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‘This Could Have Been a Zoom Meeting’: Companies Rethink Travel

  • August 02, 2021

One scenario is what Mr. Calhoun suggested: Companies could dramatically reduce whole categories of travel, such as in-person meetings with internal colleagues in other cities. A Wall Street Journal analysis last year, for example, estimated that intra-company meetings and training represented 20 percent of all business travel and predicted that 40 to 60 percent of that would go away permanently. The Journal concluded that 19 to 36 percent of business trips would disappear. Bill Gates predicted at DealBook’s conference last fall that business travel would still be more than 50 percent lower once things normalized.

In contrast with domestic leisure travel, which has largely recovered, business travel has been relatively slow in coming back. Just 9 percent of companies say they’ve resumed their pre-pandemic travel levels, according to a recent survey by the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants. United Airlines and Delta Air Lines both recently said that business travel remains about 60 percent lower than pre-pandemic levels, despite an increase in recent months. Rising coronavirus cases in recent weeks could delay the recovery of business travel further.

But Mr. Calhoun’s plan to reduce his own internal travel echoes the results of the accountants association’s survey, which found that two-thirds of companies were allowing travel for sales or client meetings, with fewer permitting travel for internal purposes or training programs.

Early indications suggest that most businesses will be reluctant to dramatically trim the estimated two-thirds of business travel that involves sales calls and client visits, conferences and professional services like consulting. Executives remain wary of losing out to a rival who actually shows up in person, or seeing an important contract go away because of poor virtual communications. Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, said in May that clients told him his bank lost business when “bankers from the other guys visited, and ours didn’t.”

Scott Kirby, chief executive of United, earlier this year predicted “full recovery in business demand because business travel is about relationships.” Speaking with investors via a conference call, he added, “You cannot build human relationships through a medium like this.”

Others also see the potential for corporate travel to swell, as increasingly dispersed workers need to reassemble regularly.

“The thing that we describe as business travel may actually grow in the future years,” said Lindsay Nelson, chief experience and brand officer at Tripadvisor, the online travel company. “But the kinds of people that are traveling and what they’re traveling for is going to change.”

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