go” before booking arrangements.
“Some people have a fear factor; they no longer have a tolerance to travel,” she says. “One of my best employees is an 82-year-old woman. She doesn’t want to travel, and that is OK.”
Conducting a cost benefit analysis is often a filter employed by small-business owners when it comes to business travel, but Kalka notes that the return on investment can be “elusive.” Instead, he recommends measuring the benefits of business travel by aligning the reasons to travel to a company’s success indicators and objectives.
“Ask yourself, ‘Are these indicators moving us in the right direction?’” he suggests. “If you’ve tied business travel to those indicators, you can define the benefit to your company. While it would be ideal to apply a metric approach and score the opportunity as ‘worth it’ to travel, that just isn’t reality.”
He says the decision comes down to the individual situation, and recommends business owners asking if competitors will be there (a good indicator for a sales-related trip), and what the potential outcomes will be if they decide to travel in-person compared with meeting virtually.
“If you are on the fence on whether traveling is worth it, try to link the trip to a strategically important company goal such as growing new revenue or improving your workforce,” Kalka recommends. “If you can do that – take the trip. You’re more likely to regret not traveling and missing an opportunity by not being there than you are investing in a trip.”
Post-Pandemic Travel Changes
Shifts in the travel industry thanks to the pandemic are still being established, but one apparent change has been staffing shortages and flight delays. Eyring says she’s seen airlines working harder than ever to improve customer service offerings in the face of an ever-moving labor landscape. This can sometimes spell massive flight delays or even cancellations.
Kalka is seeing the same thing. With airlines not yet back to pre-pandemic schedules (or staffing), it is common to experience delays of hours or even days. “You then have to ask yourself, ‘Is this trip still worth it?’” he says. “'Should I reschedule?’ The environment is creating frustration.”
One of the ways businesses are getting around these frustrating scenarios is to book longer business travel trips. “We are seeing the death of the day trip – going out and back in the same day,” Kalka says. “Those meetings are too easily being replaced by video conference.”
Instead, he is seeing multiple overnights with travelers renting a car and visiting many locations across several days to take advantage of being on the road. This is in the case of networking events, trade shows, and sales calls.
Travel etiquette is another post-COVID change experts are witnessing, and unfortunately, the etiquette travelers are exhibiting has seen better days.
“I think people have been cooped up for so long that their behaviors when traveling are poor,” says Eyring. “There is a lack of self-awareness and a lot of rudeness that I see more now than before the pandemic set in.”
Bryant Sekou echoes Eyring’s sentiment, saying that crowded, oversold, and cancelled flights have led to some everyday niceties “going out the window,” she says. “I think it helps to be compassionate to all of the people in the industry that are overworked and doing their best – to just remember the basics of kindness and helping each other out – to get through the day.”
Virtual Greetings vs. Shaking Hands
Many businesses adapted to video conferencing during the pandemic, and some will stay with that strategy. Deciding whether or not to travel and meet someone in person is, as Kalka says, is a situational one.
But, “nothing can replace face-to-face time,” as Bryant Sekou says.
“I’m a huge advocate of virtual learning, but coming into a room together, seeing each other, hugging each other, eating together, laughing, seeing one another’s expressions – you don’t see that on camera,” she says. “I think people are longing for that connection. And look at me: I was very hesitant back in early 2022, but the minute I got in the room with my clients, I realized the energy was different and it was so nice to be together. It was long overdue.”
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