While leisure travel has been steadily improving over the past few months, business travel is still struggling to return. A Tourism Economics analysis released this week by the U.S. Travel Association suggested that both ongoing COVID restrictions and a “patchwork approach” to reopening across the country will prevent the segment from recovering until at least 2024. The report found spending on travel for large, in-person professional meetings and events declined 76 percent last year for a $97 billion loss in overall spending.
Thanks to increasing vaccinations and the resultant decreasing infection rates, local markets have lowered overall restrictions, driving a rebound in traveler confidence. Tourism Economics predicts domestic leisure travel will reach 99 percent of its prepandemic peak in 2022 and grow steadily thereafter. But in the absence of clear and consistent guidance from federal health authorities on meetings and events, business-related travel is not expected to recover its prepandemic volume for an additional two years. Only about a third (35 percent) of U.S. businesses are currently engaging in any business-related travel.
Also this week, the Global Business Travel Association released the findings from its 20th poll assessing how GBTA members are managing the return to business travel.
The first poll of this summer revealed a continuation of the positive momentum reported last month as companies implement or finalize plans to resume domestic business travel. Two-fifths (40 percent) of respondents say their company’s plan to resume nonessential domestic business travel has “already happened” in the country where they are based—compared with last month’s 34 percent allowing “some” domestic travel. An additional one-third (33 percent) say their company has finalized a date (8 percent)—or is working to finalize a date (25 percent)—to resume domestic business travel. Only 18 percent are “waiting to see what happens” while 6 percent are “not sure.”
While domestic business travel nears a return, the outlook for international business travel remains murky, according to the GBTA. More than three in five respondents (62 percent) say their company is waiting to see what happens or is not sure about resuming nonessential international business travel from the country where they are based. And in Canada, both domestic and international business travel plans have taken restart delays.
“After a spring marked by growing optimism in most regions, many companies are now making plans to resume business travel—especially in the U.S. and Europe. While there is still caution around cross-border travel, almost three-quarters of our poll respondents say their company has resumed nonessential domestic business trips or is working to finalize a date to resume these trips,” said GBTA CEO Suzanne Neufang. ”Optimism has given way to action, and the gradual support of corporate policies to resume business travel has actually begun. While this is an important breakthrough, our research says it will take some time for companies to allow as many trips—or even the same kind of travel—as they did before the pandemic.”
Three in four (77 percent) GBTA buyer and procurement members feel their employees are “somewhat willing” or “very willing” to travel for business in the current environment. This is 12 percentage points higher than in the last poll (May 2021).
One of the major factors in the slow return of meetings and events is what the Tourism Economics report called “the uneven patchwork of guidance” that currently governs large gatherings from jurisdiction to jurisdiction nationwide. The U.S. Travel Assocation is urging the adoption of federal guidance that is clear and consistent—and that recognizes that health and safety measures can be more readily implemented at professional meetings and events than at other forms of large gatherings.
Health care scientists at Ohio State University also released a white paper that includes an analysis suggesting that it is safe to return to conducting and attending PMEs. In “The Scientific-Based Evidence for Conducting Safe and Healthy Professional Meetings and Events,” the authors cited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Journal of the American Medical Association Network to outline the best practices to ensure a safe return to large-scale, in-person professional meetings and events. The paper also differentiates PMEs from other large gatherings, noting that PMEs offer a controlled environment that allows for better safety measures.
“Getting back to our prepandemic ways of doing business must include taking evidence-based tactics we learned during the pandemic to keep people safe and healthy,” said study co-author Bernadette Melnyk, VP for health promotion, university chief wellness officer and dean of the College of Nursing at The Ohio State University. “We must continue to follow the best evolving science as we make plans to hold in-person events again.”
Polling indicates that 85 percent of American workers view in-person events as “irreplaceable,” and 81 percent who attended work-related PMEs before the pandemic miss doing so and are likely to attend such events in the future.
“A thriving travel industry—and the broader U.S. economy—are dependent on the return of business travel and PMEs,” said Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association. “Americans are eager to reconnect with colleagues in person, via business meetings, conferences and conventions, and these scientific analysis and recommendations make clear it is possible and safe to do so. A consistent approach to reopening PMEs, including guidance from the CDC that differentiates PMEs from other large gatherings, is critical to infusing confidence and optimism into this key sector of our economy.”
Let’s Meet There
To support the return of professional meetings and events, a coalition of travel industry businesses and organizations, under the U.S. Travel Association umbrella, is also launching an initiative called “Let’s Meet There” to advance the full and safe reopening of the business travel sector.
“As more American adults are vaccinated and pent-up demand for travel is released, it’s more important than ever that businesses and local, state and federal governments recognize the role meetings and events will play in our ability to make a full economic recovery,” said Chris Nassetta, president and CEO of Hilton. “By following CDC guidance and implementing common-sense safety measures, we’re hosting professional meetings and events in our hotels across the country and are confident that these important gatherings can happen safely once again.”