Op Ed: John Harvey On The Future Of Business Travel Demand

Using an everyday observation, industry veteran John Harvey, managing partner at the Globalyse and Harvey & Heywood marketing and communications firms, finds that people were traveling for business more than they needed to.


It is 8:30 a.m. on a Monday and I am off to check on a barometer that measures the current demand and sentiment for U.K. business travel. I have been monitoring it every week for the past few months. The barometer is in West Clandon, a small village 28 miles southwest of London and 18 miles from Heathrow. 

The barometer I am checking is a 100-space commuter car park at Clandon Station on a rail line to the heart of London. The user demographic today is a representative mix of professions, including lawyers, accountants, consultants, IT specialists, media, bankers, brokers and city business people across all sectors.  

I accept that this is a low-tech measuring device. There is no quantified survey, opinion study or critical analysis; however, it is probably the most accurate and unbiased metric I can find that represents our current condition. It will signal any increase in demand (when business people start traveling again). Now it reflects the stark reality of our present situation: During normal times, this car park would be full, but today it contains just eight cars. 

Occupancy of the car park has been like this on Mondays and Fridays for over six months. Mid-week occupancy may reach as many as 15 cars, but never more than that.

This means that 85 percent to 90 percent of people faced with a one-hour commute are not even going back to their London offices, let alone traveling elsewhere. Public transport in London is currently 48 percent below normal levels and car use in the Central London Charging Zone is 60 percent down. There is something very profound about the length of time it has been like this and the lasting impact on the future demand for business travel.

People have adapted to their new environments and become used to new ways of working. Consequently, even when travel is allowed, a significant proportion of the traditional demand is unlikely to re-emerge anytime soon. Some will never return.

John Harvey, Globalyse

John Harvey, managing director at Globalyse and Harvey & Heywood

A step-change has already taken place, which cannot be ignored. This is not about when governments say we can travel again, how clean and safe travel feels or what tests and vaccines emerge, but rather a realization that people were traveling more than they needed to.

Before Covid, business travel and commuting were part of our everyday routines. While travel management programs may have appeared to oversee everything — with policy, process and cost control — most companies now realize that, strategically, they were not in control of demand. Individuals were more in control than their companies, and a significant amount of travel happened without effective demand management. Scenarios included clients who invited suppliers to visit them, managers who suggested staff make trips, leaders who called in-person team meetings, senior executives who told other people to travel, and travelers who initiated trips themselves.

Covid is a spotlight that will put a new focus on qualifying the actual demand on every trip. 

Change will happen across the program. Individuals who may have been drivers of travel — by inviting, suggesting or requiring others to travel – will think differently. Many travelers themselves will question the value, importance and necessity of each trip. 

That everyone will be inclined to travel less in the future is not just a subjective or conceptual view. There will be four tangible forces applying downward pressure on qualifying and reducing demand going forward:

  • Alternatives. Covid has proven that businesspeople can meet virtually in different ways and conduct business around the world without always needing to travel.   
  • Sustainability. Covid has proven that businesspeople can travel less and that companies can succeed while making real environmental savings that reduce their carbon output.
  • Cost. Companies have gained significant cost savings by not traveling and will be cautious about returning to spending without a measurable outcome on each trip.
  • Well-being. People have become used to flexible work, with more time for family and friends. They will be reluctant to give up time for unnecessary travel and commuting.

The Importance Of In-Person Meetings And Relationships

The contrast to falling demand for business travel is that certain types of meetings will always be more successful when they take place in person. It is widely recognized that effective relationship management will continue to rely on physical interaction. 

Not every meeting needs to be in person, and relationships can grow through a mix of physical and virtual. However, as long as in-person meetings occur from time to time — and especially at critical times — they can easily be interspersed with virtual meetings. The net overall effect will be fewer trips, but more considered and focused ones.

None of this may seem like good news from a traditional volume perspective. However, Covid provides an opportunity for organizations to reset their understanding of travel demand and travel suppliers to match their offerings accordingly. 

Organizations will consolidate meetings and schedules with more targeted relationship-building and a greater focus on the investment and return gained from each trip.

Corporate travel will restart and recover, but it will be reset, and therefore volumes will remain difficult to predict. Therefore, it’s better to understand client demand and the drivers that cause business travel, and be ready to adapt and respond to requirements as they unfold.

My view is that the car park at Clandon Station will remain as it is until at least March 2021. We will be lucky if it’s at 25 percent capacity by July 2021. We may get to 50 percent in two years, and maybe 75 percent in five years. I am not sure if we will ever see it full again.

But is that a bad thing?


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John Harvey

Author: John Harvey

John Harvey is founder and chief marketing officer at Globalyse, a strategic marketing company specializing in the world of travel. He is the former group marketing director of Hogg Robinson plc, where he held responsibility for marketing and communications across both HRG and Fraedom. He describes his career in four phases: Firstly, a foundation in travel (1979-1994), starting as a junior travel agent and ending as director responsible for client management. Secondly, going it alone (1994-2009), diversifying into IT and creating a successful sales and marketing consultancy. Thirdly, returning to travel (2009-2018), leading the HRG global sales team and taking on marketing. Phase four began with the launch of Globalyse in January 2019. Connect with John on LinkedIn.
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