Industry provocateur Scott Gillespie of tClara poses the question, “Why travel for business?” To help answer that, tClara between Aug. 17 and Oct. 12 surveyed 272 U.S.-based managers and executives via two market research panels about the merits of virtual versus in-person meetings.

Covid-19 has forced the widespread adoption of virtual meetings and decimated the business travel industry. The new normal is working from home, with Zoom as the lifeline connecting us to our colleagues and customers.

Scott Gillespie of tClara

At some point, our Covid-19 anxieties will subside, and most people will feel safe about traveling for business. But will they be allowed to travel? Travel budget owners and CFOs have seen their business getting done by Zoom. The virtual meeting has no travel cost, no health risk and takes precious little time compared with the days needed for a business trip. Of course, it’s not quite the same as meeting in person, but are virtual meetings good enough? That’s the question that sparked tClara’s research.  

The findings are crystal clear: Meeting in person is better than meeting virtually on nearly every dimension we measured.

Respondents were asked about their views on virtual and in-person meeting modes for small group meetings of two to eight participants. The average respondent managed 79 people, had eight qualifying meetings a week and had a travel budget of $300,000. A few of the survey’s findings:

The Bad News

• Respondents forecasted a shift in 2021 away from in-person meetings compared with their 2019 baseline, from 45 percent of all meetings to 28 percent.

• They forecasted a more dramatic reduction of 33 percent in their 2021 travel budgets compared with their 2019 baseline.

• Thirty-three percent said they would be mostly or very unwilling to meet in person during the next 12 months.

• Thirty-eight percent said they would discourage people from attending an important meeting if they had to fly for less than two hours to attend; 64 percent would discourage attendance for those needing to fly between four and eight hours.

• Fifty-three percent said they opposed having an in-person business meeting that month with someone who didn’t work for their organization and they didn’t know well.

The Good News

• When asked about meetings designed to “challenge, defend or negotiate,” 68 percent said in-person meetings were better or much better than virtual meetings. In contrast, only 26 percent said the same about sessions designed to “inform, update or share.”

• Sixty-six percent said it was important or very important to meet in person to “influence, persuade or sell.” Only 17 percent said it was slightly important or the meeting mode did not matter.

• More than 50 percent of respondents favored the in-person mode for six of the eight types of meetings evaluated. Eighteen percent were unsure or said the meeting mode didn’t matter. Only 20 percent favored the virtual method for the six meeting types.

The Many Risks Of Virtual Meetings

The fate of the business travel industry hinges on the risks and rewards of meeting in person. Our survey probed the second panel of 172 respondents about which meeting mode, virtual or in-person, would more likely cause each of 20 negative outcomes. Examples of these adverse outcomes included “ineffective selling or negotiating,” “weak consensus or commitment,” “lost attention,” “poor decisions,” “insufficient building of trust,” “ineffective leadership” and “low tolerance of diverse views.”

Respondents said the virtual meeting mode would more likely cause every one of these 20 negative outcomes. On average, 52 percent said virtual meetings would cause them, 31 percent said they were unsure or the mode didn’t matter and only 17 percent said the unfavorable outcomes would be more likely caused by meeting in person.

How We Meet Matters

There are clear benefits to meeting in person and significant risks associated with virtual meetings. This is especially true for meetings that require higher levels of interpersonal dynamics. The research by tClara will soon support a patent-pending tool designed to help meeting leaders make a more informed assessment about the value of meeting in person. This research offers a ray of light. The challenge now is to enlighten meeting leaders, road warriors and travel budget owners about the importance of how we meet.

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  1. To validate Scott’s study, I remember thinking, after attending my first virtual conference, that meetings would return much faster than predicted because of the drawbacks of a virtual meeting. While these platforms serve a very valuable purpose given the Covid restrictions, in a post-Covid/pandemic world, nothing is as effective as in-person meetings. It is like that classic United Airlines commercial where the manager is lecturing to his sales folks on how they have lost contact with their customers. Instead of faxes and phone calls of that era as shown in the commercial, today it is email, zoom calls and virtual conferences. Yep, Scott got it right and we will be back to in-person meetings for the same reason as shown in the UA commercial!

  2. I would think there are some downstream effects of virtual taking over as well. I think it could be interesting to see how much selling is happening to a repeat customer base who has already built that in-person relationship vs. a new client. My assumption is that it’s hard to build a rapport with people via virtual. Additionally, why veterans in sales might be adaptable, those who are greener would likely struggle to be as effective. It’ll be fascinating to see what happens in the near and long term.

  3. Scott brings up a number of good points, and although I don’t have a survey of my own, I’ve averaged 120 flight segments a year for each of the last 6 years so at a minimum I’m a “Road Warrior” who is also an industry consultant.

    There will be a fair amount of scrutiny on travel expenses as has always been the case, and the most impactful decisions are made at the C-level. I would suggest that the factors that impact the traveler include (in no particular order), the ROI of the trip, time away from home/family, and lost productivity. There’s also the additional benefit of seeing more than 1 client in the same day; and frequent traveler points for air, hotel and car rental.

    I’ve sat in a few sessions where Scott has been the speaker and I can tell you that he was more impactful when I was sitting in the first row vs. the back of the room. In the front row, Scott had my undivided attention; in the back of the room it lost the nuances of facial expressions, the graphics were blurry, and I could also take out my Iphone, check emails or talk to my seat mate. These same differences hold true for virtual meetings; you simply don’t have the same command of your audience when they are on a PC monitor and your audience can multi-task.

    So, I will agree that travelers need to get back on the road and be face-to-face with prospects and clients, but internal travel (unless it’s billable to the client) will be under the microscope and thumbs of the C-level for the foreseeable future until someone can prove that an internal meeting will not be effective unless it is in-person.

    One last thing — can we please stop calling them “Zoom Meetings”! When these virtual meetings first came out everyone called them a “Webex” or “Webinar” When did that morph over to “Zoom Meeting” as a noun like Kleenex, Bandaid and Scotch Tape? It’s a virtual meeting, or a 2-D meeting; I’m not ready to give into genericide for Webex, Zoom, Teams or otherwise. What they are not is in-person or personalized, and that can never be replicated by technology (sorry Star Trek fans).

  4. While I don’t necessarily disagree, I must tell you that our clients both internationally and domestically are doing business with all our different entities using Zoom or Skype with no problems. I truly believe we need to be more safe now than ever before.

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