As business travel bottoms out, near-term optimism remains high


As we have watched travel come to a near
standstill due to the COVID-19 pandemic, questions and opinions abound on how
its effect will vary across different segments or categories. Will corporate or
leisure travel return first? Will travel permanently become a smaller part of
how the world does business?

We have some hints as to how the business
travel community is viewing the evolving situation, thanks to the Global Business Travel Association, which was quick to
begin polling its membership on the crisis
. It fielded its first
coronavirus-related survey February 4, before the disease even had an official
name.

There are many things I wish were different about the series and how GBTA
shares it (see comments at the end of this post), but its quickness to take its
members’ pulse has allowed them to track sentiment over time.

My biggest takeaways from watching the GBTA
poll results up through the latest on April 8 are that active business travel
has essentially bottomed out and expectations for its return are probably
overly optimistic, despite shifting in a huge way between March 23 and April 8.

Business travel bottoms out

GBTA’s survey results indicate,
unsurprisingly, that business travel has bottomed out. The global average
percentage of business trips for March and April that respondents say have been
cancelled as a result of the coronavirus is 92% (as of the April 8 poll).

What
is that 8% of trips that remain? It probably contains a tiny share of trips
considered essential for the remainder of April but given the extent of
stay-at-home orders and flight capacity reduction, early March trips probably
account for much of it.

It is fair to say, based on that 92%, that the
only business trips happening now are those deemed absolutely essential. So if
we are at the bottom, how long will we be here?

Recovery timing more realistic, still
optimistic

GBTA members’ expectations for travel’s return
have shifted significantly from March 23 to April 8. They express more clarity
about how long travel will be on pause – 40% said in the earlier survey they
were unsure when trips would resume, but two weeks later, that was down to just
16%.

As they have become more confident,
respondents are seeing a longer timeline for reduced travel. The most striking
shift by far is an increase in respondents who do not see regular business
travel returning for a year or more.

On March 23, just 1% of respondents said
they expected a 12-month wait, and just two weeks later, 28% said they do not
see regular business travel coming back for longer than 12 months. The April 8
version of GBTA’s poll shows more than half of respondents expect regular
business travel to resume within two to three months, which I find overly
optimistic.

It is important to note that the question
specifies “regular” business travel, so it’s not the case that more than a
quarter of respondents expect NO business travel until early 2021.

It would be
interesting to see GBTA take the survey further as the future becomes a little
clearer. When will domestic trips resume? International? Will the length of
flight, number of connections and regions visited be taken into account in a
new way?

And what about conferences? Many have already been cancelled or postponed. With so many now scheduled to take place in the last four to five months
of the year, attendance will suffer even in the best scenario. And will
meetings and conferences be generally shunned or limited until after a vaccine
is developed?

Will travel become a smaller part of doing
business?

A theory that I have heard here and there over
the past few weeks: All of these Zoom meetings have been so productive that even when
the health crisis has passed and the global economy is fully recovered,
business travel will never come back in a big way. The closest that the GBTA
survey comes to addressing this is the below question:

Unfortunately, that
doesn’t help assess the future of business travel in light of this situation.
The question is too vague, and the survey includes too many different kinds of
stakeholders.

I would love to see GBTA add more specific questions, like: “When
the COVID-19 health crisis has passed, and the global economy is in recovery
mode, how do you expect travel’s role in your business operations to compare to
its role in 2019?”

I would also love to see specific questions about their
plans to reconnect with clients after the crisis abates and how they feel
virtual meetings – internally for sales initiatives, and externally for project
execution – compare to face-to-face.

Methodology musings: shortcomings of the GBTA
data

Again, I commend GBTA for its quickness to
begin taking members’ pulse. It began fielding February 4, the earliest I am
aware of any American travel organization launching a coronavirus survey. No
travel research company even moved that quickly. But below are some of the
caveats to keep in mind when looking at the GBTA survey results:

  • The questions have changed from survey to
    survey. I actually applaud this – surveys that insist on sticking to questions
    simply to enable comparison over time can quickly become irrelevant. Still, it
    is important to keep in mind that it is hard to compare the February 4 results
    with the April 8 results.
  • All geographic regions are mixed into one
    pool. GBTA is based in the United States, and leadership positions are held primarily by
    Americans, so I assume the biggest share of respondents is U.S.-based. Still,
    it would be nice to see results by region.
  • All types of companies are mixed into one pool.
    GBTA is transparent about who responds, and typically about half of their
    respondents are travel managers/buyers and procurement professionals. It would
    be useful to see the responses of just these two groups, and to launch a
    different survey for suppliers and travel management companies.

With business travel essentially bottomed out,
it would be great to see GBTA start asking some more probing questions about
how companies will decide to resume travel and the extent to which wider
adoption of video conferencing will or will not decrease business travel in a
post-COVID-19 world.

About the author…

Maggie Rauch is a freelance travel research analyst.



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