Researchers again found virtual communication offers “limited” capacity to replace face-to-face meetings. But with support for predicted reductions of between 20 percent and 30 percent in business travel volume due to trends accelerated by the pandemic, they argued that understanding how businesspeople choose between travel and virtual “has become urgent.”

Researchers at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland between May and June 2021 quizzed 174 frequent travelers on their decision-making processes. The travelers had averaged 25.5 short-haul and 7.7 long-haul flights annually before the pandemic.

“In contrast to the decision-making of leisure travelers, we illustrate that it is not classical motivational processes that drive travel intentions in the business case, but the largely externally influenced need for business communication,” according to findings, available here, to be published in the June 2023 edition of the journal Tourism Management. “We therefore claim that the behavior of business travelers requires idiosyncratic explanation.”

The researchers presented participants with meeting scenarios using seven factors and asked them to indicate whether the collaboration should be face-to-face. The factors were meeting purpose, character of the message to be communicated, meeting regularity, relationship between the participants, duration of relationship, number of participants and region of the meeting.

“We identify in particular negotiations, complex and formal messages and creative activities as drivers of physical presence, whereas technical exchanges and informal and less complex messages may be delivered in a virtual setting,” they wrote.

The study provided support for their hypothesis that a “large part” of demand for business travel is not determined by the individual but rather is a function of external factors like trip purpose, relationship to the collaborators and distance. “Meetings that can be more easily substituted by virtual conferencing are those over which individuals feel they have greater internal control (e.g., internal, coaching or HR matters),” they wrote. They were surprised by the HR finding and suggested further study was warranted.

Calling the paper a “serious contribution to understanding the merits of business travel,” tClara’s Scott Gillespie — who has been studying such themes for several years and built a related tool — highlighted other possible factors: the importance of the meeting; potential ROI; health, safety or welfare concerns; climate mitigation potential and the need to build trust among the participants.

In an email exchange, researcher Adrian Mueller called Gillespie’s points “valid” and noted some research process constraints. The trust concept requires more study, according to Mueller. He referenced the challenges of quantifying some of the more subjective aspects, such as “importance” and “return.” 

According to both, distance/time and cultural factors are avenues for further research.

Keeping in mind how it varies across cultures, corporate travel practitioners have a general sense of what kinds of meetings produce better results when conducted in person. Suggesting that internal meetings be done virtually, for example, pre-dates the pandemic by many years. But there’s no established framework or science to it — and the return on investment in business travel remains elusive or, as Gillespie has called it, a fool’s errand.

He surveyed more than 500 U.S.-based business execs and managers in February 2022 and found they preferred in-person meetings for building trust and teamwork; influencing, persuading or selling; solving important problems; and becoming part of a team. They valued virtual over face-to-face for saving time and money; scheduling ease; reducing travel and carbon emissions; and protecting participants’ health.

More than three-quarters of respondents said they could not determine if their companies were “traveling too much or too little other than by examining the travel budget.” Amadeus, CWT and Delta sponsored the study.

Deloitte in February 2022 surveyed 150 travel managers and execs with travel budget oversight, finding that sales/client acquisition, client relationship building and networking were best supported by face-to-face while trips to conferences for content, leadership presentations or internal development were more replaceable by tech.

The Swiss study offered conclusions for corporate travel programs:

“In the medium term, companies will have to introduce more specific corporate policies regarding business travel, as we reveal that the co-existence of physical and virtual communication will remain the new norm. We advocate for ‘the best of both worlds’ policies based on situational usefulness that prioritizes the benefits of each form of communication. In concrete terms, this means that policies must consider both the need to travel and a preference for the virtual. However, to reduce the increased complexity for the corporate traveler, policies may provide guidance. This also creates opportunities for companies such as saving costs and reducing GHG emissions. For example, shifting unwanted travel for internal meetings to the virtual sphere can also help reduce family stress and potentially contribute to employee well-being and satisfaction. In addition, reducing business travel also resonates with the environmental awareness of a significant number of business travelers, which we also found in our sample. However, challenges also arise when management is inclined to restrict employees from traveling and thus, for example, jeopardize employees’ perceived career opportunities, challenge the self-concept of frequent travelers or eliminate business travel as a fringe benefit. Establishing specific guidelines requires a profound knowledge of the situation of individuals, which in many companies could lead to the urgent need for the internal analysis of travel activities.”

Some companies have enhanced engagement with and profiling of travelers. Many use pre-trip approvals or require travelers to indicate reasons for trips. They may review reporting on that for compliance and spend management. Some prompt travelers in the booking path to consider virtual.

Microsoft has no program controls over travel decisions; they’re governed more informally by communications between travelers and their bosses. Automation Anywhere, a provider of cloud-based robotic process automation, uses passive pre-trip authorization. In effect, that leaves it up to managers, who can cancel a trip within the ticketing void window, according to Makiko Barrett, senior director for procurement and travel. Digital customer experience company Concentrix employs “hard approvals” to “ensure our agenda is sound and solid, and we understand expectations, and our business objectives are met throughout that travel process,” global travel and procurement director Zack Dolan told attendees to a Business Travel News webinar in October.

At biopharma firm Parexel, the travel department regularly presents to the CFO pie charts on spending by trip purpose. According to senior director of procurement and travel Ben Park, finance responds with directives on how to shift activity based on that data rather than, say, business unit spending. Speaking alongside Park at the Global Business Travel Association convention in August, Takeda global category and sourcing lead Daniel Miller said the company began to measure failed trips. The pharmaceutical company planned to “map the traveler journey and look at all the pain points.”

Eric Bailey likes the idea of “success reports” over expense reports. The Microsoft global director for employee travel and devices on Tuesday joined Barrett for a discussion hosted by The Company Dime via LinkedIn Audio about the tech sector’s tepid business travel recovery.

A Few Minutes With, Episode Three, Jan. 10, 2023. In order of first appearanceCo-hosts Jay Campbell and David Jonas, Eric Bailey, Makiko Barrett, Paul Tilstone, Ole Hammer Mortensen, Art Ginolfi, Pedro Ceron, Chelsea Pula.

Slide the player for these highlights and context:
01:05 — Introductions and why tech sector business travel recovery is relatively slow
06:00 — Demand management controls: approvals, booking tool prompts, reason codes
• 10:00 — On trip purpose
• 18:00 — Is travel stigmatized at a time of austerity for tech firms?
• 21:00 — Q&A: The 2008 global financial crisis as a reference point, the influence of current high fares, the importance of in-person meetings for company culture, private aviation, essential business travel, sustainability, inclusivity and accessibility
• 48:21 — Priorities for 2023: spend management, better event terms and conditions, easier travel booking and other program efficiencies, responsible travel

Elaborating on work he did last year with a variety of collaborators to map out the next decade of corporate travel, Bailey urged more thoughtfulness about why we travel. 

“In the old days it was, ‘I got invited to speak at a conference and now I’m going,’ ” said Bailey. “Now it’s, ‘I need to work with peers.’ ‘I need to understand what other global companies are doing.’ ‘I need to build trust.’ Looking at why people are really going, I think we’re going to get much better information, and then the question is how to measure those. ‘Did you achieve what you wanted to achieve?’ “

One reason some may seek better metrics on in-person outcomes is that they can get those from virtual engagements, said Bailey. With various types of virtual events, it’s easy to track connections made. Recording and transcribing are routine. Will such tech become commonplace in person?

“I know it sounds a little creepy, but what if you had full notes of every conversation you had,” said Bailey. “Your device could prompt you: ‘Hey you mentioned to this person you’d get them your earnings report. Have you sent that over yet?’ “

“It’s all about ROI,” said Barrett, also president of the Silicon Valley Business Travel Association. “Why are you traveling? What do you get out of it? The manager realizes if a person is making the same trip over and over but cannot close the deal, that becomes a performance issue. We in travel won’t tell them not to travel.”

She said employees going to educational conferences or “boondoggle things” would be “very limited” for 2023, and “I don’t see an uptick anytime soon.”

If outcomes could be better measured, Bailey suggested, that could change the boondoggle stigma. A good boondoggle helps a person engage, learn, build trust and have fun. Maybe it helps them want to stay with a company.

“Boondoggle sounds like a total waste of money but there probably is a tangible return on that investment,” said Bailey. “We just haven’t really tried to measure it before.”

Findings For Suppliers

The Swiss researchers offered tidbits for boondoggle vendors, too.

Providers of corporate travel services need to come to terms with lower volumes, they wrote. Airlines should establish closer cooperation with corporate customers that have “centrally organized” corporate travel management.

“For business travelers who use an individual, decentralized booking process, transport providers should consider the increasing complexity of the decision by providing additional support throughout the process to enable the business traveler to make the best decision depending on the situation,” they wrote. “Ideally, this can increase perceived service value and, if necessary, eliminate a travel agent as part of a premium strategy.”

They suggested corporate travel agents “rethink their role,” from trip planning to meeting planning.

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