We all got out of the habit of travelling during lockdown - but now experts are predicting that business trips will never return to pre-pandemic levels, due to environmental concerns.
A survey by the Institute of Travel Management (ITM) of 100 heads of travel earlier this month found just 28 per cent of respondents expect travel to return to the level of 2019.
Two-thirds thought business travel would not recover to its former level, with predictions that international travel would reach 45 per cent of 2019 volumes in the second half of 2022 - and domestic travel returning to 56 per cent of 2019’s level.
“A key focus will be facilitating the ‘right’ amount and type of travel, introducing the concept of travelling with purpose and aligning this with corporate fiscal and carbon reduction targets,” says ITM chief executive Scott Davies.
“The financial and, increasingly, the environmental costs of travel can be routinely assessed. Quantifying the human and commercial benefits of bringing people together is yet to be achieved,” he suggests.
Why business trips are no longer a necessity
Paul Miller, CEO and founder of Digital Workplace Group, predicts that post-pandemic business travel will settle at about 25 per cent of the norm in 2019.
Miller’s 100-strong workforce will aim to have just a quarter of meetings face-to-face, which would previously all have been held in person.
He describes the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021 as the trigger point for making better use of digital solutions such as Teams or Zoom, adding, “Business travel as we know it has gone. People will travel for business but the way we will travel is fundamentally transformed.
“2022 is the year of experimentation. The conditions that allow business travel to be dramatically reduced were already there, but this trigger event has legitimised and normalised that.”
Organisations have now realised that replacing travel with online solutions during 2020 did not lead to a drop in productivity or an inability to build working relationships. Instead, the new approach can help improve work-life balance and produce happier employees in the process, Miller adds.
While less travel can certainly have environmental benefits, Paul points out that even working remotely has some level of ecological impact, as workers use equipment and energy wherever they are based.
He says that having moments that matter and bringing all employees together in a meaningful way will be the focus of business travel in the future.
Challenging the way we travel for work
The ITM survey identified several major challenges as travel resumes.
Companies have reduced budgets and corporate travel teams, as well as placing greater emphasis on reporting CO2 emissions and the return on investment on trips.
Respondents were concerned these challenges would be compounded by buyers having assumed added responsibilities over the past two years, including reporting requirements and sustainability objectives.
Half said they plan to implement programme initiatives focused on traveller wellbeing, with almost two-thirds agreeing their mental health had been impacted during the pandemic.
It seems fewer but more purposeful business trips could be better for the planet and for the individual traveller.