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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