Pandemic business travel is different, not dead

Obituaries for business travel are in the news once again. The hotel and airline industries continue hemorrhage billions of dollars, while corporations say they plan to spend less on travel after the COVID-19 pandemic. The Global Business Travel Association doesn’t expect a full recovery until 2025.

Despite this ominous data, I argue that business travel is becoming different, not dead. Whether or not the volume of travel rebounds, business trips may become more valuable, strategic and appreciated than ever before.

New job market, new traveler

Two trends have defined the job market for knowledge talent in the pandemic: remote work and mass resignations. Glassdoor reports that searches for remote positions climbed 460% between June 2019 and June 2021 and continue to rise.

By opening local job markets to employers located everywhere, remote work has intensified competition for talent while making it easier to switch jobs. Hence, the “Great Resignation.” Counterintuitively, business travel may be the answer to retention.

Consider who is resigning and why. In a study of 9 million workers at 4,000 companies, researchers from HR analytics platform Visier found that mid-career employees between 30 and 45 years – largely millennials – were most likely to resign. Resignation rates rose the most in the tech sector, which offers nearly a quarter of the U.S.’s remote positions according to Glassdoor.

Resignations among remote millennials are likely to grow. When Best Place to Work surveyed 330,000 millennial employees on behalf of Fortune magazine, it found that connection to one’s colleagues was a top predictor of retention. Can remote employees build those connections without ever meeting their coworkers in person?

It is one thing to maintain relationships over Zoom but quite another to bond in time-capped, lag-ridden meetings while trying not to glance at the video of your own face.

Bringing remote employees together at least quarterly may be essential for building connection. In a survey of 738 business travelers by BCD Travel, a partner of my company Topia, 73% considered face-to-face team building to be extremely or very important.

Anecdotally, we recently sent one of our managers to Dublin to finally meet her teammates and collaborate in person. Given their glowing feedback on both productivity and valuable bonding, we plan to budget for more business trips of this nature.

Bleisure travel as a perk

Remote workers are eager not only for connection, but also for novelty. Stuck at home for months – often in tight quarters with children or roommates – remote workers probably helped drive the comeback in leisure travel.

Many commentators and companies believe that travel combining business and leisure (aka, “bleisure” travel) could become an attractive perk for remote employees.

Former Airbnb executive Stanley Fourteau is making that bet with Ukio, a provider of “curated apartments.” He believes long-term remote work at Ukio’s international properties can become a reward for high performance. Likewise, Dónde, a Utah-based startup, is pitching travel as a benefit.

It wants to help clients recruit and retain talent by providing company-matched travel savings accounts and a platform to book experiences.

Wanderlust is a largely untapped resource for employee engagement and retention. Thus, even as travel for internal meetings, trainings and technical support dwindles, bleisure can grow. And bleisure travel is ideal for fostering connection between remote workers.

Preparing quietly

While companies delay office re-openings and mandatory travel, they are gearing up for the post-pandemic normal. To take advantage of bonding and bleisure travel, HR leaders and travel managers should consider the following.

1. COVID-19 Policies: Define your COVID-19 travel policy carefully. Should employees be required to show proof of vaccination to travel? What transmission or hospitalization rates should cancel trips? Should employees with children too young to be vaccinated be given latitude about travel?


Bleisure travel is ideal for fostering connection between remote workers

Steve Black

2. Compliance: Consider what technology you’ll need for employees to travel in compliance with immigration and tax laws. For instance, employees paid wages during a bleisure trip to California or New York would be expected to file a nonresident income tax return. With tax revenue decimated by COVID, these jurisdictions have become aggressive about auditing travel books, expense data, and payroll reports for noncompliance.

3. Expectations: Have that awkward conversation with clients and partners about whether to show up. You may want to visit because a client’s contract is up for renewal, but they may not be in the office anyway. Gauge their comfort level. Maybe suggest meeting outdoors for coffee, dinner, golf or a walking meeting.

Less but more

Over the next few years, business travel may not look like it did before 2019. But less travel can be more.

Rather than demand road warriorship, companies can extend travel to remote employees who crave the novelty and human connection. Liberated from Zoom, these business travelers may savor the opportunity to collaborate and bond in person.

Add some bleisure, and travel may become an edge in the globalized competition for talent.

Business travel is different but not dead. Employers, be ready.

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