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, 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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  1. John, an excellent piece and congrats on the thinking behind it. I agree that we’ll see permanently changed demand driven by the four tangible forces you reference. It will be interesting to see how the ecosystem reacts to your piece! The resizing of supply to match demand and enable a profitable environment for the future of all in the ecosystem is something we need to all work on and contribute to right now.

  2. Spot on! This is what I’ve been saying since the beginning. I keep seeing stories with headlines like “travelers want to get back on the road but their companies won’t let them” or “it’s safe to travel!” But that’s an oversimplification. Sure, people may feel safe getting on a plane — but where are they going to go, and what are they going to do when they get there? Many offices are closed or operating at limited capacity, and business entertainment (dinner, golf, a basketball game) is mostly not happening and rightly shouldn’t. Thank you for writing this!

  3. Great thinking as always John. I really like the Clandon example (lovely village by the way) and believe this is a very representative view of commuter towns/villages across the world, in the “back to office” debate. I’m spending time in HR/Real Estate circles and immersing myself in the “place of work” discussion. What is a place of work? What does it need to provide to enable employees and companies to thrive? Whatever the answer, I believe there’s a strong link to business travel. It’s just a different way of thinking for a future of more “Purposeful Travel”

  4. Hard to recall a healthy debate on much these days but here goes …

    I have to respectfully disagree with many of these comments. If we take into account the massive investments being made into our largely untapped corporate travel industry (less than 10 percent of which is formally managed by a TMC), myriad studies conducted on the travel and work habits of Millennials (I have blogged on this topic many times), and studies that have clearly demonstrated corporate ROI derived as a direct result of travel (I have blogged on this topic many times as well), I would submit that while our recovery will be measured in years it will come back stronger than before. There is no empirical evidence to suggest otherwise and past crises have proven as much.

    Any sales-driven organization will tell you that “showing up is half the battle.” We haven’t discovered that we can work without travel, we’ve just accepted it. For now.

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