Finding the Purpose of Business Travel

Caroline Strachan
Caroline Strachan

Recently I went on my first international business trip in two years. A transatlantic trip for five nights came with significant financial investment, carbon cost and personal compromise. Was it worth it? You may have seen Festive Road’s Purposeful Travel & Meetings model where we encourage companies only to consume the most valuable trips or meetings. You can imagine my “purpose” antennae were on full alert during my trip. Could I have achieved the same outcomes virtually? On this occasion, I believe no; but why? I believe the next year’s worth of travel and meetings consumption is critical, but which in-person meetings work and which don’t. Which virtual or hybrid meetings work, or don’t? 

Here’s what I observed attending the Global Business Travel Association convention last month in Orlando with additional team collaboration days and strategy workshops across the week. I can start to see a pattern emerging already:

• Less small talk, and more big discussion. Previous conventions were frenetic. Each micro-meeting interjected with a nod, or a wave that distracted from a deeper more meaningful discussion. Not this time. Each meeting whether planned or impromptu had more space. More head space. I heard many share the quality vs quantity mantra.

• Two-way vs. one-way. I can’t be the only one who feels the Covid-19 period has been so one-way. As a conference speaker or meeting presenter, you’ve spent the last 19 months-plus speaking to tens or thousands of tiles on a screen, and those tiles are so muted. An in-person meeting or room is filled with reaction, laughter, body language. You can immediately sense or engage a room to great effect.

• Stimulate vs. stagnate. I’ve heard from so many industry colleagues how they’ve struggled to progress key initiatives virtually, or to drive a significant change. We have felt this too. Yet after a one-day workshop we have expedited some methodology improvements we have been dancing around for the past year. In eight hours we were done. We debated. We disagreed. The tone changed when we hit a new idea. One idea sparked another; it was magical.

• Building social and intellectual capital. How does business really get done? It’s never just a product or a service or a pitch, there are humans involved who build trust by delivering on what they promise. Those relationships are formed over many years and create a bank of social capital. The past year has seen many withdrawals but not as many deposits. I felt it in one-to-one discussions and heard from others how much they had learned from overhearing colleague discussions, or attending a meeting—as well as doing what humans love to do, connect.

• Team time vs. home time. I heard over and over how much people have loved having more time at home with their families and friends, and also how much they’ve missed the bond that forms when you spend time together as a team. You could see the joy being created in team dinners, offsite activities, afterparty drinks and more. Those moments create valuable bonds.

I’m going to track a bank of observations like these to help identify when is the right time to stay home and do business virtually versus investing the time and budget to make it happen in person.

Was my trip worth it? 100 percent yes. Will I go back to traveling every two weeks? 100 percent no. I will instead be incredibly selective with my default to virtual and only the most purposeful and valuable trips in person.

I see real opportunity here. Travel managers can start to move stakeholder conversations beyond the “what” and “how” of travel and meetings management to the “why.” What is driving the demand? Helping companies move beyond the want to the true business need. The future is bright, the future is more purposeful.

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